Australia’s national education evidence body

What are effective transitions?

An effective transition to school occurs when children and families feel a sense of belonging in their new school community, and when this is also recognised by teachers and educators (Dockett and Perry 2014). While various definitions of effective transitions to school exist (Fane et al. 2016), this definition provides an especially useful starting point for improving practice.

An effective transition to school has occurred when a child feels a sense of belonging in their new school community.

For a child, this sense of belonging at school may include a feeling that:

  • their teacher and peers like, value and accept them
  • the curriculum is interesting and relevant 
  • they are capable of succeeding at school
  • their cultural identity is welcome and valued
  • they can ‘be themselves’, within appropriate boundaries.

This definition of an effective transition is based on the Australian Education Research Organisation’s (AERO) initial scoping of the literature that exists around transitions to school.

Relevant insights include:

  • transition is a social process, unique to each child and their family, involving many stakeholders and extending over time. Developing a sense of belonging at school depends on the experiences and actions of the child; their family; and the support that they receive from their teachers and educators in early childhood education and care (ECEC); teachers at school; their peers; and the wider community (Joerdens 2014; CESE 2021a; Krakouer et al. 2017) 
  • a sense of belonging can support learning, wellbeing and engagement over a child’s entire time at school (Gregory et al. 2021; Nergaard 2020). Students who feel engaged in school achieve better outcomes and stay at school for longer. Those who are disengaged at the beginning of their schooling risk falling into cycles of low achievement and further disengagement (Martins et al. 2022)
  • a marker of effective transitions lies in the child’s sense of belonging, not only the behaviours they might display (Dockett and Perry 2022). While behaviour can be one indicator of whether children feel they belong, children who demonstrate required behaviours at school may still be concealing fear and discomfort 

This definition of an effective transition provides a valuable starting point for conversations about how we know whether children and their families feel a sense of belonging in their school community. It also provides opportunities to consider how we might use measures to better understand children’s and families’ sense of belonging and how we can better support them to achieve this. 

Measuring effective transitions

Various definitions of effective transitions to school have made it difficult to measure whether transitions are effective (CESE 2021). By focusing on a child’s sense of belonging, it becomes possible to organise a range of measures relevant to transitions around a central idea and apply and interpret them more easily.

Measurement of effective transitions can serve a range of purposes.

  • Recognising and celebrating existing practices that support transitions across ECEC and schools, to build on and sustain current successes. Recognising the contributions of both ECEC and schools to the transition process, and how each can foster a child’s sense of belonging, is a strong basis for partnerships that can take transitions practice to the next level.
  • Monitoring and evaluating efforts to improve transitions, including in policy and practice. Substantial efforts have already been made across Australia to support better transitions to school, so a shared framework for describing effective transitions can help identify what is working.
  • Catalysing and concentrating conversations about transitions, which bring stakeholders together to interpret data and evidence. These discussions can help to clarify roles and responsibilities in the transition process, and how stakeholders can work together to shift outcomes.

Each of these purposes requires a broad view of transitions that takes multiple indicators of effectiveness into account. Focusing on any single measure of transitions risks excluding important perspectives or narrowing the focus of practice to what is measurable, rather than what matters. The best methods are those that include multiple perspectives (Dockett and Perry 2022; Hugo et al. 2018); and prompt critical reflection for teachers and educators (Semann et al. 2015). 

    Whose views matter on transitions?

    As there are multiple stakeholders involved in transitions, the ‘success’ of transition to school may vary depending on whose perspective is being considered (Hugo et al. 2018). As children experience the transition to becoming school students, families become the family of a school child and teachers and educators in both ECEC and schools experience the transition as they either become or relinquish their role as the child’s educator (Dockett and Perry 2022). 

    Different perspectives on the transition experience may arise from the below.

