Transitions for families as children start school

As children grow and develop, families make adjustments and changes. One of the major adjustments families make is in response to children starting school. Even when children have attended prior-to-school settings, starting school remains a time when families, as well as children, experience a great deal of change.

Families promote many experiences and interactions to prepare children for school, including providing a range of resources, engaging in particular routines and interactions, and creating home learning environments that support children’s engagement in school.

Starting school is a time of change for children and for families, as they experience a specific set of demands and make adjustments to meet those demands. Three levels of change during the transition to school have been identified (Griebel & Niesel, 2009): change at the individual level; the relationships level; and the contextual level. Each of these changes impacts on how children and families experience the transition to school. Educators who are aware of these changes are well placed to create responsive and supportive educational environments for all involved in the transition to school.

Individual changes

Often, children are very clear about what changes they have made as they start school. The major change they report is that they are ‘big’ and now at ‘big school’. This change in identity is marked by the school uniform and children’s adaptation to the routines and expectations of school. Parents also experience changes at the individual level as they become the ‘parents of a school student’. This identity change requires parents to adjust to a range of school expectations about attendance, uniform, possible involvement at school and homework. It is also a time when parents feel they are being judged—are they ‘good’ parents? Have they prepared their children well? Do they get them to school on time and in the correct uniform? Do their children ‘fit into’ the school environment?

Everyone involved in transition to school experiences changes at the relationship level. As children leave prior-to-school settings they, and their families, may lose contact with staff, children and other families from those settings. Some children start school with friends, but their friendship groups may change considerably as they adjust to school. For children with special education needs, and their families, the changes in relationships are often major, as prior-to-school support ceases and new relationships with new resource staff need to be built.

As some relationships are lost, others are built between and among children, families and school staff. Building these relationships may require new strategies—for example, communicating with teachers at school can be different from communicating with educators in prior-to-school settings. Many parents also seek avenues to build relationships through parent councils, school canteen or volunteer class support. However, for many working parents, or parents who feel uncomfortable in school settings, these options may not always be available.

Relationships within families also change as children start school. For example, children often seek greater independence to match their changed status. At the same time, they may also seek greater support as they navigate the expectations of school. Many parents report mixed feelings as their children start school: often a sense of pride and achievement, coupled with a sense of loss as children move into different worlds beyond the family.

Contextual changes

When children start school, families need to coordinate school, family and work responsibilities. Making sure that children are at school at specific times may mean that schedules for other family members need to change. This can be quite challenging if different children attend different schools, or if work, family and school schedules conflict.

Implications for educators

In a recent study, we explored the ways in which these changes influenced families and children as they made the transition to school (Dockett et al., 2011). Implications from this study emphasise the importance of creating enabling environments that are responsive to, and supportive of, children and families. In enabling environments, practices, processes and policies work together, recognising both the challenges faced by the transition to school, as well as the strengths of children and families as they make this transition. Key elements of enabling environments are:

  • Enabling practices that recognise family and parent strengths and interests in their children’s wellbeing and development. Family experiences and expectations vary considerably, but the vast majority of parents are eager for their children to settle into school, make friends and access the best education possible. Enabling practices recognise the strength and diversity of family skills and resources, and acknowledge the transition to school as a time when families seek, and are responsive to, input. Providing information for families about what happens at school and different ways they can become involved with their children’s school experiences are examples of enabling practices.
  • Enabling processes promote continuity in the support and services available for families and children across the transition to school. When prior-to-school and school educators collaborate, or when educators collaborate with other professionals as well as families, there are many opportunities to share insights and strategies for supporting children and families.
  • Enabling policies recognise that the transition to school can be both a time of additional stress for families, and a time of opportunities for all involved. For example, while some relationships are lost, there are many opportunities for all involved to build new relationships.

Educators who recognise the transition to school as a transition for families, as well as children, are well placed to create enabling environments.

Sue Dockett
Professor, Early Childhood Education, Charles Sturt University

Bob Perry
Professor, Education, Charles Sturt University

Emma Kearney
Research Officer, Charles Sturt University


Dockett, S., Perry, B., Kearney, E., Hampshire, A., Mason, J., & Schmied, V. (2011). Facilitating children’s transition to school from families with complex support needs. Retrieved 11 January, 2012,

Griebel, W., & Niesel, R. (2009). A developmental psychology perspective in Germany: Co-construction of transitions between family and education system by the child, parents and pedagogues. Early Years, 29(1), 59–68.


This research was supported by the Australian Research Council Grant LP0669546.

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