The journey from kindergarten to school

By Stefanie Greubel, August 2017

Transitions are part of childhood. There is no other age at which they occur so frequently. The change from kindergarten to school is particularly incisive, also for the family. Almost one year before the actual move to school, a transition phase starts in kindergarten which is marked by numerous rituals, particular actions, but also a change in the status of the children and new challenges.

Photo: © johoelken / photocase.de

Children and parents are clearly aware when the change from kindergarten to school is pending. The process starts after the summer holidays when the formerly second oldest now belong to the big ones. Often that is also expressed in a new name: the lambs turn into shepherd or herding dogs, others to royal or crown children. The wobbly teeth also indicate in their name a change to a new institution. Mixed feelings such as pride, the thrill of anticipation, sadness and anxiety can spread.

In the children themselves it is mostly the joy which predominates and their worries tend to relate to the other people involved and organisational things. They wonder: will my friend be in the same class and sit next to me? Will the teacher be nice? Or where are the toilettes? Where is the class room or the gym hall? Parents tend to be more concerned about the skills of the child. Particularly in the year before the move to school they are provided with a variety of sometimes contradictory information and confronted with expectations which cannot always be reconciled.

While the kindergarten mostly advises a relaxed attitude with regard to the development of the child, social media and conversations with other parents focus on discussing extra support. Early childhood education in kindergarten is playing an increasingly large role to the extent that it aims for later “applicability”. That often adds to the pressure in parents.

But parents, too, experience the transition to school as an important biographical stage. As the two educational researchers Wilfried Griebel and Renate Niesel emphasise, they pass through a process in which their status, their dialogues and their room for manoeuvre changes. Thus they become the parents of a school child whose role is now defined by new areas of responsibility such as learning partnerships, new contact with teachers, other parents and children as well as through all the different everyday activities which have changed through the move to school (organisation of family, school and occupation).

Breaks and crises can be a benefit

Parents and children are thus on the same journey which, however, offers different challenges and opportunities: theories in developmental psychology posit that children can grow in strength and self-confidence through overcoming transitional situations and und that learning is intensified during this phase.

Biographical breaks and crises activate resources which are needed to cope with transitional situations. Successfully tested strategies from previous, possibly critical transitions, can be applied. That includes above all the confidence to be up to new tasks. Various studies emphasise the importance of a parental home which encourages and supports the children in their development and strengthens them for the everyday demands of school.

Thus children are supported above all indirectly – by a relationship built on trust, the role model of the parents and a healthy learning culture. That includes meeting the child’s need for safety and security, appreciative communication and a positive basic attitude to education and cultural things. The focus is thus on a comprehensive strengthening of the child in its individual abilities instead of targeted, cognitively-based pre-school training.

Such an attitude to the child, which educates itself in an all-round way and is unique as an individual, is also reflected in the education plans of the German federal states. Thus it says in the educational principles of North Rhine-Westphalia for children aged 0 to 10: “In educational processes children must be given sufficient time to find their own rhythm and their learning paths: educational processes are thus highly individual. As the children grow older, targeted educational support gains in weight without the basic principle – the active child – thereby becoming less important.”

Everyday discoveries

One consequence of this is that age-appropriate exercises, for example for concentration, motor skills or language, are indeed suited to make the start in school easier for children. But what matters, and this is of enormous importance, is the how and the when and the trust in the child’s processes of self-education. Incentives or projects through play can smooth the path for the children and give them greater self-assurance, in the best case if they are integrated into everyday activities.

Dealing with areas of education such as the sciences, language and communication as well as music, religion/ethics and movement in a child-appropriate way opens up new fields of experience for the children through which they can grow into the world. Compulsory learning tasks, in contrast, could not be less suitable. Educators, neuroscientists and psychologists are in agreement that learning success is closely associated with secure attachments, motivation und pleasure in learning, and new situations are best learnt if they can be associated with already familiar knowledge. This suggests that the child’s urge to discover and investigate new things, based on its own motivation, should be supported.

Children, then, require a basis which strengthens their fundamental trust and stimulates them courageously to investigate their surroundings, and at the same time allows them their particular passions and the associated detailed knowledge. Parents whose pre-school children can name and precisely characterise all nine species of hammerhead shark, but cannot muster any interest in the diversity of the world of letters or plants, can thus breathe a sigh of relief and gradually open up the spectrum of other fields of exploration for their children.

The changing tasks of parents

Parents – ideally supported by teachers – face the responsibility to accompany the child on its path attentively and sensitively. At the same time they are faced with status changes which can occur with varying intensity depending on family constellation and the sequence of siblings. While with some parents the first or second child is leaving kindergarten but another remains there, others face the task of making a complete break with the familiar habits and rules and approaching the requirements of school from a completely new perspective. This brings changes with it which have a direct effect on our personal sensibility, the network of relationships and, quite prosaically, on our everyday routine. Parents who have been particularly active and committed in the everyday life of the kindergarten can sometimes find it difficult to leave that sphere of their activity and to adapt to a completely new kind of collaboration with the school.

Just like their children, they too are unsure about the new tasks and ways of dealing with things which lie ahead of them. New contacts with teachers and other parents are pending and instead of the familiar informal chat in passing there are now mostly scheduled meetings for an individual discussion with the teacher.

Roles also change within the family and there are new expectations of family members. When the “serious side of life” starts, families as a rule redefine themselves and agreements are made with regard to new as well as old tasks. Many parents experience the new independence of their child from the perspective of the proud parent, but also sometimes from the perspective of the parent whose child is now that bit less dependent on their care.

This can be unsettling and is also reflected back to the children. According to an Australian study (Dockett and Perry 2007), the children on the one hand experience a greater spectrum within which they can act independently. But on the other hand they also very directly experience the discrepancy between the independence demanded in school and at home, and the restraints to which they personally, but also their parents, are subject through everyday school life.

Thus ultimately it is about walking this path with its challenges and opportunities together and integrating familiar rituals into the new structure of everyday life. The transition for parents and children should be shaped as an appreciative process which is supportively accompanied by the teacher.

About the author: Jun.-Prof. Dr. Stefanie Greubel teaches in the education department at Alanus University. 

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