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Starting school: perspectives of Australian children, parents and educators

Bob Perry and Sue Dockett
University of Western Sydney

Paper presented at the British Education Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 
11-13 September 2003

Abstract

Starting school is an important time for young children, their families and educators. Pianta and Kraft-Sayre (1999, p.47), suggest that the transition to school "sets the tone and direction of a child's school career".

Data gathered from interviews and questionnaire responses from approximately 300 parents, 300 educators and 300 children have been used to describe the most important issues for children, parents and educators as children start school in New South Wales, Australia. Using grounded theory, a series of categories of responses was devised which reflected the issues raised by respondents. These categories related to: knowledge needed to start school; elements of social adjustment required in the transition to school; specific skills to be mastered; dispositions conducive to a successful start to school; the rules of school; physical aspects of starting school; family issues; and the nature of the educational environment. These categories and the relative value attributed to them by the different groups of respondents form the basis of this paper.

Background

In New South Wales (NSW), Australia, the four-term school year commences in late January, and finishes in early December. The age by which children are legally required to start school is six years. However, children are eligible to start school at the beginning of the school year if they turn five by July 31, in that same year. Children whose birthdays fall after this cut-off date start school the following year. As there is only one annual intake of students, children starting school can vary in age from four-and-a-half to six years. The first year of school, Kindergarten, involves a full day program. In some schools, Kindergarten students finish school 30 minutes prior to other students, at least for the first term.

The Starting School Research Project, based at the University of Western Sydney, involves a group of researchers and a wide ranging Advisory Committee representing peak early childhood organisations, early childhood employer groups, parent associations, school organisations, community and union perspectives (Dockett & Perry, 2001). Over the past six years, the project has investigated the perceptions and expectations of all those involved in young children's transition to school.

Introduction

Starting school is recognised as a major transition in the life of children (Fabian, 2002). It is a time when children, and their families, are expected to manage changes in their physical surroundings (Dockett & Perry, 1999; Marshall, 1988); changes in social interactions and expectations (Hamre & Pianta, 2001); changes in the type and structure of learning environments (Fabian, 2002); and changes in how children feel about themselves as learners (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Early, Pianta, & Cox, 1999). Part of the significance of the transition to school lies in the potential for this to influence later school outcomes. Studies of children in the UK (Tizard, Blatchford, Burke, Farquhar, & Plewis, 1988) and the US (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Ramey & Campbell, 1991) have indicated that early school success is linked to positive school trajectories, in terms of both academic achievement and social competence.

Traditionally, starting school has been regarded as a time when children need to adjust to and manage the changes they encounter. Much focus has been turned to individual children's perceived readiness for school (Meisels, 1999) and the implications of this. More recently, there has been a move away from this notion of children as individual actors in the transition process, solely responsible for their own success or failure. Rimm-Kaufman and Pianta (2000) have applied a contextual model to the transition process, highlighting the importance of interactions and relationships, and the contexts in which each child is embedded, in the transition to school. This ecological approach draws upon the work of Bronfenbrenner (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998) in describing ways children influence the contexts in which they live, and the ways those contexts also impact on experiences. In this model, "a child's transition to school is understood in terms of the influence of contexts (for example, family, classroom, community) and the connections among these contexts (eg, family-school relationships) at any given time and across time" (Pianta, Rimm-Kaufman & Cox 1999, p. 4). From this, "the transition to kindergarten is fundamentally a matter of establishing a relationship between the home and the school in which the child's development is the key focus or goal" (Pianta et al., 1999, p. 4).

This model situates responsibility for an effective transition to school with all involved in the process. Starting school becomes a community issue and a community responsibility. This broad view of transition recognises that there are many contributors to transition experiences and that the perspectives and expectations of each of these contributors shape those experiences in some way. It changes the ways in which transition programs are conceptualised. Rather than a narrow view of transition programs as experiences that prepare children for school by teaching them specific knowledge and skills, it promotes a view of transition programs as opportunities for meaningful and responsive relationships.

