Why the settling in period is so important
We’ve all seen the photos posted on social media, every September, of children ready to start the new academic year, particularly of children who are going to school for the first time!
My children, and grandchildren, all had some sort of settling in period when they first started school and, as an early years practitioner, I have always thought that this period is vitally important in forming positive relationships with children and their families.
This year, I have come across posts, from parents and teachers, on Facebook and Mumsnet arguing about this very subject with many stating that children should stay, full time, from the first day.
There have also been a number of posts stating that, whilst compulsory school age isn’t until the term after a child’s fifth birthday, when children have been offered a place in reception it is mandatory that they are to be in school full-time from the first day. This was backed up with photo of a letter from a local authority. I hadn’t heard of this so checked the School Admissions Code. It states:
‘Admission authorities must provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. The authority must make it clear in their arrangements that, where they have offered a child a place at a school:
a) that child is entitled to a full-time place in the September following their fourth birthday;
b) the child’s parents can defer the date their child is admitted to the school until later in the school year but not beyond the point at which they reach compulsory school age and not beyond the beginning of the final term of the school year for which it was made; and
c) where the parents wish, children may attend part-time until later in the school year but not beyond the point at which they reach compulsory school age. School Admissions Code 2014 p24
Although there is a clear undertaking, in paragraph a, that children are entitled to a full time place in September, it doesn’t state specifically that this should be from the first day of the academic year. However, a ruling by the Schools Adjudicator (August 2013) probably explains the confusion as it found in favour of a Bournemouth parent who challenged a school in not allowing children to attend school full-time from September. The school operated ‘such an extended and part-time induction period’ it didn’t allow for any child to start full-time until the January. The adjudicator stated that “The school has a duty to provide a full-time place from September and it cannot refuse to do so.” Bournemouth, the local authority in this case, then wrote to all schools stating that short days and staggered starts could no longer be enforced. Hopefully the days of such extended settling periods have passed however most schools operate some sort of settling in period which still places pressure on working parents.
Many parents argue that their child will be fine starting full-time straight away, as they are outgoing, very social and have been used to going to nursery or a childminders from a young age. That may well be the case for some children but what about those who are not? What about the children who are more inhibited and who are anxious about this huge change in their young lives? What about children who do not speak any English? What about children with Special Educational Needs? What about children who have never attended any form of pre-school before?
Imagine you are 4
Just imagine that you are 4 years old. You have been at the same nursery since you were a baby and are comfortable, secure and familiar with the adults who care for you and have a good circle of friends but are now faced with the prospect of attending a school where you know no-one. ‘School’ is a reception class with 30 children and 2 adults ( one teacher and one TA) and you are expected to walk into the class on the first day of school and be left there all day. This day not only consists of meeting lots of new children, and adults, in a new environment but also means that you are going to have to eat your lunch in a noisy dining room, then go out to play with lots of other children whom you also don’t know.
This is definitely not going to support many of the children mentioned above and will likely result in children suffering acute distress. It is vitally important that we consider children’s physiological needs first to ensure that they feel safe and secure before we can even think about them beginning to learn.
It is common for children, including those who have previously attended nursery, to be anxious about this change to their daily routine, even if they are looking forward to it. In addition, many parents are also concerned about separation anxiety in the run up to the new school year, particularly if they are trying to juggle working and settling anxious children at the same time.
“In recent years, an extensive body of research has been accumulating, showing that the early care environment has a major role in a child’s development…Central to these effects is the quality of the attachment bonds that a child forms with the persons who provide care, such as parents, other members of the family or community, or professional carers.” (Oates 2007, viii)
Whilst children may have formed secure attachments through their key person at nursery, the ratio of adults to children in reception classes is usually much lower. This would be 1:15 if there is another full-time practitioner however, some schools share support staff between classes so it may only be the class teacher who is available for some parts of the day. This means it takes longer for attachments to be made, particularly if schools operate an all in, all day, from the first day of school, policy. Time needs to be afforded to enable children to settle, form relationships and attachments to be made.
In addition, having unsettled children at the beginning of the year makes completing a baseline assessment difficult as children who are not secure and settled are unlikely to show anything near their true capabilities.
Meeting the needs of children and parents
Whilst I do believe that the needs of children should be prioritised, I also think that schools need to consider how they manage the settling in period in order not to place more pressure than necessary on working parents, particularly in cases where children have attended a school nursery, as transition should look very different for these children (and families) to those of children who are new to the school.
I was affected by this very issue last year when my granddaughter (pictured above), started reception. She went in for an hour on the first day then this was gradually extended, day by day, before she was full time after about two weeks. It wasn’t the settling in period that I was unhappy about, it was the fact that she had been full-time in the school nursery for a year and knew the staff and most of the children entering reception. The school did not differentiate between the children who attended the nursery and those who hadn’t, treating them all as if they were completely new to the setting which posed an unnecessary burden on working parents.
I have worked at schools with a nursery and without and transition was very different in both. In the school with a nursery, as all the nursery children, bar one, were coming into reception we started the transition in the summer term which involved taking the children to the dinner hall and letting them play in the playground with the KS1 children, supported by practitioners. We were very lucky in that we had an open plan setting and so the children, and staff, in both nursery and reception worked together.
This enabled us to start children that attended nursery full-time, on the first day. Part- timers started the following day – some in the morning, some in the afternoon before they all started full-time on the third day. Children that were new to the school had home visits in the summer term and also came in part-time for a few days. Practitioners were able to spend lots of time with them when they arrived as the rest of the cohort were securely settled, already knowing one another and the staff.
Schools need to ensure that they inform parents early in the summer term of the transition arrangements, so that they are given time to sort things out. More importantly, they need to explain why taking time to settle children into school is so important. Flexibility is key here. I have moved children from morning to afternoon to make collections easier, introduced parents and helped to support after school collections and have also had children who didn’t attend the part-time period at all, as their parents preferred them to remain at nursery until they could come in full time.
Although it can be a trying time it is, at the very most, a couple of weeks. This time is invaluable as it enables children to ease into the new setting slowly, finding their feet in their own time and enabling them to form friendships within a smaller group of children, rather than in a class of 30. This time is invaluable to support children in getting to know their new teachers and understand the rules and routines that will be so very different from what they were used to at nursery.