Is it possible to project what impact a child’s experience of early childhood education (ECE) and their transitions from home to ECE and ECE to school will have on their success in later life?

Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop

This is what Aline-Wendy Dunlop has set out to find out as part of her longitudinal study in which she has been studying a group of 150 kids for 14 years. On her visit to New Zealand, the Emeritus Professor from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow was hosted by the Early Years Research Centre Conference  at the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research (WMIER), University of Waikato, where she shared her findings with delegates.

Tracking children’s progress over 14 years

Of the 150 children – now young adults – involved in the study, Dunlop has observed 22 of them intensively. She has followed their progress from early childhood to young adulthood, visiting their homes, sitting in their classrooms, talking to them, accompanying them to university and so on.

It is this intensive study which presents the most fascinating and complex findings, says Dunlop. To illustrate, she talks about two children among the 22.

One young boy, for example, had what Dunlop described as a “lovely sunny personality”. He was probably a contender for special education but went into mainstream schooling.

“I thought he might not attend mainstream secondary school. But in the event he went all the way through, he came out with an academic profile of a kind, and he went straight into a job that’s he still in. And he isn’t needing support in that job.”

By contrast, a second boy in the study was, by Dunlop’s estimation, “a total star academically” in the early years. But, as she put it, other things got in the way – fractured family relationships, a poor sense of self, the feeling that he couldn’t go to school, a lack of motivation.

Why did things go so right for the first boy and not the second?

“All those relational things were good for him,” says Dunlop of the first boy. “There was a good transition. He had people who cared about him. He had a family that absolutely adored him. And those things give people strength.”

Dunlop is looking forward to the next meeting with both boys – and the other 20 young people. They will then be 25-years-old.

Twenty-five is a significant age for her research.

Dunlop says the current thinking is that if we get the first transitions right, it sets children up for success in school – however, she says there was no research to clearly support this.

Her conclusion, based on her study, is that good transitions in and out of early childhood education can lead to good outcomes for a person, not necessarily by the end of school, but in their life course.

Dunlop says all the literature, including psychological and offending literature, shows that if things are going well for a person by the time they hit 25, then it is possible to attribute life success to a good early childhood experience.

She says research has shown that if people don’t have quality relationships and attachments in early childhood, there is a greater chance that they may not recover from bad school experiences, or from young offending, and they may not navigate relationships very well.

The Dunedin Study

Dunlop’s study brings to mind the internationally renowned Dunedin Study, which has followed the progress of 1,000 children born in Dunedin in 1972-73.

One of the study’s most profound findings so far, is that nearly 80 per cent of adult economic burden can be attributed to just 20 per cent of the study members, accounting for a high proportion of criminal convictions, welfare benefits, prescription fills and obesity – and this “high cost” group can be identified with high accuracy when they are still young children.

It was found that children who scored poorly on assessments of verbal comprehension, language development, motor skills, and social behaviour when they were three years old were more likely to be in that “high cost” group when they reached adulthood. Socioeconomic disadvantage, low childhood self-control and experience of child maltreatment were also indicators.

Importance of transitions

Dunlop has followed the Dunedin Study’s progress and findings with interest. Her longitudinal study explores some of the same measures, but also looks closely at how children’s experiences of the transitions between home and early childhood, early childhood and primary school, and primary school and secondary school affect their later life.

For instance, she thinks transitions could have played a part in the development of the second boy – the academic star who had begun to flail. She is very keen to observe how he has progressed.

“I think he will have changed at 25 – I hope – and if he hasn’t, I will take it right back to the early relationships.”

“That particular boy truanted in primary school, but he reinvented himself as he went into secondary. That may have helped. It was a space to reconsider and a space for people to communicate across different parts of our system.”

Dunlop says the idea of spaces and opportunities is really important when considering the impact of transitions on children’s lives.

Transitions are one of Dunlop’s area of expertise.

