How well do we prepare young children for the move to primary school?

A mother talks about her personal experience

My daughter ‘E’ started primary school this September. Like most parents I was excited but also apprehensive about this impending change. The transition activities on the part of her private nursery and her primary school were limited and amounted to one visit to the school and a few chats with staff at the nursery about how school would be different. There was a summer activity – ‘make a memory box’ - which my daughter loved doing, but this was only briefly shared at the start of the school year. 

So far, we have had two one to one meetings with E’s teacher, who seems kind and competent, amounting to a total of 30 minutes of contact over a seven month period.  The lack of contact and feedback is a shock to the system. At the nursery I spoke to staff every day about our daughter’s progress and had a good sense of how her peer relationships were developing, how she was progressing with her learning, and what she was enjoying. Information about school is much harder to come by and most of it comes from my daughter or other parents, if they have been lucky enough to get some detail from their child. 

On the surface of things my daughter has made an easy transition to primary school.  She has never cried at the gates nor begged not to go to school or had a massive tantrum as I have tried to get her out the door (experiences that many of my fellow parents have shared and seem common place). She is making good progress with her reading and writing and maths and has made lots of new friends. So why am I uneasy and dissatisfied with her transition to primary school? 

The main reason is that I can see just how difficult E has found the whole experience. At home we have been experiencing an emotional rollercoaster. E is tired and grumpy and prone to regular emotional outbursts. Previously never one to have a tantrum, she now has them regularly, although this is slowly improving. 

Speaking to other parents I hear the same story repeated over and over again: tears, tantrums and exhaustion. And to be honest, it is no wonder. E’s primary school is a big urban school and, like many in the city, it is bursting at the seams with larger and larger intakes every year. There is a big emphasis on rules and, out of necessity, lots of queuing for things. My daughter has been begging to get packed lunch just to avoid the stress of lunch time queuing. The playground has some adult supervision but with so many children there is very little adult involvement or oversight. It is hard to know much about what is going on in her class, although we do get information sheets and workbooks providing an overview of the curriculum. 

What is clear is that she is working really hard. Only seven months ago she spent her days playing with her friends in the large nursery garden and occasionally singing songs about letters or counting twigs, now she is expected to spend much of her day being focused, doing work and following rules. At nursery there were lots of cuddles and play and she called all her ‘teachers’ by their first names.  Her contact with staff in the school is now very formal and she must refer to all teachers as Mr or Mrs.

Over the last few months my daughter has talked a lot about how much she misses being little and sometimes says she wishes she could go back. I don’t blame her. As a parent I am sad that this has been such an emotional and, at times, traumatic time for my little girl.

I keep wondering how it might be different. Surely we could make this transition gentler for our children? And speaking to other parents they seem to agree.