Junior infants and first years face a doubly daunting challenge

Those starting or moving school must cope with an even harder transition than usual

Schoolchildren in Dublin have benefited from Irish Youth Foundation-funded programmes to support pupils during school transitions

Schoolchildren in Dublin have benefited from Irish Youth Foundation-funded programmes to support pupils during school transitions

 

When the new academic year eventually gets under way in late August, it will be a major readjustment for hundreds of thousands of children who have spent six months out of the classroom.

But spare a thought for those facing into an even more daunting challenge : junior infants starting “big school” and first years making the jump to secondary school.

Even in normal times this is a testing transition. But this year, on top of missing large chunks of their education and losing out on the chance to prepare for moving to a new school, they are doing do in the midst of a pandemic with lots of unanswered questions.

Will social distancing make it harder to forge friendships? Will lots of school end up being taught remotely? Will students be in school on a full-time or part-time basis?

Preschool to primary

There has been much greater focus on the transition from preschool to junior infants over the past decade or more, says Deirbhile Nic Craith, director of education and research with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).

“Primary schools have been building relationships with local ‘feeder’ preschools,” she says. “They may, for instance, arrange for preschool children to see the classrooms they will be going into. There may also be events for parents to outline how the school operates and what policies are in place. These can’t happen at the moment because of Covid-19.”

Children who are due to start primary school in late August will have missed several months of preschool and creche, and will be used to being at home with their parents.

Might there be more tears at the school gates? And will social distancing be possible to enforce among younger children? Nic Craith says it will be a challenge.

“Teachers will be conscious that children won’t be as ready as they may have been without a pandemic,” she says. “We can’t yet know if we will have a full class cohort of 25-30 pupils; it seems hard to imagine. Safety and social distancing is a dimension, and we will need more cleaning.

“Social distancing might be a difficult concept for children, and yet there will be drills and routines to be learned – it just might take a while for children to get used to it.”

Milica Atanackovic, research and professional learning manager at Early Childhood Ireland, says adults know just how challenging transitions can be –

such as starting a new job. The same is true for children.

“There will need to be planning around all aspects of learning. But the emphasis needs to be on wellbeing and emotional support – play, and learning through play, can help support this,”she says.

Children’s charity Barnardo’s, which works with some of the most disadvantaged children in Ireland, suggests that schools record a short video of a walk-through of the school, which can be shared with families, and is asking for photos of the school so it can make a short introduction book for children.

Early Childhood Ireland and the National Parents Council have also developed a going-to-school leaflet with practical considerations and first-day tips to help manage the transition.

“Teachers could develop welcome packs or ‘All about me’ packs that could be posted or emailed to families,” suggests Atanackovic.

“The child could send it back to the teacher with their names, family, likes, dislikes and so on. Early-learning settings are using technology and alternative ways of keeping in contact with families, including weekly e-newsletters with ideas and tips for parents to carry out activities with their children at home.”

Primary to secondary

Graham Richmond is a teacher at East Glendalough Secondary School, Wicklow town, and the author of a free ebook produced by Folens about the transition from primary to secondary.

“Children are going from being the biggest fish in a small pond to the smallest fish in a big pond, at the same time as they undergo mental and hormonal changes – and in a pandemic,” he says.

Helping your child adjust can mean not passing on your own attitudes to education or particular subjects, such as Irish; helping them adjust to a new routine, and being open to talking informally – in the car or while they’re helping in the kitchen can be the best time to ask about school, Richmond advises.

Children living in poverty, children who experience abuse and children in homes where there is domestic abuse or addiction issues face a dire situation.

Students who struggled in primary school can easily fall between the cracks and be labelled a troublemaker, and many of them may be on reduced timetables

“We know that some children will have missed out more than others and that there have been different levels of support in the home for various reasons,” says Richmond. “There could be struggles with school refusal. Schools, including ours, will have to lower expectations in terms of what they expect from incoming first years. Social distancing will also be a challenge, although children are adaptable.”

Many children have had to take on responsibility for minding younger siblings or haven’t had access to devices or wifi, making it harder to engage some children in learning outside of school.

Every year more than 1,000 children do not transition from primary to secondary school, and there are fears this figure could grow.

“The playing field is becoming more uneven,” says Lucy Masterson, chief executive of the Irish Youth Foundation, an organisation that raises funds to provide grants to meet the needs of vulnerable children and young people.

“Pupils go from one teacher to seven or more, who need to cover a curriculum. Students who struggled in primary school can easily fall between the cracks and be labelled a troublemaker, and many of them may be on reduced timetables. I had so much support starting school, but imagine a child who hasn’t had her uniform bought, or the books, doesn’t know where the school might be.

“I’ve never come across any teenager who is self-motivated to go to school; for many children the dedicated youth workers and home-school liaison teachers carry them through, but without their support over the last few months to prepare them for the transition, the prospects are bleak.”

Masterson says youth workers predict a physical and mental health crisis affecting the poorest families between now and September. It is one reason why the foundation is launching a €500,000 fund to support youth work projects around Ireland.

“We need a radical overhaul of the status quo, and the role of after-school clubs, youth groups and youth mentoring services will be core in rebuilding the class of 2020,” she says.

“We also need a focus on critical transition years over the month of August, with summer-school programmes to get them up to speed; the infrastructure is there with youth work projects around the country.”

EIGHT WAYS TO HELP YOUR CHILD GET READY

1. Talk about changes with your child well in advance.

2. Give your child some leeway: quiet time during the first couple of weeks is important as they may find the adjustment tiring.

3. Encourage independence: if your child is going to have to take a bus or cycle on their own, try to have a few practice sessions.

4. Don’t leave things to the last minute: if your child has to wear a tie, make sure they know how to tie it!

5. Help your child get more responsible: at second level, especially, children will have to organise themselves far more.

6. Familiarity breeds confidence: check out the school website, arrange a chat with an older child already at the school if they don’t know any.

7. Get your child ready to make new friends: talk about making new friends and discuss how they did it when they last made new friends.

8. Talk about nerves: it’s normal to be apprehensive about a big change.