All children experience changes in the way they are expected to learn and behave when they start school. The changes in relationships, teaching style, environment, space, time, contexts for learning and learning itself place considerable demands on children and their families. Thorough transition planning, including communicating well with a child’s parents and whanau, helps ensure a smooth transition to school.

Much of the New Zealand and international research about transition to school focuses on what happens at school. This research highlights that while transitions can be exciting, they can also present challenges for children. Fabian and Dunlop 1 identified the transition to primary school as one of the most important and challenging times in a child’s life.

The way transitions are experienced not only makes a difference to the children in the early months of a new situation, but may have a much longer-term impact, because the extent to which they feel successful (emotional and well-being) in the first transition is likely to influence subsequent experiences.

Learning to deal with transitions is part of life. Children need support to learn how to manage change and to build resilience. Teachers can help children develop a positive attitude to change by encouraging their sense of self-worth, confidence as a learner, independence and optimism.

These findings are endorsed by Peters’ work, which shows that the transition from early childhood education to primary school is critical and, when managed well, can set students on a positive learning pathway. 2 The factors that lead to a successful transition are often linked and the absence of one or more factors can make transition difficult. Transitions can also be difficult when something about the school culture is at odds with the child’s experiences.

Peters states that relationships play a critical part in children developing a sense of belonging and wellbeing at school. Only then can they engage in learning and continue to grow as a learner. The development of strong relationships and a sense of belonging are even more important for children most at risk of poor educational outcomes.

Cultural responsiveness

New Zealand and Australian research has identified the need for smooth transitions, particularly for children from social and cultural minorities, gifted children, and children with disabilities. 3 Researchers argue that to help overcome any negative impacts of transition, there needs to be effective communication channels that allow for:

  • sharing of assessment information and discussions about children
  • continuation of, or preparation for, extra support
  • fostering of new and ongoing friendships
  • connections to children’s cultural identity such as resources, displays and experiences.

These processes and actions, they argue, maintain some sense of continuity between early childhood services and differing ethnic and cultural expectations of the more formal learning environment of school. 4, 5

Peter’s literature review of transitions from early childhood education to school identifies that for Maori and Pacific children, positive and responsive relationships between children, teachers and families, and culturally responsive teaching and assessment are important for ensuring success. 6 This literature review and other New Zealand research note that transition should involve ongoing communication between teachers at the service and school, as well as families. Maori and Pacific children may encounter differences in responsiveness to their language, culture and identity, as well as a different environment and people. This means they need to have opportunities to strengthen their sense of identity and belonging to support their successful transition. 78

Maori children

Tamarua looked specifically at the transition of Maori children to school. 9 She found that they were more engaged in classroom activities when a deliberate effort had been made to link unfamiliar learning to something familiar to them. This can only occur when teachers have a well developed awareness of the cultures of the children in their classrooms. She noted that tuakana teina 10 relationships were important for successful transitions. Tamarua also identified that formal testing of literacy in schools does not usually allow for the different social and cultural literacies Maori children may have developed in the home.

McFarlane noted that teachers need to build a strong foundation - built on children’s cultural strengths and experience - to support Maori children’s learning. 11 This foundation helps children acquire new skills and knowledge and helps teachers develop meaningful relationships with the children through appreciation of their culture. The use of te reo Maori in the classroom, honouring the language, is particularly important for children who move to school from kohanga reo.

Pacific children

McKenzie and Singleton found that Samoan children’s transitions can be supported by working in partnership with their local community. 12 Other key factors contributing to smooth transitions were the teachers knowing the children, knowing their culture and providing opportunities for the children’s language to be used at school. They made the point that ‘the culture of the child cannot enter the classroom unless it has first entered the consciousness of the teacher’.

Podmore et al also highlight the importance of relationships and a sense of belonging. For them, the emphasis was on the teacher from the school observing the child in a language immersion setting and supporting their competence and confidence to express themselves in Samoan, as well as in their identity as Samoan. 13

The same considerations would apply for other Pacific cultures, languages and identities. Teachers who used the child’s first language helped make transitions smoother and laid the foundation for future academic and linguistic success.

Language maintenance and bilingual enrichment programmes are most effective in fostering children’s long-term bilingual fluency and literacy in both their first and second languages. 14

Many schools, particularly in Auckland, are receiving increasing numbers of children and families for whom English is their second language. Many are from the Pacific.

Children with special education needs

For children with special education needs, early planning for their move to school and a longer transition period are particularly important. Ideally this planning involves teachers (early childhood and school), parents and whanau, and support providers.

A critical part of a smooth transition is ensuring that resources and support are in place for children with special education needs. Some Ministry of Education special education teams provide support services from zero to eight years. This provides continuity of support and benefits the teacher, class and parents.

The curriculum in early childhood

The Curriculum Standard 15 sets out curriculum expectations for early childhood services. It requires that they:

  • plan, implement and evaluate a curriculum that is designed to enhance children’s learning and development through the provision of learning experiences that are consistent with any curriculum framework, and that responds to the learning interests, strengths and capabilities of enrolled children
  • collaborate with parents and the family or whanau of the enrolled children.