    • Children, whose perspectives on their transition to school are shaped by a range of factors, including their level of family support, siblings’ prior experiences, making friends, familiarity with their teacher, rules and expectations, and knowledge of the school environment and routines (Hugo et al. 2018; Semann et al. 2015).
    • Diverse professionals. The success of a transition may look different to ECEC and school professionals, depending on their expectations and experiences. In addition, many children and families have professional supports (e.g. welfare, medical or allied health professionals), who each bring their own perspectives.
    • Families, who may hold different views to teachers and educators, including the criteria about what constitutes an effective transition to school. Parents may also experience different levels of confidence in assisting their child to transition to school and navigate challenges (Giallo et al. 2008). 

    Research has also explored the distinctive transition experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (Bell-Booth et al. 2014; Taylor 2011), those with a disability or developmental delay (Zaidman-Zait et al. 2019; Hughes et al. 2018), or from a language background other than English (De Gioia 2017). While not every child in these cohorts will experience a more challenging transition to school, issues of equity and diversity for individuals and communities are important considerations in understanding transition experiences. 

    These diverse perspectives warrant situational rather than blanket approaches to transition (Broström 2019). This requires sophisticated methods of measurement that can capture diverse views. A range of evaluative methods are currently used:

    • in policy, transitions evaluation methods include case studies, reflective questions, decision-making and assessment tools, questionnaires, focus groups and interviews, pilot studies and action research projects
    • in research, transitions evaluation methods include collaborative, reflective Participatory Action Research (McLeod and Anderson 2020); situated learning models (Fleet et al. 2018); self-evaluation instruments used by ECEC and schools to plan collaboratively (Büker et al. 2022) and reflection rubrics (Dockett and Perry 2022)
    • in practice, teachers and educators often use informal strategies to elicit diverse views and evaluate their practice, such as discussions with children and families and feedback from colleagues, even if they are unaware of formal measurement options (Semann et al. 2015).

    This paper aims to help policymakers, schools and ECEC services better connect and interpret existing evidence on transitions from various sources, to improve measurement without adding to administrative burden. It may also help identify new opportunities for measurement, where capacity exists to explore them.

      Options for measurement

      This section outlines the constructs that can be measured in determining whether transitions to school are effective. The constructs are illustrated in a framework below, which draws on the ecological model developed by Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1993). The framework has 3 key components:

      • at the centre of the measurement framework are the experiences of the child and their family. This is the true measure of an effective transition; their sense of belonging at school 
      • the capabilities of the child help to shape their experience of transition. This approach moves beyond a normative view of the child as ‘school ready’ or not, to reframe the transition process as an interaction between what the child knows and can do, and the support that they receive
      • the next layer addresses the practices of teachers and educators in both ECEC and school settings, which also help shape the child’s experience. Practices in each setting are not viewed in isolation but can complement and reinforce each other when professionals work collaboratively 
      • the outer layer concerns the context around the child and the ECEC and school setting. This includes the family and school community as well as the broader policy context. 
      • Bronfenbrenner acknowledged that these layers influence one another and also change over time.

      Figure 1: Measurement framework for effective transitions

      Figure 1 illustrates how these factors contribute to the development of a sense of belonging at school. The remainder of this paper details these factors, including their importance for transitions, options for measuring and evaluating them, and examples of how they are measured internationally and in current Australian policy and practice. 

      Each section ends with reflective questions for policymakers, leaders, teachers and educators in ECEC and schools to drive discussion about the effectiveness of transitions in their context. Reflecting on each individual factor and the interactions between each factor can improve understanding of transitions as a whole.

      01 Children’s capabilities

      Children’s sense of belonging is closely related to their sense of identity and feelings of competence (Margetts 2013). Children’s capabilities assist them to navigate the changes associated with transition as they become familiar with the new environment. The capabilities that children need in the transition process align well with the capabilities that schools and ECEC services aim to foster.