Recognising the importance of a range of people in the transition to school means that it is important to know about their perceptions, experiences and expectations. The expectations of adults-parents and educators-have been researched extensively (eg, Davies & North, 1990; Feeney, Grace & Brandt, 2001; Graue, 1993; Hains, Fowler, Schwartz, Kottwitz & Rosenkoetter, 1989; Harradine & Clifford, 1996; Lewit & Baker, 1995). In general, teachers and parents are reported to share some common expectations-for example, that communication skills and social skills are important (Knudsen-Lindauer & Harris, 1989)-as well as some different views. Differences focus on the importance of academic skills, with parents regarding these are more important than teachers (Lewit & Baker, 1995). Teachers have been more likely than parents to view a successful start to school in terms of children being physically healthy, rested and well nourished (Lewit & Baker, 1995). As well, differences have been reported within groups, with teachers in the first year of school focusing on children's ability to function within a classroom environment, while teachers in prior-to-school settings placed a strong emphasis on skills they saw as necessary in a successful transition to school (Hains, et al., 1989).

Children's lives and backgrounds, just like those of their families, are diverse. As a result, they experience the transition to school in different ways (Rimm-Kaufman & Pianta, 2000). Despite this growing recognition that starting school experiences of children will differ, there have been comparatively fewer attempts to investigate these experiences from the perspectives of those children (exceptions include Brostrom, 2000; Cousins, 1990; Dockett, Clyde & Perry, 1998; Ghaye & Pascal, 1988; Griebel & Niesel, 2000; Niesel & Griebel, 2001; Peters, 2000; Podmore, Sauvao & Mapa, 2002). These studies report a focus on the importance of friends (Peters, 2000) as well as what children expect will happen at school (Brostrom, 2000). The study reported in this paper investigates the perceptions, expectations and experiences of adults and children in the transition to school.

Method

Pilot studies

A series of pilot studies were undertaken by the Starting School Research Project in the period 1996-1998 to investigate the perceptions and expectations of those involved in children's transition to school. These studies involved focus group interviews (Minichiello, Aroni, Timewell & Alexander, 1995) with parents, teachers1 in prior-to-school settings, teachers in school settings, children who had just started school, children who were about to start school, and children who had been at school for some time. Using grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), interview data were analysed, and response categories were created to reflect the issues which were reported by parents, teachers and children as important to consider when children started school (Dockett & Perry, 1999; Perry, Dockett & Tracey, 1998). These categories, supported by relevant research, were used to develop an extensive questionnaire, which was distributed to parents and teachers across NSW in 1998-2000. The questionnaire was trialed with the assistance of the Advisory Committee for the project.

Questionnaire

The questionnaire was distributed in 15 locations across NSW, which were identified through the use of stratified purposeful sampling (Miles & Huberman, 1994), using the variables of geography (urban, rural and remote communities), socio-economic status (low, middle and high) cultural diversity, and the special needs of children. Decisions relating to socio-economic status and cultural diversity relied on data from organisations represented on the Advisory Committee as well as census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. A total of 1290 questionnaires were distributed through early childhood and school services in the identified locations. The analysis for this paper is based on a return of 578 questionnaires, a response rate of 45%.

The questionnaire consisted of a wide range of questions about starting school. For the purposes of this paper, only responses to the first question "List the first five things that come into your mind when you think about a/your child starting school" are reported.

Interviews

In addition to the questionnaire developed for adults, small focus group interviews were conducted with children who had just started school, or who were about to start school. Focus groups were organised as informal, conversational contexts, where children were asked to describe what happened as they started school. Children were encouraged to engage in conversations with the interviewer, and with each other, as a means of exploring aspects of starting school that were important to them.

Focus groups lasted for an average of 15 minutes, with the duration dependent on children's interest and involvement. Mostly, focus groups were conducted in a quiet area of the school or prior-to-school setting. However, some groups were conducted in the playground. With the permission of the children, interviews were audio-recorded.

