‘Big school is different’: Getting started – the first five weeks of school.

Establishing the routines in that first five weeks of school is critical and settling into school may be a different challenge in 2021 as some of the usual opportunities to orientate children to spaces and expectations were not possible. What follows are just a few things that you may like to consider if you are teaching students who are new school starters in 2021.

The transition from preschool to school is recognised as an important step for children and families and a time when children can be quite vulnerable. The process begins well before a child starts school and continues until “children and families feel a sense of belonging at school and when educators recognise this sense of belonging” (p.1). the time is takes to develop this sense of belonging will vary and will be “characterised by: opportunities; expectations; aspirations; and entitlements” (ETC Research Group, 2011, p. 1).

Educational Transitions and Change Research Group. (2011). Transition to school: Position statement. Albury-Wodonga: Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education, Charles Sturt University. Co-author of this statement. https://arts-ed.csu.edu.au/education/transitions/publications/Position-Statement.pdf

All children need to be supported in such a way that their journey through the school gate is a safe one and a good place to start is by recognising what children know and can do when they arrive – rather than what they do not know and cannot do.

Opportunities are afforded to children when their home context and history is respected, they feel safe and secure and are recognised as competent and capable members of the school. (ETC Research Group, 2011).

Children with older siblings may be well informed about school, while children who are the first in family or from a family that is new to the state or to the country, may not know what to expect.

Families aspire to “positive educational outcomes for their children, as well as continuity between” preschools and schools. The school environment and expectations of children may also be quite different to home and preschool. We need to be very conscious of the language we use and take for granted. Even terms like ‘Recess’ may be new – ‘Morning Tea’ or ‘Fruit Break’ may be more familiar.

Play at school

Set up opportunities for children to play in the classroom – as a bridge between preschool and school but also for its own sake.

‘Synonymous with childhood, play cannot be described simply as a list of activities or actions, but rather in a multitude of ways, from fun and trivial to complex and involving peer tensions’ (Grieshaber and McArdle 2010).

Grieshaber, S., and F. McArdle. 2010. Trouble with Play. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Professional.

Learning to write

The intersection of starting school and learning to write creates complex conditions for many children. Most experience this unique transition across a period of two or three years. For some, the transition from drawing to writing may begin during the final year of preschool, while for others it may not happen until they have started school. Whatever the timing, the transitions will be unique to each child. Most children starting school will know how to draw – although some may have had limited opportunities to draw prior to starting school.

In recent times I have seen children start school who still do not know which hand they should hold a pencil in. These children will need help with drawing and basic control of pencils and other writing tools before they will be ready to start to write. You may need to sit and draw with these children as well as demonstrating to the whole class how you draw and talk about your drawings. Some children will need to be taught how to draw.

Draw, Talk, Write and Share (DTWS) provides a perfect opportunity to discover how children engage with drawing and writing tools – you can check their fine motor skills and pencil grasp at the same time – you will quickly work out which ones are going to need extra opportunities to draw and who may need you to draw with them for a while. You will also find out who has started to experiment with sign use.

My favourite open ended drawing task at the start of the year is ‘Who lives at your house?‘ While people are obvious, I also allow animals. I avoid asking for families. It helps if you also draw a picture of who lives in your own house – even if it is just you. You will be able to gauge children’s drawing skills very quickly – Ask them if they would like to add names of people or have you write these names for them.

Talking with children as they draw will help you understand their control over language. Talking about drawings seems to be a safe way of getting children to open-up to you. Encouraging them to talk with each other as they draw also provides fantastic oral language opportunities – as they talk together and learn from each other.

Drawing and Talking is a safe place to start. If we encourage and value drawing and talking . . . . . . we can build a bridge between children’s prior-to-school experiences, current systems of meaning making and the new system of writing (Mackenzie, 2011). Building on what they know and can do. Drawing also helps children to build dispositions that support writing.

Establish Read Aloud routines: Students fortunate enough to be in a classroom with a teacher who reads quality books out loud daily, will have their literacy learning supported in many ways  – including – phonemic awareness, and the development of an ear for the patterns and rhythms of written language. As soon as children start school, the teacher should establish the routines for Read Aloud.  In the first year of school I recommend 5 opportunities each day: 2 favourite books, 1 new book, a poem and a short non-fiction piece.

Fine motor skills can be developed through a range of tasks that can also strengthen the hands and arms.

Teaching the routines for Interactive Writing (See previous posts about Interactive Writing). The text in the picture below was made up to show how simple this can be. One simple sentence a day – 5 across the week.

Making the most of children’s interest in their names

There are lots of ways to use children’s names, and the letters that make up their names, to teach children about letters and words. I like to have the letters for each child’s names ready for them on day 1 – in a little container (margarine containers are fine). These letters can be used for many activites – making names, counting letters, sorting, finding the same letters in different children’s names etc etc.

A sign in sheet is also a positive way to start. Explain to children how important people going to important meetings have to ‘sign in’ and now they have started school they also need to ‘sign in’. If you do this every day you are giving children reasons to write their names. Use chart or butchers’ paper. You can help those who need help to write their names. Try drawing a name out of the hat each day – and that child takes the sign-in sheet home. (Below is a mock-up of a sign in sheet)

Other ways to use children’s names:

Surveys: There are all sorts of surveys you can do with young children. This can be a source for talking but also for mathematics (counting and graphing) as well as providing reasons for children to write their names.

How many letters in your name?

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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