“I Don’t Want to go to School”

Making transitions easier: Leatitia Brummer

Despite the teacher’s attempts to console her, Robyn has been crying bitterly since her mother left her at school. The rest of the Grade 1 class does not quite understand her behaviour. Some are laughing and one child is chanting “cry baby”. This makes Robyn cry even louder.

The teacher explains to us that Robyn has been crying since the beginning of the year. Even after the crying has stopped she keeps asking when her mother will fetch her. According to the teacher some children are so anxious that it is extremely difficult to get them interested in the activities at school. This prevents them from learning and also distracts the attention of the rest of the class.

The principal of Northlake Preparatory School says: “Many children struggle with transitions. They feel unsafe if they have to adapt to new environments, new routines and especially new adults that are responsible for their care and learning. In some children this causes severe anxiety. We often feel the parents are to blame because they themselves are anxious and the child picks up on that.”

Mrs Cloete, mother of a Grade 5 learner, adds her view. Her second son, Denzel, was born anxious and tended to be fearful of any new situation. He really struggled to adjust to school whilst his siblings were completely different and thought school was fun. She feels some children need serious support with any transition – from both parent and school. Some teachers have little understanding of the anxiety children can feel in a new environment. Their only way out can be to start crying and to withdraw as far as possible. It really does not help them if they are told to “behave like a big boy”, or to “stop acting like a baby”. It also does not help to blame the parents.

Transition to school is seen as extremely important and described as ”setting the tone for a child’s school career”, “a turning point in a child’s life”. Bailey (1999, p. xv) says “it is essential that the transition to school occur in such a way that children and families have a positive view of the school and that children have a feeling of competence as learners”.

There are a number of factors that can make this a challenging process! For many parents their child’s entry into school is a major event. Pride and hope mixed with anxiety about the child’s “readiness” for school, concerns about his emotional and physical safety and often their own unprocessed feelings about their own school failure. The child usually picks up if the parent is worried and that adds to his own concerns of having to say good-bye to the familiar pre-school and to go into an unknown new world. The ECD teacher usually knows the child well and is aware of his strengths and challenges. She might be anxious that she will be blamed for a child’s poor performance. The school teacher is anxious, as well as excited about the new bunch of children. She knows that she has a serious responsibility to support these children to achieve success in their school career and that she might be blamed if some children are not achieving or happy at school.

So what can we do to help make these transitions to big school less stressful and problematic– especially for children who are prone to anxiety? Research shows that this is possible if all the role players can work together to create positive relationships between the children, parents and educators of both settings. It has to become a community event rather than the private agony of some.

Pre-schools can kickstart the process because they know the parents and the children. ECD practitioners must be careful to give positive messages about big school. Compare the following: “Johnny, you will have to learn to listen to me. Big school teachers get very cross if children don’t listen!!!!!!” or: “Johnny, I know the big school teacher will be very pleased with you if you write so neatly!!”

Role-plays, concerts and stories about the school can help further to make the young ones feel positive about the change and to see the fun part of the new school. It is also important to emphasise the importance of a positive approach to the parents by often sending positive messages about their child to the parents, e.g. recognising Johnny’s good sense of humour, eagerness to answer questions, efforts to improve “writing”. Parents have a big need to feel confident about their child’s ability “make it” in Grade 1. If pre-school teachers are aware of parents that are anxious it is important to make time for them to share their concerns and to plan the transition with them. In some cases outside help might be necessary. The most important factor will be if parents and teachers can listen to the child’s own concern and can work together to create a genuine feeling of competence in the child.

Interaction between the primary school and the feeder pre-school is crucial. There are many ways to achieve this, for example: invite the Grade 1 teacher to come and tell stories at the pre-school or ECD centre, show them books and tell them how they are going to learn to read and to write their own books; make time to discuss the children and to learn about their particular strengths, interests and challenges; share special strategies that were successful in managing behaviour or emotional challenges; pre-schools can use a “transition form” to alert the Grade 1 teacher to special circumstances of the children. These discussions and forms could be very helpful to create better understanding of the new learners – although care should be taken to avoid labelling children as “difficult”.

Some primary schools invite pre-schoolers to come to school functions, e.g. sport events or concerts, and to spend some time in the classroom. Parents from the current Grade 1 class and the future Grade 1 class can be invited to a function at the school to meet each other, learn more about the school and to promote more of a feeling of belonging. These can all form part of a well-planned transition programme which might be time-consuming, but lead to happy, settled children better equipped to start their formal learning journey.

We would love to hear of other suggestions and success stories!

This Article is from our June Newsletter 2013