The principles of Te Whāriki, New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, underpin practices that help children as they approach transition to school: holistic development, empowerment and relationships, and family and community. Te Whāriki also provides goals for each strand and learning outcomes that services can use to plan and evaluate their curriculum for children approaching transition to school. Te Whāriki includes guidance for services about “continuity between early childhood education and school” for each of the five strands of the curriculum. A summary of this information is included in the Figure 1. 16 Examples in the findings section of this report provide illustrations of how services support continuity of learning in relation to the five strands of Te Whāriki.


WellbeingMana Atua

independence, self-help skills, emotional competence, can keep themselves safe, can get help

Belonging Mana Whenua

sharing home life, knowledge of and care for their community, decision making and planning, social confidence, understanding rules and values such as honesty, courtesy, fairness

Contribution Mana Tangata

feeling welcomed and positive about themselves, welcoming of others, confident in their interests, strengths, knowledge and abilities, work cooperatively, understand others have a different point of view or feelings, express their needs and feelings

Communication Mana Reo

literacy skills (visual, oral and written), enjoy books, print concepts, familiarity with te reo Maori, practical mathematical concepts, fine and gross motor skills, enjoy expressing themselves creatively

Exploration Mana Aoturoa

have starting points for further learning, are adventurous and creative, make choices and decisions, non-locomotor and manipulative skills, use innovation, imagination and exploration, early mathematical concepts and skills, explore scientific and technological worlds, make sense of the living world, make sense of the physical world, appreciate their environment and how it changes

The Ministry of Education provides guidance for services when thinking about transition to school. It suggests that services use the principles of Te Whāriki to guide their decisions about supporting children and their families through transitions. The information focuses on collaborative relationships and sharing of responsibility, and suggests that early childhood and primary school teachers share common goals for children’s learning and work together to reduce discontinuities that children experience. Research suggests that early childhood teachers accompanying children on social orientation visit to schools is not sufficient on its own to develop these collaborative relationships. A planned approach to building relationships is needed where there are discussions about differences in practice. 17

The Ministry highlights the need for continuity between children’s experience of Te Whāriki and The New Zealand Curriculum they experience while at school.

“Continuity for children is embedded in relationships that recognise and value their identity as learners; people know who they are, what they bring, and how they go about things.” 18

Early childhood teachers can ensure this continuity by sharing information about children’s learning with the school by providing parents and whanau with useful information to share, becoming familiar with both curriculum documents, and making comparisons and links to better support children. Studies by Robinson et al 19 and Timperley et al 20 show that collaborative relationships between early childhood services and schools develop not only from goodwill but also from actions. Those active relationships must “involve mutual respect and a balance of power.” 21

New Zealand and international research shows that sharing and subsequent use of assessment information enhances the links between learning at an early education service and at a school, and helps children see themselves as competent and confident learners. Assessment information, such as that documented in portfolios, empowers children, enhances their identities as learners, is a resource to connect knowledge of home and service with new learning at school, and fosters a sense of belonging and engagement. 22


Assessment information with a strong dispositional focus contributes to a child’s identity as a competent learner. 23 Dispositions include characteristics such as:

  • persistence with difficulty
  • taking risks
  • being curious
  • taking responsibility
  • developing trust
  • playing fair
  • asking for help
  • sharing knowledge.

The emphasis in Te Whāriki on dispositions, such as the confidence to take risks and the ability to get along with others, potentially stands children in good stead as they transition to school. The collaborative relationships and practices teachers in both early childhood services and primary schools develop can give children the confidence and connectedness to bridge the differences between their service and school.

What do successful transitions to school look like?

Noel’s work notes a shift in emphasis in research literature over time from the child being ready for school to the need for the school to be ready for the child. Schools must have practices and policies that assist children and their families to comfortably move from preschool to primary school. She identified five key aspects for establishing and maintaining successful transitions:

  • Building relationships.
  • Planning and working with key players.
  • Responding to the needs of the community.
  • Linking children’s early learning and prior knowledge to school.
  • Evaluating and reviewing the programme. 24

The New Zealand Curriculum also highlights the importance of relationships and of knowing each child as an individual. 25

The transition from early childhood education to school is supported when the school:

  • fosters a child’s relationships with teachers and other children and affirms their identity
  • builds on the learning experiences that the child brings with them
  • considers the child’s whole experience of school
  • is welcoming of family and whanau.

In 2011, the Early Childhood Education Taskforce, in An Agenda for Amazing Children, stated that new entrant teachers in schools should appreciate the alignment between the The New Zealand Curriculum for schools and the early childhood curriculum, Te Whariki. 26

The Taskforce recommended:

the evaluation of the effectiveness of the schooling sector at recognising and building on the skills and knowledge of children moving from early childhood settings to the early years of school. 27