Coding of responses

Grounded theory was used to establish categories of response from the pilot studies. The categories recognised the source of responses-that is, whether the response came from parents, teachers and/or children; the frequency of responses; and the strength of responses-that is, categories were derived from responses that were not only mentioned frequently, but also by many respondents (Cocklin, 1992). The categories identified in the pilot studies were supported by confirmatory factor analysis (Meredith, Perry, Dockett & Borg, 1999).

Eight categories of response were identified (Table 1). These were used by two independent researchers to code the interview and questionnaire data. Initial inter-rater reliability was established at 94% for questionnaire responses and 96% for interview responses (Perry, Dockett, & Howard, 2000). Once consistency had been reached in coding, a random 10% of responses were coded by independent raters to ensure that such consistency was maintained. Any discrepancies were the focus of discussion, with most being resolved. Any responses that could not be coded consistently were not included in analysis.

Table 1. Categories of responses and examples

Category

Description

Example

Knowledge

Ideas, facts or concepts that need to be known in order to start school

I can write my name
You have to know numbers
Knowing the alphabet, counting

Adjustment

Adjustment to the school context, including interpersonal and organisational adjustment

There are three tables and you sometimes have to sit on the floor
School routines
Can talk with children and adults at school
Follows directions

Skills

Small units of action that could be observed or inferred from observable behaviour

You have to draw a smiley face
Toilets independently
Identifies own possessions

Disposition

Attitudes towards, or feelings about school or learning

Some friends are different
I cried cause I was scared and a little bit shy
Excited about school

Rules

Fitting in with the school and school expectations

You have to wear a hat
Lining up
Coping with discipline

Physical

Physical attributes, needs or characteristics. Also includes issues about safety, health and age.

You have to brush your teeth and get dressed [to get ready for school]
It's really big
Playground safety
Washing hands

Family issues

Issues related to family functioning or involvement with the school

My sister told me the class and what to do
Parent-school communication
Cost
Parent's role

Educational environment

The nature and/or characteristics of the school environment

You have to draw pictures and you have to do homework and stuff
Choosing a school
Quality and nature of education provided
How the school caters for individual children/children with special needs

N.B. Comments in italics are quotes from children Other comments listed are taken from adults' questionnaire responses.

Results

Teachers and parents

Completed questionnaires were received from 298 parents and 280 teachers. Teacher respondents were drawn from both prior-to-school (53, 19%), and school settings (189, 67%). Eleven percent of teacher respondents (31) did not identify the setting in which they taught, and a further 7 listed their educational setting as "other".

Of the298 responses from parents, 108 (36%) had a child who was about to start school and 165 (55%) had a child who had just started school. A further 25 respondents (8%) did not specify their child's situation.

As respondents were asked to specify a list of five items in response to the question "List the first five things that come into your mind when you think about a/your child starting school", there were potentially 1490 items from parents and 1400 from teachers. The actual total of items for parents was 1298 and for teachers, 1264. Percentages reported in Table 2 reflect these actual totals. These percentages are presented graphically in Figure 1.

Children

Focus group transcripts were analysed according to the categories presented in Table 1 to ascertain the issues regarded as important by children. Because of the informal nature of the focus groups, much of the conversation in some groups did not relate to starting school. This general conversation was not coded. Responses that related to starting school were coded for a total of 310 children (113, 36%), who were about to start school, and 197 (64%), who had recently started school). A total of 3074 responses were coded for children, with an average of 10 comments per child.

