Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Transition to School; Why the First Few Years Matter for a Lifetime

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Transition to School; Why the First Few Years Matter for a Lifetime

Article excerpt

The authors discuss early signs of successful transitions to school and point out some fundamental principles that characterize positive learning environments.

BUTTERFLIES IN the stomach and a brand new outfit. Family gathered round. A few tears -- usually the tears of a parent. And an awareness that life will never be quite the same again. It is the first day of school -- the first day of "big school."

One of the few universals of childhood in our society is the transition to school. As each child crosses the threshold of the school, that child embarks on a remarkable course of learning accompanied inevitably by successes, failures, friends made and lost, and interests turned on and turned off. Make no mistake, school is the real world, and what happens there matters -- now and forever.

After the family, the school is likely to be the most profound influence on the course of a child's life. Moreover, the relationship between the family and the school makes a big difference in how well a child adjusts to school and how much a child benefits from school. In fact, the family/school relationship really begins before the child enters the classroom and is expressed in the ways the family talks about and prepares the child for school.

In this article, we first discuss the concept of school readiness and the process of making the transition to school. We then review the early signs of successful school transitions and identify some fundamentals of young children's learning environments. We address these three issues because we know that they are crucial to preparing children to benefit from their first formal schooling experiences. Optimal early learning environments serve both to promote children's development and to foster positive attitudes toward learning itself. For children with only minimal preparation prior to entering school -- a situation that, according to kindergarten teachers, applies to an increasing number of children in our society -- specific prevention and compensatory strategies are likely to be needed.[1]

Rethinking School Readiness

For years educators and parents have shared the belief that children need to be prepared or "readied" for school. This widespread belief reflects the idea that the school and home environments are discontinuous. That is, expectations about children's behavior at home and at school differ because of the distinctive roles these entities play and because values, goals, practical concerns, group dynamics, and cultural traditions that influence school environments and homes often differ.

The growing diversity of our nation's population and the forces that are affecting both family life and schools have challenged the belief that children are the only ones who need to be "readied." Rather, it is becoming clear that parents, educators, and communities must all be prepared for young children's transition to school. Family members cannot rely solely on memories of their own school experiences as a basis for preparing children, because schools have changed dramatically over the past several decades. Educators today often find themselves serving children and families from backgrounds markedly different from their own.

All these forces affecting children's entry into school require a planned and coordinated approach by families, educators, and the community to ensure a successful transition. The traditional idea of school readiness has thus been expanded and today calls for open discussion, mutual adaptation, and respectful understanding among the key adults in children's lives. Moreover, readiness for school is not simply the responsibility of children and their families, but of all the adults, institutions, and agencies that serve them.

Evidence is growing that children's family backgrounds affect how fully prepared they will be for school.[2] For example, parents who have recently immigrated to this country may have little or no firsthand knowledge about their children's schools. …

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