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The problem with ‘School Readiness’. (cert-4-£1)

Updated: May 15, 2021

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School readiness

I'm an early years educator and childcare lecturer with my own little girl due to start Reception in September 2020. I completely understand parents’ concerns that our pre-schoolers are missing out on ‘mixing’ with other children and the associated opportunities for social development in preparation for Reception year.

I’ve seen a wave of concern, particularly on social media, over how to prepare children for the transition into Reception year this September (2020) when early years settings are closed for the foreseeable future. With this in mind, I will be publishing a special series of blog posts focusing on ‘School Readiness’ for both parents and the early years workforce including the usual free CPD activity at the end of the post.

Before we begin, please remember that schools will take these exceptional circumstances into account. All children will have missed out on their usual socialising in the run up to September which means that Reception teachers will adjust their expectations of children in terms of their ability to settle in, socialise and make new relationships. All schools will be putting support in place for parents and children to help ease the transition from lockdown to school but as you will see:

Parents: you can still do your bit at home to help children adjust to school life and enjoy their new adventure!

Early Years Educators: you can continue to support families and children and share your knowledge, tips and advice regarding transitions with parents during the closures.

In the hope to offer clarity, I kick start the series with a look at what ‘School Readiness’ actually means, followed by practical advice and fun, play-based activities that parents can encourage from home and early years practitioners can share with parents and continue to offer once settings re-open.

So, let’s get started – what is the problem with ‘School Readiness’?

If I asked you what school readiness means, you would be forgiven for thinking that this applies to children who are starting Reception year. What if I told you, that as far as the government are concerned, it actually refers to the transition from Reception to Year 1? The reason for this, as I’m sure you know, is that children in Reception follow the exact same play-based curriculum as in nurseries, preschools and childminding settings – the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

In terms of the government ‘School-ready’ is actually a term used to describe those children who reach a ‘good level of development’ by the end of EYFS. So, at the end of Reception, the teacher will fill in the summative assessment of the EYFS profile and that assessment is reported to the government. Children are said to have a good level of development if they have reached the Early Learning Goals in the three prime areas: physical development, communication and language, and personal social development, and two of the specific areas of learning: mathematics and literacy. The media will then report on these assessments, but the problem comes when the general public (and often the media too!) assume this data relates to children starting Reception rather than at the end.

So what’s really going on with our 4 years olds, in a very short space of time is two transitions – the ‘physical’ transition from home or early years setting to Reception, closely followed by the ‘curricula’ transition when children move from Reception (EYFS curriculum) into Year 1 (the National Curriculum). We often overlook that two very different approaches are required for these two transitions.

The good news

The good news for parents and early years educators of children starting Reception is that you only need to prepare children for the ‘physical’ transition because the ‘curricula’ transition comes later, at the end of Reception and requires a different approach at a separate time. The problem with this blurred definition of ‘School Readiness’ however, is when parents assume that we need to prepare children for both the ‘physical’ transition and the ‘curricula’ transition before they start reception. In my experience, apart from being unnecessary at this stage all it does is create pressure on young children and stress for parents at a time when children need love, compassion, understanding and calm.

So, lets separate the two transitions:

1. The ‘physical’ transition from home/early years setting to Reception

2. The ‘curricular’ transition from the Early Years Foundation stage to the National Curriculum (Yr R to Yr 1)

In the months and weeks leading up to September, we only need to be focusing on the ‘physical’ transition.

Early years educators are well aware that the EYFS Prime Areas are fundamental to all learning and development. The prime areas are:

• Personal, Social and Emotional Development

• Communication and Language

• Physical Development

The specific areas are:

· Literacy

· Mathematics

· Understanding of the World

· Expressive Arts and Design

To prepare children for the transition from their home/early years setting to Reception, I’m going to be focusing on the Prime areas within the EYFS because, ironically, in my experience, these areas are often the most overlooked by parents in favour of the specific areas such as literacy and maths.

In my experience as an early years educator – getting this message across to parents was always extremely difficult. I’d have good-intentioned parents convinced that they should be teaching their 4 year old the ‘3 Rs’ before they start Reception, thinking that this was the best thing they could do for their children in order to give them the best start in life. The problem with this approach is that all children are unique and individual and what one 4 year old will be able to do with ease, another won’t and vice-versa so all we can do (as parents and as early years educators) is give them the right foundations from which the teachers in Reception and beyond can build upon.