Table 2 Frequency of responses in each category for parents, teachers and children

Category

Parent responses
Number percentage
(of 1298)

Teacher responses
Number percentage
(of 1264)

Child responses
Number percentage
(of 3074)

Knowledge

19

1.5

55

4.4

171

5.6

Adjustment

410

31.6

445

35.2

226

7.4

Skills

57

4.4

153

12.1

48

1.6

Disposition

168

12.9

163

12.9

830

27

Rules

57

4.4

31

2.5

726

23.6

Physical

132

10.2

95

7.5

496

16.1

Family issues

85

6.5

40

3.2

303

9.9

Educational environment

240

18.5

130

10.3

274

8.9

Other

130

10

152

12

0

0

Figure 1. Categorisation of responses from parents, teachers and children

Analysis and discussion

As indicated in Figure 1, different groups highlighted different issues. These were different among adult and child participants, an different to some extent among educators and parents. In keeping with the results of the pilot study (Perry, et al., 2000), the main response categories for children were disposition and rules. By far the majority of responses for children under the category of disposition related to friends, and the importance of having or making friends at school. The main response categories for parents were adjustment and educational environment. For teachers, the main response categories were adjustment and disposition. These findings are consistent with the earlier pilot study results.

Adjustment

For the adult respondents, the category of adjustment predominated. However, comments about adjustment from teachers and parents indicate a focus on different aspects of adjustment. Responses from parents that reflected the category of adjustment tended to focus on children settling in to the group at school, fitting in, rather than standing out from the group. At the same time, parents responses indicated that they wanted someone at school to recognise that their child was special and important, and needed some individual attention. In other words, parents indicated that they wanted their children to become effective members of the class group, but also wanted to ensure that this group membership did not mean that teachers lost sight of children's special characteristics.

Other items listed by parents in this category related to children's separation from them and how it would be managed, and how it would feel for all concerned. There were also issues about how children would respond to adults who were not family members, and again, concern that children would benefit from interactions with teachers, rather than be labelled as uncooperative.

Parents from non-English-speaking-backgrounds were particularly keen for teachers to realise some of the difficulties faced by children whose first language was not English, as they tried to work out what was going on. Some of these parents described their children as very quiet at school, and did not want teachers to think that meant that they were not focussed on what was happening. Rather, parents were keen that teachers realise that children are often very quiet, and scared to ask for help and know that children can often understand a lot more English than they can speak. These aspects of adjustment relate to interpersonal interactions, often between child and parent, and child and teacher, within the school context.

Teachers also mentioned items categorised as adjustment, noting the importance of children being able to operate as part of a large group, being able to follow directions, and demonstrate independence. These elements relate to the organisational aspects of adjustment, as children are expected to adjust to the routines and practices of school.

Children were aware of both the aspects of adjustment mentioned by the adults. They too referred to the routines of school and the expectation that they had to conform to the expectations of school and teachers. Many explicit expectations were mentioned by children, and these were coded as rules. These include comments such as you have to know to stand up or it down when the teacher says and the you're not allowed to talk when the teacher is talking. Comments categorised as adjustment included:

Rules

While children referred to school routines and to getting used to the people and the organisation of school, many of the issues relating to adjustment were expressed as rules. It is quite likely that focussing on rules is the means used by children to refer to adjustment. They have been separated out as a category because there is such frequent mention of them among children and because they reflect a different focus from that of the adults. Whereas adults seem to think of adjustment in terms of settling into the group, or interacting positively with teachers, children clearly identify the element of rules, and knowing the rules, as a critical part of starting school.

Children indicated strongly that they needed to know the school rules-and the consequences of breaking those rules-in order to function well at school and, in particular, to keep out of trouble.

Interviewer:

Is there anything you need to know before you can come to school?

Jason:  You have to be nice.
Eliza: Say good things.
Jason:  Not to run in the classroom.
Lucas: Not to mess in the sandpit.
Eliza:

If the boys don't come in from the playground they get into big trouble. 
You have to sit next to the door. 
Or go to Mr C.'s office at little lunch and big lunch. 
And no play because that's why you have to go down to Mr C.'s office. 
I never do it.

Jane: Some kids get into trouble at school.
Interviewer:  What happens in this school when you get into trouble?
Steve: You have to see the principal.
Interviewer: What does the principal say?
Steve: I think he says 'if you go back you have to sit in the corner and think about what you have done and if you do it again then you will regret it.
Interviewer: What do you do to get into trouble?
Jane: You have to do not what the teacher says.

