School Readiness – A Definition and How Early Years Key Workers Can Help

February 6, 2019 12:00 am
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‘School readiness’ is a term often used to describe how ready children are socially, physically, and intellectually, to start formal schooling.

However, there are many terms and arguments about what being school ready really means for a child.

We have researched these arguments and put together a short article in an attempt to link all of the arguments and provide easy-to-understand and concise information about what school readiness really is.

In this article we are going to talk about:

  1. The definition of school readiness and how early years practitioners can help
  2. Different family circumstances and how practitioners can help

    What does school readiness mean?

There are many ways to define school readiness which can lead to some confusion. Is it more important for a child about to start school to hold a pencil and write their name, or are speaking and listening skills at the top of the list?

The definition of children’s readiness for school has undergone major shifts during the past four decades. It has changed from a primarily maturational definition to a more socially constructed concept. However, some systems still use a narrow ‘pre-primary’ educational approach that stresses literacy and numeracy skills that would align with a primary school curriculum.

The revised EYFS framework says school readiness ‘gives children a broad range of knowledge and skills that provide the right foundation for good future progress through school and life’.

In other words, school readiness is a product of the interaction between the child and the range of environmental and cultural experiences that maximise the development outcomes for children.

UNICEF’s description of school readiness states that three elements together increase children’s likelihood of success. We will use these elements to structure this article. These elements are:

  • Children’s readiness for school affects their learning and development. This is related to communication skills, and personal, social, emotional and physical development.
  • Early years settings and schools’ readiness for children ensures learning environments are child-friendly and adapt to the diverse needs of young learners and their families. This is related to how early years professionals create learning environments that support children’s further development when they enter school.
  • Families’ readiness for school promotes a positive and supportive approach to education, their children’s learning and the transition from home to school.

It is believed that these three aspects will maximise each child’s likelihood of success as they progress through their time in school.

Research carried out by Ofsted (April 2014) supports UNICEF’s definition.

All of these elements above are important and must work together as school readiness requires an interface between individuals such as early years practitioners, families and the system.

Here we’ll look at each of these elements, in turn, to see how they can be used in a practical setting to help children get ready for school.

Children’s Readiness

There are many ways in which children can be ready for school. Some of these are:

Communication skills

Children with limited speaking skills often struggle when they get to school and this can have a lasting effect throughout their education.

The ‘Are You Ready?’ report notes that the settings that were most effective at addressing this issue regularly tracked a child’s progress and used the information to assess any barriers to learning by working with children to help develop their skills.

A greater impact was seen in settings where every member of staff understood the importance of allowing children to speak in sentences and initiate questions. They also noted that imaginative role-playing scenarios involving key workers were another successful method of helping children develop their communication skills.

Personal, social and emotional development

Being ready to play, cooperate and share in groups is an important aspect of a child’s development, as these skills further facilitate the development of language and communication.

Settings that are effective at developing these skills ensure that there are areas and times where group interaction is a key part of the activity. Children are then monitored, and those who seem to struggle with this type of activity can be identified and encouraged, perhaps in smaller groups, to build their confidence with communication and cooperation.

Physical Development

Starting school is both an exciting and stressful time for children and their parents or carers. The ability to care for themselves, for example when going to the toilet or using tableware, can contribute greatly to a child’s self-confidence and their ability to settle into the new setting.

Motor skills (both fine and gross) such as hand-to-eye coordination will also be key to their ability to write, draw and continue their development throughout their first years at school.

Early years settings can help children develop these motor skills by providing both indoor and outdoor play environments. Progress can also be achieved when key workers make assessments of a child’s progress and share this information with parents or carers on a regular basis. The key to developing these self-care skills is encouragement, praise, support and positive reinforcement – both in the early years setting and at home.

Additionally, having a curiosity about the world and the desire to learn helps children to move forward in their own learning and become more independent learners.

Early years settings and school readiness

There are many ways in which early years settings and practitioners can support children in becoming school ready, some of these are:

  • Have a rich and sensitive understanding of each child’s individual background and respect the value of each unique home learning environment. In turn, develop meaningful and respectful relationships with parents/carers and families to foster their engagement and full involvement in their child’s learning.
  • Implement a sturdy ‘key person’ approach in which adults are sensitive to and fully inclusive of all children’s needs, making sure the needs of all children are met.
  • Offer a stimulating environment and plan purposeful activities that engage and interest all the children, taking into account individual interests and needs. This may include circle time, show and tell or story time. These, in turn, develop children’s social, language and communication skills.
  • Offer a good balance between child-initiated learning and play and adult-led or directed.
  • Provide opportunities to extend children’s speaking skills, ensuring the needs of children who communicate in alternative ways are met.
  • Provide active opportunities to teach ‘appropriate’ behaviours (rather than policing) through creative and motivated teaching such as behaviour and reward charts of what behaviour you’d like to see rather than strictly punishing ‘bad’ behaviour.
  • Ensure there are plentiful opportunities for children to exercise independence and resilience rather than ‘doing things’ for children for example get them to wipe their own bottoms providing posters with ‘how to steps’ in the toilets to assist them.
  • Share with parents, so they are aware of other school readiness characteristics and not just EYFS outcomes and expected levels of development. Also, share with parents a child’s progress to make sure they understand what stage their child is at and where they need to be so they can be involved in the school readiness process.
  • Make sure all staff are well trained in school readiness and fully aware of the support that each individual child requires. Using reminders for what stage of development children should be at such as posters for members of staff will make sure they are keeping on track as education facilitators.