      In ECEC services, the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), Belonging, Being and Becoming (DESE 2019) positions a sense of belonging as central to a child’s ability to grow, learn and thrive. This is supported by the 5 outcomes of the EYLF:

      • Children have a strong sense of identity
      • Children are connected with and contribute to their world
      • Children have a strong sense of wellbeing
      • Children are confident and involved learners
      • Children are effective communicators.

      In schools, the Australian Curriculum (ACARA 2011) sets out 7 general capabilities that all children and young people will be supported to develop at school:

      • Literacy
      • Numeracy
      • Information and communication technology (ICT) capability
      • Critical and creative thinking
      • Personal and social capability
      • Ethical understanding
      • Intercultural understanding.

      Children’s progress in each of these outcomes and capabilities shapes their experience of the transition process. Schools and ECEC services can enhance children’s experience of transition by fostering this broad base of capabilities, not just literacy and numeracy alone. Understanding children’s progress is therefore an important part of understanding how each child can best be supported, and the many types of strengths that each child may bring to the transition. 

      Information about children’s capabilities is captured in a range of ways:

      • at national level, the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), an internationally validated measure of learning and development across 5 domains for all Australian children, is undertaken every 3 years. AEDC data is collected in the first year of school, so it is a valuable measure of children’s capabilities at a critical time in the transition phase (Clanchy et al. 2021; Semann et al. 2015). Other relevant national work includes measures of preschool ‘value add’ through the Preschool Outcomes Measure Expert Advisory Group (DESE 20 October 2021), and Schools Policy Group (SPG) has examined measures of readiness for school, which may inform the next National Measurement Framework for Schooling
      • at state and territory level, additional measures of child capabilities exist in preschool or the first year of school. These address progress in literacy and numeracy, wellbeing and health related factors, or gaps in learning and developmental concerns to access early intervention (CESE 2021a)
      • at ECEC service and school level, teachers and educators collect a range of information about children’s capabilities before and after their transition to school. This may include observations of children’s progress against the EYLF outcomes, assessments of learning against the capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, or other child-level measures such as student engagement surveys. When this information is interpreted through the lens of transitions to school and shared between ECEC and schools it can be valuable for identifying what kinds of support a child might need, or which strengths can be celebrated and leveraged to help them through the transition process. 

      02 Teacher and educator practices

      Practices that support effective transitions include collaboration, communication and a shared responsibility between ECEC, schools, families and communities to assist children through the transition process. The importance of cooperation and collaborative practices in transitions are recognised on a global (OECD 2020) and local (Dockett and Perry 2021a; Nolan et al. 2021) level. Relationships between professionals, the child, and their family are therefore crucial to the success of transitions (Boyle et al. 2018; Dockett and Perry 2014; Margetts and Kienig 2013) and assist children to be ‘ready’ for school, while also assisting schools to become ‘ready’ to accept all children regardless of their developmental progress (OECD 2017). 

      Collaborative practices that support effective transitions to school include those that prioritise ongoing communication; value personal relationships; commit to individualised support and respect for diverse children and their families; have high expectations of all children; focus on continuity of learning between settings; and are well organised, flexible and responsive to individual children, families and communities (Ahtola et al. 2016; NSW Department of Education 2020; Semann et al. 2015). 

      Families play a key role in assisting teachers and educators in both ECEC and schools to better understand how effective partnerships can be established and maintained.  Research suggests that families value personal meetings with teachers, transition statements and ongoing communication with teachers and educators in which the specific circumstances of their family can be shared (Ahtola et al. 2016; Hugo et al. 2018; Semann et al. 2015).

      The National Quality Standard (NQS) Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA n.d.) Element 6.2.1 requires that, ‘continuity of learning and transitions for each child are supported by sharing information and clarifying responsibilities.’ Data from the NQS assessment and rating process measures whether ECEC services are meeting this element, although does not identify the specific practices that teachers and educators are implementing in order to do so. 
      At a school level, the national Family School Partnerships Framework (DESE 2020) emphasises collaborative partnerships with families and communities. At the teacher level, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers also expect teachers to engage in partnerships with other professionals in the community to support children’s learning (see Standard 7: Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/ carers and the community) (AITSL 2017). While the Framework and Standards are tools for guidance rather than accountability, they highlight the importance of partnerships in all Australian teachers’ practice. 