The children were very clear about where the rules came from-they were the teachers' rules. Rules were considered immutable: Rules is just rules. When children who had started school were asked what they would tell new children, they cited a list of rules. In another project, where children were asked to take photos of what they thought new children to the school should know about, they formulated text to go with the photos that focussed on rules (Dockett & Perry, 2003). Clearly, knowing the rules of school matters to children. It is one of the ways they start to make sense of the school context and one of the ways they find out the parameters of the new context. Just as adults starting a new job need to know the boundaries and what is expected of them, children starting school want to know the limits that have been set for them and the ways they can best work within these.

Some adults mentioned rules and the importance of children responding appropriately to rules as they started school, but these mentions represented only 4.4% and 2.5% of parent and teacher responses respectively. Some parents made comments about children needing consistent rules and discipline at school and parents having to abide by the rules of school -such as providing a note to explain absences. There were many other references by parents to the routines of school, which contained implicit understandings that children would be required to recognise and respond to the rules of school. As these did not contain explicit statements of rules, they were coded as adjustment. It may well be that adults interpret many of the rules and routines of school as promoting adjustment to a specific context, whereas children tend to regard the same as instructions and expectations that are imposed upon them.

Disposition

Dispositions about school were mentioned by adults in about 13% of responses. For children, feelings about school were the focus of 27% of responses. In general, everyone wanted children to be happy at school. Parents reported children being excited about starting school, and teachers said that they were looking forward to teaching children who were happy, confident and willing to have a go at learning new things. Parents mentioned their own feelings, sometimes of loss as their baby goes to school, and other times of a sense of freedom as the demands on their time changes. Children described their eagerness to go to school, as well as some hesitation: I wanted to go, and I was a little bit shy.

Children's positive dispositions about school were often associated with friends. Several children seemed to measure their success and happiness at school by whether or not they had friends: I like school cause I like playing and finding some friends; Big school is better than preschool cause can make up lots and lots of friends. There was an expectation among children about to start school that they would make friends, although some of the strategies for doing so varied considerably:

Interviewer: How will you make new friends?
Luke: You just have to talk to some people and then they come friends.
Tim: When you try and tell them something they just run off and ignore you.
Andy: You could tell the teacher.
Interviewer: What might they say?
Andy:

They will say "Can you please make friends with him-who doesn't have any friends?"

Tim: I might try to catch them.

It was clear from children's conversations that having friends at school makes a very real difference.

Responses reflecting negative dispositions included comments about not wanting to stay at school and preferring to be at home, feeling sad, or scared. For some children, feeling scared related to not knowing what was happening, or likely to happen:

Knowledge

Overall, relatively little mention was made of the importance of knowledge, or what children need to know, in order to start school. Children, more than the adults, mentioned that some knowledge was required. This included:

Teachers referred to aspects of knowledge more often than parents. Reference to children knowing their name, the alphabet, shapes and colours occurred in approximately 4% of teachers' responses. These items of knowledge are often represented on checklists of school readiness and may reflect the importance of these to teachers. However, of the eight categories, knowledge rated as sixth in terms of responses from teachers, so it could hardly be said that it was a major or even consistent focus for all teachers. It is interesting to note the popularity of knowledge-based readiness checklists given the relative lack of importance attributed to the category of knowledge.

Several parents of non-English-speaking-backgrounds noted items of knowledge as important. These parents emphasised the importance of children knowing English and, in particular, enough English to seek help from the appropriate person in an appropriate way. There was an expectation from some of these parents that children who did not speak English would not be well-regarded by teachers in schools, and would not have their needs-academic or personal-met.

