The transition to school

This literature review was originally published 28 November 2016.

Image: The transition to school, 2016


The transition to school

In 2015, almost 100,000 students started primary school in New South Wales, including 69,585 students at government schools (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015). For many of these children, the transition to school will be a positive experience. However, some students may find this transition difficult, and this could have lasting impacts on their educational outcomes.

The importance of a positive transition to school is well recognised across the literature. It is considered a significant event for both children and their families, and one that can have a considerable impact on a child’s later educational and social outcomes.

This paper examines the existing literature on the transition to primary school from home and/or early childhood education and care. This encompasses a number of issues, including:

  • What constitutes a successful transition to school.
  • How school readiness is define and measured.
  • What factors contribute to a positive transition and what factors can make this transition more challenging.
  • How the transition to school fits with learning frameworks and progressions.

Although there is a significant amount of literature on this topic, there are few robust studies into what factors and practices contribute to a positive transition. There is also a lack of clarity surrounding some key concepts, including how to define and measure the transition to school.

School Readiness

Defining school readiness

The concept of school readiness is central to discussions about the transition to school. However, the term school readiness has been the subject of significant debate across the literature (Melbourne Graduate School of Education 2008). Traditionally, the concept has focussed on a child’s age and skills. However more recent literature tends to adopt a broader definition, incorporating not only a child’s readiness for the learning environment, but also the learning environment’s readiness for the child (Hair et al. 2006; Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care 2013; Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne 2008).

Dockett, Perry and Kearney (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2010) comment ‘Readiness must be conceptualised as a broad construct that incorporates all aspects of a child’s life that contribute directly to that child’s ability to learn’ (p. 3). They suggest that in addition to the child’s readiness, the concept of school readiness also encompasses the school’s readiness for the child and the capacity of families and communities to provide the necessary opportunities and support to optimise children’s learning and development. Similar conclusions have been reached in international literature. In the United States, for example, this broad approach to readiness has been presented as an equation: ready families + ready communities + ready services + ready schools = children ready for school (Rhode Island Kids Count 2005).

The importance of school readiness to later student outcomes

A lack of readiness can impact on a child’s ability to grasp the literacy and numeracy concepts expected in Kindergarten, as well as meet the behavioural and social demands of the classroom and playground (Human Resources Development Canada 1997). Evidence suggests the impact of children arriving at school without the necessary skills extends well beyond the initial years of school and can affect the likelihood of successfully completing school, gaining employment and becoming an active, engaged citizen (Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne 2008).

Factors associated with a successful transition to school

A number of factors have been found to contribute to a child’s school readiness and the success of their transition to school. These include: the home learning environment and support from families; attendance at high-quality early childhood education and care and collaboration between families; early childhood and care services and schools. While this review examines these factors separately, it is important to acknowledge that they are all integrally linked. As observed in a paper by Charles Sturt University, ‘Overemphasis on any one of these factors has the potential to ignore the interaction between factors and the broader processes of relationship building which are the core of a positive transition to school’ (p. 8).

Risk factors for a poor transition

Evidence suggests the transition to school can be more challenging for certain groups. These include Indigenous children, children from low SES backgrounds, children with special educational needs and children from culturally and linguistically diverse families (Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia 2011; New Zealand Ministry of Education 2010).

Learning and development in the early years

It is widely recognised that children begin learning well before they start school, and that this learning and development can have long term impacts. Advances in neurological science have provided insights into how the brain develops, including the importance of development in the first few years of life (UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities 2001; Shonkoff & Phillips 2000). It is now known that the early years are critical for the development of an individual’s ‘brain architecture’ and that stimulating early experiences lay the foundation for later learning (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2007). This growing recognition of the importance of the early years is said to have ‘re-positioned infants beyond notions of “waiting to learn” to that of “learners from birth”’ (Cheeseman, Sumsion and Press 2015, p. 39).

Learning frameworks and progressions

Early learning frameworks and curricula

The increased interest in early childhood education and care over the past two decades has focussed attention on the education of infants and assessments of their learning (Cheeseman, Press & Sumsion 2016). This is reflected in the implementation of early childhood curriculum frameworks in a number of countries around the world, including Australia, as well as the use of assessments and diagnostic tools in the early years. These frameworks and tools vary in purpose and scope, but reflect a shared recognition of the importance of the early years in children’s longer term educational trajectories and outcomes.

The use of learning progressions

The idea that learning is a cumulative process is reflected in the use of learning progressions or continua. The term learning progression has been defined as ‘A carefully sequenced set of building blocks that students must master en route to a more distant curricular aim’ (Popham 2007) and ‘A description of skills, understanding, and knowledge in the sequence in which they typically develop: a picture of what it means to “improve” in an area of learning’ (Masters & Forster 1997, cited by Behavioral Research and Teaching 2012). These differ from curriculum or learning frameworks, but are often designed to support or sit alongside these documents (Behavioral Research and Teaching 2012).

Readiness assessments and other diagnostic tools

A wide variety of tools are used within the education sector to enhance our understanding of students’ learning and development. These vary in format, scope and purpose – from teachers’ in class observations to national examinations. In the early years context, there are a number of instruments designed to assess students’ capabilities and skills. Some of these aim to monitor the development of a nation or state-wide cohort while others are designed to identify individual students who may need additional support (Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2009). Some are broad in scope and assess a number of domains, while others focus on a specific skill (e.g. phonemic awareness).


There is clear agreement across the literature about the importance of a positive transition to school. Evidence shows that the impact of children arriving at school without the necessary skills extends beyond the initial years of school, and can have significant long term effects.

There is growing recognition that the early years are a critical period for the development of the key components of school readiness. This is reflected in the increased use of early childhood curriculum frameworks and assessment tools around the world, including in Australia. Although these documents vary in focus and scope, they reflect a shared recognition of the importance of the early years in an individual’s transition to school and beyond.

Increasingly, the literature in this area is employing a broader, more holistic approach to the transition to school. Definitions of school readiness now incorporate not only a child’s readiness for the learning environment, but also the learning environment’s readiness for the child. In light of this, there is increasing emphasis on the role of families, early childhood services and schools in facilitating successful transitions to school.

A wide variety of child, family, school and community factors can influence a child’s readiness for this transition. Factors associated with a successful transition include a positive home learning environment; attendance at high-quality early childhood education and care, particularly preschool programs; and collaboration between early childhood services, schools and families. There is also evidence that certain groups, including Aboriginal children or children with special educational needs, may also find this transition more challenging and require additional support to make a successful transition.

Despite the large body of literature on this topic, there are few rigorous studies into the specific practices that can best facilitate a successful transition to school. There also remains a lack of clarity around certain areas and concepts, particularly in regards to the concept of school readiness. The term ‘community readiness’, for example, is being increasingly used across the literature but has not yet been well-defined.

The greater collection of data about learning in the early years is promising. This data may increasingly be used to expand understandings of the transition process and inform practices that can best support successful transitions for all children.

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