This article examines how educators and parents can enable young children to make a successful transition from home to the Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) setting. A model developed in Dublin’s North East Inner City highlights the value of taking a fresh perspective on family engagement in ECEC.
Although not the focus of a wide range of existing literature, the transition made by many young children from their home to an ECEC setting is among the most significant that they will face in their young lives (O’Kane, 2016). Transitions from one environment to another are important milestones for all children (Government of Ireland, 2018), because well-functioning transitions are crucial to ‘supporting a child’s current and future capacity for learning and development’ (CECDE, 2006, p.8). However, transitions can often be times of stress for children and families, requiring support and understanding to enable both child and setting to successfully adapt.
Having an understanding of the social and cultural dimensions of early childhood enables ECEC professionals to be sensitive to the diverse ways that child development is constructed and enacted in families and communities, which can influence caregivers’ expectations of the young child and their early care and education (Margetts & Kienig, 2013).
It is important for educators to make explicit links between children’s sociocultural contexts and their experiences (Vogler et al., 2008), especially when the home culture differs from the prevailing philosophy in a setting (Sabol et al., 2018). This may involve professionals drawing on ‘beliefs and knowledge about early childhood, in ways that are appropriate to local circumstances and changing practices’ (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2005, p. 4).
Given that their parents’ involvement in an early years setting can positively affect a child’s well-being (Emerson et al., 2012, p. 39), and that effective engagement with parents has ‘real potential to narrow the gap in achievement between children from different backgrounds’ (Goodall, 2017, p. 1), the ways that ECEC professionals co-operate with parents, to effectively support children’s successful transition to ECEC, is worth deeper consideration.
Building partnerships with parents in ECEC is generally framed as a way to raise awareness of the benefits of parents participating in and enhancing their child’s early education, and to give them opportunities to do so (Emerson et al., 2012, p. 7). Some authors write that for effective partnerships to yield wider, positive results for families and communities, professionals need to engage in more meaningful parental involvement (Muller, 2009). The types of ‘light touch’ activities (Sabol et al., 2018) that are sometimes observed in Irish preschools are not always associated with positive impacts for children and do not necessarily create strong ties or meaningful gains in social capital (Small, 2017).
Parents and carers can be facilitated to guide children through a transition, with ‘cultural mediation tools’ such as play and routines enabling them to adapt successfully to their new ‘pupil identity’ (Lam and Pollard, 2006, pp. 131–132). Nonetheless, inequalities in economic or ethnic background may hinder cooperation between home and educational settings (Englund, 2010; Osgood, 2012). This requires educators to further acknowledge the various barriers that may affect some caregivers, and to appreciate the added benefits for particular families of having a positive sense of connection with their children’s care and educational institutions (Vogler et al., 2008).
“The ways that ECEC professionals co-operate with parents, to effectively support children’s successful transition to ECEC, is worth deeper consideration.
In this context, there seems to be real potential for a shift in emphasis during a child’s early days in the ECEC setting, from the traditional settling-in process towards an alternative vision of building trust between parents, children, and professionals, by having fun and engaging in activities together. This repositions parents and carers as important actors in the introduction process, acknowledging their joint role in caring for the child (Markström & Simonsson, 2017) and framing an expectation that they will be actively involved in the setting from the beginning.
However, even if this fresh approach to collaborating actively with parents is embraced by an already exhausted ECEC workforce, there remains a reluctance to take a step further, to recognise the added value of promoting parents’ own well-being and skill development through the ECEC setting. The benefits of this type of engagement are supported by research that finds the interests of young children and parents to be both compatible and synergistic (Brooks-Gunn et al, 2000).
One innovative model, which draws on a sociocultural perspective and embodies principles of parental empowerment, has been developed by a family resource centre based in the North East Inner City of Dublin, in response to a need to support young children in this highly diverse community to make a more positive transition to preschool.
