A smooth transition into the early years

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Pupils’ transition into the early years of primary school can be daunting. Drawing on practice she has seen across the country, Fiona Aubrey-Smith offers some practical advice and ideas to help ensure your youngest pupils get the best possible welcome

With the first half-term complete and our early years intake now settled in, it is a good time to reflect on our processes for transitioning children into school in readiness to plan for next year.

With many primary headteachers having a background of expertise in key stage 2 rather than early years, learning from peers about successful early years strategies is particularly important. From my work with schools around the country, I have attempted to compile some advice and guidance based on actual best practice. Here are some self-evaluation questions and points of reflection.

Children’s perception and first impressions

For a very young child, these first moments and first sights can make a significant difference to their emotions about “starting school”. As one headteacher said with a smile: “If, as an adult, you don’t have to bend down to see and reach everything in EYFS then you’ve got it at the wrong height.”

As extreme as it may sound, try crawling around your EYFS space so that you are at the height of your youngest children. You will see exactly what your early years children experience. Where are the signs, labels and displays? Can children see around and between furniture for a clear view of their classroom?

What is most important to a child new-to-school?

The basics of survival are about accessing food, drink, a toilet, and safety/who to go to for help. It is therefore crucially important to empower children to know how to access these. Think about your guided tours on the first day, but also your signage – using real pictures and words rather than clipart, and make sure that toilets, snack bowls and drinking areas are inviting, clean and accessible.

Your expectations and your environment

Think about the first impressions a child will have of your school, classroom and environment. If it is tidy, clean and everything has a place, then your new intake of children are more likely to keep it tidy and clean.

But even more powerful than this is the subliminal message you are giving to children about the nature of your environment. If the adults care about its presentation and organisation, then the message that children will receive from that is that school is somewhere to live up to positive and high expectations.

We all have high expectations written into our school ethos and behaviour policies, but at its most basic, this begins with both adults and children caring for their environment around them – and that starts with being tidy.

An example of best practice

Marva Rollins, headteacher at Raynham Primary School in north London, has a national reputation as a leader who brings the best out of children regardless of their background and starting point. Children at Raynham often come from complex backgrounds, many without English, without previous experiences of education or childcare or as bewildered refugees.

However, Raynham continually sees some of the highest rates of both progress and attainment in the country. Marva adheres to four vital aspects of early years transition to ensure that children get off to the very best start:

  • When children come with varying and challenging behaviours, remember that the children are not the behaviour. Have patience.
  • Staff need to be fully trained in early years development and practice, and supported to be empathetic to the family’s emotions and needs.
  • Staff should be supported to develop strengths in closing the gap for children whose starting points can be 18 months below their age-related stage of development. With the challenges already facing them beyond school it is even more important for these children that they catch up quickly and then thrive at school.
  • Develop strong links with early years agencies who can support children with a range of needs, and make sure you as a leader build capacity to follow through on the recommendations made.

Anna Trott, the deputy headteacher at Raynham, also offers some practical ideas:

  • Ensure that introductory parents’ meetings have opportunities for parents to spend time in the class setting – they may never have been in one before, or may have had a negative experience that needs to be overcome.
  • For home visits, ensure that bilingual support is there if necessary.
  • Plan for Stay and Play sessions where children spend time in the setting with parents, and then independently if ready. Be mindful of bilingual needs and provision for both children and parents.
  • Plan for staggered entry with a clear settling in policy.
  • Ensure that initial observations determine additional support needs – both their first language as well as English development and SEND.
  • Have a weekly rota for small groups of parents to stay and play or listen to children read.

Another example of best practice

Sacred Heart RC Primary School has been identified as “the school that every outstanding school should learn from”. The headteacher Martin Johnson has a number of suggestions for how you can support your school’s early years leaders with planning for transition:

  • Ensure that time is given to look through and action plan from the entry profiles sent from the different settings, and ensure that you meet with parents of children who have not had a nursery setting – be ready for the journey.
  • Ensure that all Reception staff are confident of their roles and the pupils’ learning challenges during the “baseline” period at the start of term.
  • Arrange early triangulation meetings with Reception staff and senior leaders, so that any emerging issues are handled with speed and sensitivity.

Laura Skinner, the early years leader at Sacred Heart, also shared a handful of successful practical strategies:

  • Hold a summer term drop-in coffee morning to meet the parents and children together. Explore the learning environment with them, and ensure that families have plenty of time to meet and talk to their teacher together.
  • Year 3 children can become “Guardian Angels” who write to their allocated child/family before they begin school, building up relationships before day one.
  • Warmly invite parents into school at the start of the day to enable children to settle and so that they have someone focused on their individual journey, showing them where to put their things and where to go.
  • Differentiate provision for transition – some children settle much more quickly if their parents leave them at the school door.
  • Use nature – the school has an urban farm. The animals and the sensory garden help to calm any child who is anxious. Going to talk to a goat or stroke a cat really does help (and they use them for children to read to as well!)
  • Group children with “buddies” so that they all have someone to play with and talk to during all the different parts of the school day.
  • Get to know the children as individuals. What do they like? What would they like to know? What questions do they have? They will all be unique.
  • Hold a “SHARE” meeting at the start of term for parents and teachers to share curriculum information and practical tips.

When does transitioning into school begin?

The most successful transitions into school happen over a long period of time. Have a think about the whole of the year ahead in readiness for your 2017 intake. Could you;

  • Invite your pre-schools to Christmas Fayres as well as summer events? Many children love the idea of “meeting” Father Christmas in their future school which can be a great first introduction to “big school”.
  • Share the school daily routines with pre-schools and parents so that children can get their body clocks used to snacks, drinks, lunch, outdoor and quiet times over the summer holidays, and so that they can talk as a family about what will happen and what to expect.
  • Provide children with opportunities to make friends at the school prior to their arrival – taking older children into pre-schools to help out with specific activities so that they are introduced in an environment where the younger children feel safe and familiar.
  • Arrange opportunities for parents to get to know each other, and encourage them to arrange playdates with future classmates. Children will feel much more confident in their new school if they have a friend who they can look forward to seeing.
  • Consider what you could put in place for the children during August, either facilitating parents connecting together or ask your PTA to get involved – so that children have a sense of school community in the long gap between pre-school ending and school beginning.

For children overwhelmed by the first day

Both emotionally and cognitively there is a huge amount for children to become familiar with on their first day in September. Consider the following:

  • Children’s senses will be overwhelmed with the stimulation of their first day and they will need opportunities to consolidate and rest their minds for a few minutes. Provide a retreat space where children can sit cosily to reflect with their own security object (cuddly toy, book etc).
  • Some teachers have found children very distracted by small things such as their new shoes rubbing, or not realising they can take their school jumper off if they get hot. Consider carpet time without shoes and jumpers as a way of children feeling “at home” on their first day.
  • Many schools invite parents in for an early lunch with the children on the first day which gives children something to look forward to in an otherwise daunting day.
  • Send children home with a whole-class photo (including their teachers) on their first day so that they have some prompts for discussion with parents.


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