Skills

On the few occasions children mentioned skills, they gave examples such as being able to colour in properly, or knowing how to write all the letters of their name and having to be able to put the paste on the page. Teachers' responses indicated that children needed to have some skills, more than specific knowledge, in order to start school. Such skills included children being able to toilet independently, dress themselves, fasten shoes (sometimes shoelaces were mentioned), recognise their own belongings and pay attention/concentrate. As well, some motor skills such as cutting out and holding a pencil properly were recorded. When parents mentioned skills, a similar list was generated, although parents mentioned these much less than teachers (4.4% parent responses, 12.1% teacher responses). The stronger teacher focus on skills suggests that teachers are keen to have children who are independent and who can accept responsibility for their own actions and possessions. In some ways, this also relates to adjustment in that teachers support and encourage actions that enhance individual children to function within a group, and part of that means operating without the constant attention of the teacher. It also reflects the nature of school, where one teacher is responsible for a class of about 25 children (sometimes more). Where children need assistance, much of the school day could be spent helping children with some of these skills (such as fastening shoes, putting on clothing and so on).

Among groups of non-English-speaking-parents in another study (Dockett, Perry, & Nicolson, 2002), skills assumed importance as parents shared their expectations about hygiene at school and about eating at school. For cultural, as well as hygiene reasons, it was important across these groups that children demonstrate appropriate self-help skills, such as washing hands before eating.

Physical

Approximately 10% of parent responses related to physical aspects of starting school. These encompassed a range of issues, from concerns about children being bullied by older and bigger children, to making sure children had appropriate school uniforms, and an appreciation of how tired children can get after attending school for five full days each week. Some parents were eager for teachers to make sure that children ate appropriately, or drank sufficient water during the day and were perturbed at the realisation that teachers did not perform such checks. There was concern from parents about what to pack for children's lunches, particularly if children had attended long day care services where all meals had been provided and children were used to having a main meal in the middle of the day. A large number of parental concerns about safety related to the physical location and structure of school buildings. Many schools are located on busy roads, with low-or no-fences, and often open gates. This is in contrast to early childhood services where child-proof locks and safety fencing are generally in evidence around playgrounds. Parents were concerned about the ease with which children could seemingly leave the playground, and about places within the school that were not supervised.

In keeping with the results of US studies (eg, West, Hausken, & Collins, 1993), teachers' reference to physical issues (7.5% or responses) related to children being well-nourished and well-rested in order to get the most out of school. In addition, a substantial number of teachers indicated that age was an important issue to consider, with several noting that children should be older rather than younger and at least five. Particularly in NSW, where children can enter school at the age of four-and-a-half years, and where there is up to an eighteen month range in the ages of children starting school, the age of children entering school remains contentious among teachers (Dockett & Perry, 2002).

Children's reference to physical issues in starting school (16.1% of responses) canvass issues of size-it really is 'big school'- the physical nature of play and the playground at school, physical activities that are required in order to get to school and physical expectations of them. Across several of these aspects is mention of big kids and in some cases, anxiety about being with or near the big kids:

I just play down here with the other kids in Kindergarten. Cause I don't like the big kids to hurt me. They can hurt! They can get you. You get in and then the others get you. They get the ball and then I get in the middle and can't get it ... They think I'm a toy, but I'm not, I'm a kid. They think they can play with me, but I don't want to play with them.

The size of the school can be overwhelming for some children:

According to many children, one of the important aspects of going to 'big school' was wearing the school uniform. Many children discussed the purchase of the uniform and the importance of wearing the uniform, so that they know you go to big school. Children were also aware of the importance of getting ready for school, mentioning things like:

There was an awareness that going to 'big school' required children to be 'big' as well: Kids at preschool can't some to big school ... they are too young... when you get to be five, you get a big birthday cake... and you can come to school.

In NSW, children are required to have a immunization booster prior to school entry. With the move to immunize children against meningococcal disease, this can now mean up to three injections are required. Most children are aware of this, and none too pleased about the thought:

Joey:

I know something scary! Before you go to big school you are getting the needle.

Connor:

No [it's not scary], cause first time I got the needle I just cried a little bit but  the second time I didn't cry.

Just as parents worry about providing appropriate food for school lunches, children have specific views about what is provided. When asked Is there anything you don't like about school? Kerran replied:

Kerran:

Sometimes the things my Mum puts in my lunchbox.  My Mum gets me zucchinis and tomatoes and olives and lemons and I hate them.