“Transition is different for every child, and it isn’t a single happening. I see transition as a process.

“I think if we grab those two things and say it’s going to be different for different people, then what are the key things we should attend to for everybody that have a chance of working for most people? I think that’s a good starting point.

“What teachers come up with is if a child is going from home into ECE or ECE to school, the environment is going to be different. The people are going to treat you a little differently because they have different expectations. You might not know many people. There might be new things – how you’re expected to behave, what you’re allowed to do and not to do.”

“So for a receiving school, let’s get children more familiar; let’s invite them in, let’s give them somebody who they’ve met, whose name they can remember. Let’s help them make connections between what they’ve learned in one setting and what we want them to learn in the next one.”

Dunlop says it’s important that communication between ECE and schools is reciprocal, and that school leadership is on board with what is happening to support teachers in making these good transitions possible.

International research confirms this. The international Pedagogies of Educational Transitions (POET) project, which includes the University of Waikato, shows that despite the differences among educational systems, the importance of communication and addressing inequities are two common aspects.

Systems can get in the way

This also echoes what New Zealand research has to say on transitions. A 2010 literature review by Sally Peters and commissioned by the Ministry of Education found that successful transitions depend on responsive, reciprocal relationships by all parties and a school environment that fosters wellbeing, belonging and positive engagement with learning. Successful transitions also depend on teachers holding positive expectations for success and connecting with children’s identify and fund of knowledge from early childhood education and home.

Margaret Dobbin’s 2013 sabbatical report on transitions, published on Educational Leaders, expressed some concerns that transition programmes stopped abruptly once children turned five and the school system took over with little reference to children’s early experiences. As part of her research, Dobbin investigated ways that the strands of Te Whāriki could be better linked with the key competencies of the primary school curriculum.

Dunlop shares these concerns about the systems that children have to navigate as they transition from one stage to the next.

“Why on earth in the 21st century do we still have these systems that make these huge rifts for children?” she asks incredulously. She is also scathing about the number of times the early childhood curriculum has been changed in Scotland, and praises Te Whāriki’s longevity by contrast. But it’s not just early childhood transitions where systems trip people up.

“I think we marginalise students coming into university,” says Dunlop. “We make these high demands on their qualifications for entry and then we treat these able kids like they’ve never done anything before. There is that risk that we don’t acknowledge what people bring with them.”

For the early years, she says children bring their past experiences with them and she notes that Māori in particular bring their culture and their ancestry.

“If you do look at a very mixed culture whether it’s in terms of learning abilities and needs, or whether it’s inherited culture, you’re going to have people who need a lot more support than others. In the autism spectrum I often say, get it right for these kids coming in to mainstream and then we actually get it right for everybody.

“Because what we’re doing is we’re giving clear signals about how the place works, who the people are, how we’re going to communicate, how we will recognise you and learn from you about your needs and capacities are.”

Are we getting transitions right in New Zealand?

Here in New Zealand, it appears we’re generally getting it right when it comes to giving kids a good transition from early childhood to school. The University of Auckland’s Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study found that children are generally ready when they transition to school and settle relatively quickly. Virtually all (98 per cent) children had attended some form of early childhood education in the six months prior to starting school and had visited their new school before attending.

Around 90 per cent of parents reported being satisfied with the effect their child’s school was having on their educational, social, emotional and physical needs. The most common difficulties from the children’s perspective included adapting to a new routine, being separated from family and getting used to new rules.

The Growing Up study also found that around 10 per cent of the children moved schools at least once during their first year of primary school. Moving schools was more common for children who identified as Māori, Pacific or Asian, and for children living in homes in high deprivation areas. Existing research shows that moving schools more than twice a year may have a negative impact on children’s learning and behaviour.

It will be interesting to see how Dunlop’s research contributes to this growing body of evidence on how children’s experience of transitions and early childhood education affects their later life, and how it will help shape the practice of educators all over the world, including here in Aotearoa.

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