Nursery Resources’ ‘The road to school readiness’ Poster is designed to help parents and staff. Highlighting the fact that children learn at different rates, it contains 12 suggestive steps such as eating, self-care, getting dressed and undressed on their own, independence, routines, going to the toilet, counting, interest in the world and new activities, sharing and turn-taking, speaking and literacy, listening and understanding, and writing skills.

Transition Document 

In order for children to feel comfortable and confident in their new setting, it is important they are given activities suited to their needs and abilities.

Using a transition document ensures each stage of a child’s progress is recorded and the next setting that child is going to enter will have a full understanding of where that child is at with their development allowing them to provide the most relevant resources to progress.

Additionally, for those working with children about to move into a new school setting, completing a record showing their child’s progress in these different areas helps in two key ways:

  • The document will pull together information from the EYFS professional, the parents or carers and the child to form a more complete picture which can then be taken into the new school to inform those who will be responsible for the child.
  • If this is initiated at the earliest possible opportunity, it can be used to identify any gaps which the pre-school setting can then work to help advance before the child starts school.

It is recommended that a baseline record should be completed for each child during the spring, which is then shared with the parents so they are encouraged to contribute and help their child develop new skills.

Nursery Resources provides a Getting To Know Me booklet that can help with this process. The booklet contains areas for both the child and parent to contribute, as well as a section for key workers to record important information, giving them a simple, standardised way of recording a child’s progress towards being school ready.

As well as the Getting To Know Me booklet, Nursery Resources also provide ‘Wow Moment’ sticky notes. These can be used when a child has done something amazing that day or reached a milestone. These notes are a way of recording a child’s progress informally and can be added to ‘Wow Moment’ walls in a setting or learning journey. They can also be added to communication diaries which go back to the parents, involving parents in their child’s progress.

Some of the characteristics for school readiness may be difficult for all children to achieve and this shouldn’t leave parents or practitioners concerned that a child isn’t school ready. The important thing is practitioners are aware of these characteristics and can put steps in place to ensure a child is developing the skills.

Getting support and identifying any areas of weakness early is critical in ensuring the gaps are narrowed, and all children are given the opportunity to reach their full potential. Using documents such as progress summaries and tracking sheets will help identify any areas of weakness, as well as carrying out regular observations.

Families’ readiness

The involvement of parents and carers is key to ensuring families are ready to support a child before and as they enter school.

Ofsted’s ‘Are You Ready?’ report highlighted that the settings that most successfully encouraged school readiness were those that involved parents in the process.

Creating and maintaining an effective relationship with parents during this time of transition makes sure the parent or carer understands the process, has an understanding of their child’s development, and has the information they need to work with their child at home to prepare for starting school.

Working with parents as partners also ensures that these expectations can be managed in a consistent way across both home and the pre-school setting, which will help build a child’s confidence and get them school ready. Nursery Resources Parent’s Guide to School Readiness is a handy little booklet that can be given to parents to make sure they understand what it means for their child to be school ready and what they can do to support their child in this process.

Families’ ability to be ready to support their children to be school ready can be affected by many factors such as socioeconomic divide and poverty. This must be recognised by practitioners when they are supporting families.

Nursery Resources have a fun resource called the ‘Big School Stepping Stones Booklet’. This resource is the perfect tool to help children with their transition to primary school. The booklet is designed for parent involvement and allows parents to support their children through the stages of the booklet right the way through to school readiness.

Different family circumstances

Practitioners need to be aware of different families’ backgrounds, religions and circumstances to fully support them in ensuring their children are ready for school.

Poverty’s effect on a young child’s development is most substantial during the earliest years and when poor conditions persist.  Currently, more than half of children in some areas of the UK are estimated to be growing up in poverty.

Some evaluations suggest that at school entry, children from disadvantaged backgrounds could already be years behind their more economically advantaged peers. This is because, in socioeconomically deprived households, parents are likely to be dealing with a range of insoluble problems relating to food poverty and insecure housing. Such ongoing difficulties can lead to adults in poor households being more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, which, in turn, leads to less linguistic interaction with their young children.

Given the strong influence of the home on young children’s learning and development, a breakdown in the abilities of low-income families to modify the effects of poverty may inhibit school readiness. Children may not receive the stimulation they need or learn the social skills that prepare them for school (Hart and Risely 1995; UNICEF 2009a). Problems may appear when consistent daily routines, supervision and care for siblings are absent (Hyman 2006; McLoyd 1998). The parents of these children may also lack support from educational settings.

The stress on children and families living in poverty can be added to by the pressure to meet certain educational targets. This is where practitioners would step in and support the family in trying to meet these targets in a way that works with their circumstances using the steps mentioned earlier in this article.

‘School Readiness’ In Summary:

To be effective in preparing a child to start school, early years settings and professionals need to work with parents to ensure progress is made towards a number of key skills. The easiest way to do this is to assess where each child is in relation to these skills, and identify their individual needs and where they might need a little extra support.

Additional Resources

Am I Ready for School? – Free download

Big School Stepping Stones Pack

Toilet Training Record Book

Big School Skills Book

Toilet Training Stickers

Additional Links

UNCIEF – School Readiness, A conceptual framework

Kent County Council – School Readiness

Tes – What do we mean by ‘school readiness’?

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