I: What would you like to have instead?
Kerran:

I would like some nice things, some oranges and things, some watermelon.

Family issues

Items were coded as family issues in 3.2% of teacher responses, 6.5% of parent responses and 9.9% of children's comments. Overall, teachers noted the importance of family support for the child starting school and the desirability of parents engaging with the school. Parents' responses incorporated concerns about the changing role of family in the education of the young child, concerns about how they could best help the child-for example, Will I be able to help at school? What if I can't help him with homework? There were also comments about how family life and routines had to change in order to accommodate the demands of the school, such as arrival and departure times. Similar concerns, and issues about the changing demands on families as children start school have been reported by Griebel and Neisel (1999). The questions noted by several parents about their changing role in school, often compared with their role in prior-to-school services echo those posed by parents in a related study (Westcott, Perry, Dockett, & Jones, 2003).

Children's reference to family issues generally involved reference to siblings and how they did, or didn't, help them settle into school, as well as to the role their parents played as they started school. Of particular importance was the first day of school, when children remembered vividly who had taken them to school and what had happened:

Otto: 

My Mummy takes me there [to school].
She only stayed for a little while and then she goed away.
When I got there on the second day of school my Daddy was going to see me and so was my Mum- both.

Other comments related to how children found out about school:

Interviewer: 

How did you know what to do at school?

Greg:

Because my brother was there first. My brother is seven

Interviewer:  How will you know what to do at school?
Brian:  My Mum goes to parent help.
I've been watching them [other kids]. I've seen what to do. And we can watch our brothers and sisters. I can watch the homework at home.

Children also indicated a range of reasons for their parents being keen for them to go to school. Several comments highlighted the importance of learning, but there were also others, such as those of Kathryn, who described what parents would be doing at home, now that children would be at school:

Interviewer: What do Mums and Dads do when their kids go to school?

Kathryn: Mums and Dads, they paint and clean up the house when kids are at school, because kids don't clean up.

The following conversation between Terry, Jenny and Stan indicates their awareness of the interactions between parents and teachers, as well as some interesting perceptions about what might be the focus of such interactions. One of the significant changes as children start school is the move to a context where comparisons between children are made in a more open and explicit manner (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). These children fully expected that teachers and parents would discuss how good others learn-in other words, how children compare with what others are learning-as well as who is being naughty and being good. Such comparisons often mark a change in educational environment between prior-to-school and school settings.

Interviewer:  Who helped you start school?
Terry: 

My sister. Because she is in Year 1. She is in the new classroom.
It's around there. I tell her what I've done and that's what she's done.

I: 

Did anyone else help you start school?

Terry:

And Mummy. Because she would do reading and she went to a meeting in both of the classes. I think that was ...

Jenny:  Two years ago.
Terry:

No, it was this year.

Terry:

They talked about all the things.

Jenny: Yeah, but we don't know what they were doing in there.
Stan: They must have been looking at the butterflies and spiders and things.
Jane: No, we didn't do those yet. They came and then we did the butterflies.
I: What do you think they talked about?
Stan: 

I think I know. I think they talked about how good the others learn much more than the other.
They talk about who is being naughty and who is being good

Educational environment

Items coded as educational environment were recorded in 18.5% of parent responses, 10.3 % of teacher responses and 8.9% of children's responses. Parents listed comments and questions such as:

Even when parents did not feel they had a choice of schools, they remained concerned that the school their child attended was the right school for them. There was recognition that government public schools were different, despite belonging to the one large system, and that the Kindergarten teacher was an important person in helping both parents and children feel welcomed and valued within the school environment.

Teachers referred to the nature of the educational environment for them as a new group of children started school. These comments included both positives and negatives, as teachers recognised the effort required to get to know children and families and to create an educational environment that responded to individual as well as group needs.