As an Early Years Educator, I’d be approached several times a day by well-meaning parents, anxious about their child’s perceived lack of reading and writing skills. I found the best thing to do was pull out the then – called “Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage” (we’re talking early noughties here people!) and show them page 8...(I know, It’s possibly a bit sad that I still remember) and I would directly quote this wonderful passage:

“The curriculum for the foundation stage should underpin all future learning by supporting, fostering, promoting and developing children’s[...] positive attitudes and dispositions towards their learning: in particular an enthusiasm for knowledge and learning and a confidence in their ability to be successful learners”

Department for Education and Employment. (2000). Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage. QCA/00/587 Sudbury: QCA

Most often, parents were relieved and delighted to discover that the secret to a child’s school success is not WHAT we teach our children but HOW! I’d then encourage parents to ditch the checklists and tick charts of what their children can and can’t do in favour of just having fun with their children and making ‘learning’ an enjoyable experience – shaping and moulding their child’s attitudes towards learning and future education into a positive one. Unfortunately, if we put children under pressure to ‘learn’ we run the risk of doing the exact opposite of this, turning learning into something that is negative – and that’s really dangerous if you want children to succeed in school.

Now we have cleared that up, I need to mention that promoting children’s positive attitudes and dispositions towards their learning is still embedded in the current EYFS but I just love the wording in the previous guidance and I still refer to it because it is so useful when explaining the important underlying principles of what Early Childhood Education is all about.

So, as far as formal learning goes, sorry to disappoint, but I will not be providing any checklists or tick charts for parents or early years educators to work on between now and September...what I will be publishing is fun, play-based activities, that I have used with the children I’ve worked with and with my own child that focus on the most important prime areas of the EYFS – Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Communication and Language Development and Physical Development.

As I said, it’s ironic that each year, Reception teachers express concerns over children’s development in these areas even though they are considered to be the prime areas of the EYFS. I can completely relate to this too! During my own stint in Reception class as an Early Childhood Studies student, I remember the little girl who couldn’t bring herself to ask for a tissue, but she did know how to spell her name, the little boy who soiled himself daily, but could count to 400! The little boy who knew the names of all the dinosaurs but couldn’t manage his own feelings and behaviour. The many children who could recite the alphabet but couldn’t wipe their own bottoms and all the children who were fantastic at writing their names but couldn’t get dressed for PE or drink from a cup!

Although we always dealt with these things with sensitivity and patience, this would take up a large proportion of the adults’ time (I was an extra pair of hands to help with these tasks but when I wasn’t there it was left to the teaching staff) And I had to wonder - how can these children learn, develop and thrive if they’re basic needs are not being met? How can we build on the children’s fantastic handwriting skills or amazing dinosaur knowledge if they are experiencing the discomfort of runny noses, dirty bottoms, unregulated emotions and back-to-front, unfastened clothes?

As Maslow and his hierarchy of needs suggests, if our basic and physiological needs are not met, then learning (which is at the top) cannot occur. So, the most helpful thing parents and early years educators can do for children is empower them to meet their own needs and help them develop their self-care skills in a developmentally appropriate way in preparation for Reception Year when you won’t be there to do it for them!

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation.

With this in mind, and with reference to several teacher surveys and opinion polls, it is clear that Reception teachers really hope children can do the following at the beginning of Year R:

Physical Development: (Health and self-care)

1, Toileting - Can use the toilet independently (and all related aspects – wiping, flushing, handwashing)

2, Getting Dressed – Can get themselves fully dressed and undressed, including all fastenings (for PE) and can put on and take off their shoes and PE plimsoles (including fastenings)

4, Feed themselves – Can use a knife and fork and/or open their lunch box and all its contents and are used to drinking water (not squash) from a cup.

Personal, Social and Emotional Development: (Managing feelings and behaviour)

6, Behaviour - Understand the need for rules and that there are consequences for inappropriate behaviour.

Communication and Language: (Speaking)

7, Having a voice - Can use appropriate words to express their thoughts (but more importantly their needs - can they ask to use the loo? Tell the teacher if they are thirsty or feel unwell? Or if they’ve had an accident?)

General preparation:

8, Other things to consider when preparing for the transition.

Notice that there is no mention here of reading, writing or mathematics!

It is worth noting however, that some children really do love more formal learning and respond brilliantly to more structured activities that focus on maths or literacy. For example, if children are ready to read and write, then, by all means, start that process and enjoy! Parents and early years educators know their children the best, so follow their lead and build on their interests. The problem occurs when we are trying to teach a child phonics and to write a sentence when they cannot actually articulate a sentence yet. We should be focusing on getting those fundamental skills in place before we move children on to what Reception teachers expect children to be able to do towards the end of Year R, although this is another matter entirely and should be considered at a later stage once the ‘physical’ transition is complete.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll take each of the above points, and publish play-based activities and ideas for parents to try at home and for early years practitioners to continue to use in settings and share with parents during the closures. And a note to parents...please remember - be led by your child, don’t put pressure on yourself or your child, relax, and know that most of all, the child needs your love and calm during these uncertain times.

Our first School Ready topic will follow shortly.

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