      03 The context in which transitions occur

      To fully understand how children develop a sense of belonging at school, it is important to look beyond the child and their teachers and educators and explore factors that may support or inhibit effective transitions in their context.

      Families and communities

      The transition process is unique to each child and family and is supported by the structures that surround the child, including not only their teachers and educators, but also peers, family and the wider community (CESE 2021a; Krakouer et al. 2017). Transition programs and the schedule of activities and practices they involve can therefore be evaluated by both school and ECEC at the local level to determine whether they meet the needs of the children, families and local community. 

      Families are critically important to transitions and the strength of connection between schools, ECEC services and families is one of the decisive factors in a child’s sense of belonging (Dockett and Perry 2021a; Joerdens 2014). Understanding effective transitions involves understanding whether families are well-supported to develop their own sense of belonging in the school community, as partners in their child’s learning. Evaluations can involve ongoing opportunities to connect with families considering the diversity of family contexts. This could include an awareness of cultural expectations of the families’ role in schools; family member disengagement; or poor previous experiences of school, which may impact a family’s involvement. This information can help to identify opportunities to strengthen or improve relationships and transitions, and leverage community support. 

      System structures and policy

      Beyond the immediate school and ECEC service community, the governance and policy context for schools and ECEC services can make a significant difference to the effectiveness of transitions. This influence may occur through many factors, such as:

      • requirements for documenting children’s learning and development, so that records of children’s progress can be readily shared between ECEC, families and schools
      • time, space and resources to enable professionals to collaborate, which respect the different working arrangements and practices in ECEC services and schools 
      • collaboration at system level, with policymakers and sector leaders in ECEC and schools working together to break down silos and share responsibility
      • curriculum or pedagogical guidelines that emphasise the importance of building children’s sense of belonging. 

      Evaluating these structural elements, and how they impact on specific school and ECEC communities, is important to understand the context for transitions.

      Process over time

      Transitions are a long-term, multi-faceted process rather than a one-off event (Joerdens 2014; Lincoln et al. 2016). The transition process begins well before the point of entry to school and continues until the point at which children and families feel a sense of belonging in their new school community, and when this is also recognised by teachers and educators (Dockett and Perry 2014). It may take many months, even years for some children and families to reach this point. Measures of effective transitions should therefore look beyond a single point in time and treat transition as a dynamic, long-term process of both change and continuity (Dockett and Perry 2022; Boyle et al. 2018).

      About the project

      AERO’s ‘transitions project’ considers how to enhance the effectiveness of children’s transitions across the different contexts in which children learn and develop. It is part of the Continuity of learning and development priority on AERO’s Research Agenda

      The project responds to the enduring policy interest in transitions to school, as well as broadening thinking to other transitions between ECEC services and schools that impact on learning. This project has broader strategic value in addressing the intersection between schools and ECEC and will generate future possibilities to create a shared language about continuity of learning and development at the policy and practice levels. 

      This project will fill priority gaps in the transitions landscape, initially focusing on:

      • measurement of effective transitions to school 
      • enhancing transitions to school for children with disability and developmental delay
      • supporting continuity of learning and development between school and outside school hours care (OSHC).  

      This discussion paper addressed the first priority and was informed by consultation with the Project Advisory Group (PAG) and expert advisors. AERO appreciates the valuable input from PAG members and expert advisors. Views represented in this paper are attributable to AERO, and do not represent an endorsed view from PAG members or others consulted in its development. 

      The next steps in the project will involve the development of practical resources for teachers and educators in schools and ECEC services to address the other identified priority areas, and support more effective transitions for all children. 

      References

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