Children have a strong sense of why they go to school and what they do there. Sometimes, this is quite different from the views of adults as children start school:

Interviewer: Why do you go to school?
Kathryn: Because that's what you do when you are very big. Because that's what their Mums and Dads want. So they have a great time.
Interviewer: What will you learn at school?
Kathryn: Homework. And got to do some words. You get homework at school. To learn letters. Sometimes you've got to get readers to learn to read.
Interviewer: Why do you think it's important to learn?
Emily: Because then you learn more stuff and you learn to read ...
Imogen: And you can do things.
Cal:  And you could get to be an adult. You have to learn things to tell your kids.

The teacher assumes a very important place in each child's school life. Children have described being scared when they didn't know who was going to be their teacher, and liking school because they liked their teacher. Other children have described not liking the teacher, or their view that the teacher didn't like them. Sometimes these views have a family perspective, with one child noting that the teacher didn't like my brother either.

One aspect of children's expectations is that school will be quite different from preschool:

Interviewer:  What did you think school was going to be like?
Sam:  It's like preschool but you can't make noise. But you can't play all day, but we did at preschool.
Joanna: I thought it was going to be boring but now I think it is most fun.
Interviewer: Why did you think it was going to be boring?
Sam: Because you have to work all of the day. Now I think it's fun because we get to do drawings.
Interviewer:  Why is work boring?
Joanna: Because you get so tired.
Sam: 

Our hands get so tired.

After several conversations with children who had recently attended an orientation session at the school they would attend the following year, it became clear that these children were convinced that they had already started school. The day of their orientation was regarded by many as their first day of school. This was not the way adults regarded the orientation sessions and is but one example of how children and adults can interpret the same experience in quite different ways.

Discussion

The data reported in this paper support the conclusion of the results of the pilot studies-that children and adults experience the transition to school in different ways and that different concerns and issues are raised by different participants within the transition to school. Failing to include any one of these groups in conversations about transition to school results in an incomplete picture of what happens and why it is important.

One of the differences between this study and the pilot studies is the breadth of categories referred to by children. In the pilot studies, there were very few references by children to the categories of family issues and educational environment. Physical issues too were rated as less important than in the present analysis. One possible reason for these differences is that initial investigations reported conversations with 50 children, where as this study reports conversations with over 300. More importantly, many more of the children involved in this study-over one third-were about to start school. Their concerns specifically related to the orientation program they had just experienced and the expectations they had of what would happen at school (educational environment), the nature of that environment, specifically the size of school (physical issues), and how they were going to manage the start to school (usually with the help of family).

There are clear differences in the data from adults and children reported here. While children were engaged in conversations, adults were asked to provide a list of items. Some adults provided considerable detail in their lists, others noted phrases, questions or comments only. Hence the data reported from children is richer and more detailed. Nevertheless, the data provides a useful comparison, in that it asks adults to focus on the things uppermost in their minds as they think of a child starting school.

There are also differences in the categories of responses across the groups of children, parents and teachers. For children, the categories of rules and disposition predominated. While all groups indicated that it was important that children be happy at school, children were the ones who emphasised the role of friends and friendships in this process. Both groups of adults indicated that children's adjustment to school was their major concern, with teachers focussing on children's ability to function effectively as part of a large group, and parents concerned about children adjusting to interactions with different adults. While the adults emphasised the same general area of concern, the ways in which this was interpreted differed. Given the categories highlighted by the different groups, and the differences of focus within categories, there is ample room for inconsistencies in expectations between home and school, children and adults (Piotrkowski, Botsko & Matthews, 2001).

Promoting a successful start to school for children requires that educators focus on the perspectives, experiences and expectations of all involved in the process. Only then can we work towards strategies and approaches that value participants, and promote genuine collaboration. Sometimes, it is easy to dismiss the views of young children as inaccurate or ill-informed. The results of this study suggest that they, as well as parents and teachers, have much of value to contribute to our understanding of what matters in the transition to school.

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Notes:

  1. The term teacher is used to refer to educators in either prior-to-school or school settings. In most circumstances, these people will hold a teaching qualification from either a university or vocational education college.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 October 2003