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Starting school is a momentous occasion in children’s lives, and indeed in the lives of parents and school staff. There is a lot of discussion on children’s ‘readiness’ for school, yet little consensus on what defines ‘readiness’ and, moreover, whether the term ‘readiness’ is the most appropriate way to think about children starting school.
Readiness has often been defined as a child’s skills, attributes or behaviours in relation to the expectations of individual classrooms or schools1. Traditionally, children’s readiness has been considered in terms of their biological age, maturation, and the achievement of developmental milestones2. More recently however, there has been a shift away from this child-centred focus to one that considers the influence of multiple factors, such as the child’s environment and the role of caregivers, and the interplay between these factors. This interactionist approach construes ‘readiness’ as a relative, rather than absolute, term whereby children demonstrate their readiness in situ, over time3.
The interactionist view takes into account both the independent and collective influences of all participants contributing to the context and conditions under which children learn and develop2,3. This encompasses not only children’s own readiness for school – their physical, motor, social, emotional, language and cognitive development – but also schools’ readiness for children, and the capacity of families and communities to provide developmental opportunities for children underpinned by a ‘ready’ society4.
As such, the onus is not solely on children to be ‘ready’ for school – schools, families and communities all play a role in helping children prepare for their first schooling experience. ‘Ready’ schools are those that are flexible, adaptive and responsive to their students. This can be achieved by providing supports for children (such as transition programs or peer-led programs), supporting the professional development of teachers, facilitating parent involvement, and adapting when appropriate to meet the needs and strengths of students5. Families and communities also play an important role in contributing to children’s school readiness. It is critical to acknowledge the role that parents, relatives and other community members have in children’s development, and to provide support for families and communities to fulfil this role. Such support may include access to high-quality and developmentally appropriate early childhood programs that help prepare children for school, as well as providing sources of adequate nutrition, physical activity, and access to health care5.
An alternative way of framing the interactionist view of school readiness is to consider it in terms of ‘transition’ – a process that is not goal-focused or static, but one that involves continual transformation and growth. Ramey and Ramey (1999)6 define transition as “an ongoing process of mutual adaptations by children, families and schools to facilitate children moving successfully from home and early childhood education and care settings into the early years of school”7. This view acknowledges that any transition will involve some discontinuity, and that this is best managed through secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships which, in turn, help to generate supportive and effective educational environments8.