The Preparation for Preschool (PfP) programme in Hill Street Family Resource Centre was originally designed to engage with children, while their parents and carers left the premises, but has since evolved to include parents by enabling them to have a deeper understanding of their child’s early transitions and make better connections within their community.
“Adults separate from children by gradually withdrawing from their play session, to attend a parents’ group run by an experienced community development worker.
Adults separate from children by gradually withdrawing from their play session, to attend a parents’ group run by an experienced community development worker. The play session is facilitated by skilled ECEC professionals, whose interactions and activities focus on children’s socio-emotional skills and language development. Communication between parents and professionals is ongoing, during and after the group. There is explicit emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, and one member of the team can converse with a number of families through their home language.
Parents and carers who recently contributed to research on the PfP programme, which was conducted through the Early Childhood Research Centre (ECRC) in DCU, identify a wide range of benefits, including their children becoming more capable and independent. Local ECEC professionals report directly observing the children who attend their settings transitioning more successfully to preschool, while their parents and carers seem able to connect more confidently with staff than other parents are.
This home-grown innovation offers a compelling demonstration of the potential for ‘competent systems’ (Urban et al., 2012), to support parents and carers from diverse backgrounds, to build their own capacity, becoming more invested in the structures and processes that underpin their children’s experiences of early education and care, creating tangible, lasting connections that benefit families and the wider community.
Brooks-Gunn, J., Duncan, G., and Fuligni, A.S. (2000) ‘Early childhood intervention programs: What about the family?’ In: J. Shonkoff and S. Meisels (eds.), Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention, pp. 549–588. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE) (2006) Síolta Research Digest, Standard 13: Transitions. Dublin: CECDE.
Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2015) High-Level Policy Statement on Supporting Parents and Families. Dublin: Government Publications.
Emerson, L., Fear. J., Fox, S., and Sanders, E. (2012) Parental engagement in learning and schooling: Lessons from research. A report by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau: Canberra.
Englund, T. (2010) ‘Questioning the parental right to educational authority: Arguments for a pluralist public education system’, Education Inquiry, 1(3), 235–258.
Goodall, J. (2017), ‘Learning-centred parental engagement: Freire reimagined’, Educational Review, 70(5), 603–621.
Government of Ireland (2018) First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children, and their Families. Dublin: Stationery Office.
Griebel, W. and Niesel, R. (2006) ‘Co-constructing transition into kindergarten and school by children, parents, and teacher’. In: H. Fabian and A-W. Dunlop (eds.), Transitions in the Early Years: Debating Continuity and Progressing for Young Children in Early Education, pp. 64–75. London and New York: Routledge.
Lam, M.S. and Pollard, A. (2006) ‘A conceptual framework for understanding children as agents in the transition from home to kindergarten’, Early Years, 26(2), 123–141.
Markström, A. and Simonsson, M. (2017) ‘Introduction to preschool: Strategies for managing the gap between home and preschool’, Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 3(2), 179–188.
Muller, D. (2009) Parental Engagement: Social and Economic Effects. Australian Parents Council.
O’Kane, M. (2016) Transition from Preschool to Primary School. National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) Research Report No. 19. Dublin: NCCA.
Osgood J. (2012) Narratives from the Nursery: Negotiating Professional Identities in Early Childhood. London: Routledge.
Sabol, T.J., Eckrich Sommer, T., Sanchez, A., and Kinghorn Busby, A. (2018) ‘A new approach to defining and measuring family engagement in early childhood education programs’, AERA Open, 4(3), 1–12.
Small, M.L. (2017) Someone To Talk To. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (2005) General Comment No. 7: Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood. 20 September 2006, CRC/C/GC/7/Rev.1.
Urban, M., Vandenbroeck, M., Van Laere, K., Lazzari, A., and Peeters, J. (2012) ‘Towards competent systems in early childhood education and care: Implications for policy and practice’, European Journal of Education, 47(4).
Vogler, P., Crivello, G., and Woodhead, M. (2008) Early childhood transitions research: A review of concepts, theory, and practice. Working paper no. 48. The Hague, The Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation.
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