In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transitions in Early Childhood Education

  • Introduction
  • History of Transitions in Early Childhood Education Research
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Transitions: Research Approaches, Concepts, and Frameworks
  • Books
  • Reports
  • Literature Reviews
  • Journal Themed Issues, Chapters, and Book Series

Education Transitions in Early Childhood Education
Aline-Wendy Dunlop
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0204


Transitions are ubiquitous: they start as our lives begin and we all experience them as we travel the life-course. In the context of early childhood (UN Convention on the Rights of the Children, UNCRC: 0–8) the single transition that has attracted the most attention has been the transition to school. In today’s society children have often experienced many changes before reaching this moment of school start: in educational and academic circles these changes are often described as transitions and so it is essential that the term “transition” is defined. The child does not function in isolation from family or community and models held of children influence approaches to their early learning and childcare. It is therefore important to address the nature of transition and the ways in which transitions in life may affect transitions in early childhood education and vice-versa. A range of issues challenges definition of transition: it is suggested here that these issues have become more complex over the historical time in which transitions have been studied. It may be argued that there has been considerable consensus over the years about what may matter in early childhood educational transitions, but this is no longer without debate or challenge. The contested issues are frequently presented in a dichotomous way. Transitions may be single or multiple; continuous or discontinuous; suggest readiness or lack of it; highlight resilience or vulnerability; imply agency or lack of control; be visible or silenced; rest on a developmental or a sociocultural model; may infer that the child should be the site of change or conversely that the system should change to accommodate the child. Multiple perspectives are called for as the child in transition is variously understood in the context of family, relationships, identities, culture, services, and community. For a considerable time Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory was the most commonly invoked conceptual framework for the study of transitions in early education. Now other theoretical sources are being used: researchers draw on, for example, anthropology, educational theory, creativity, philosophy, and psychology and consequently new approaches and paradigms are developing. Transition in early childhood education has become a field of study in its own right. Findings of transition studies argue for acknowledgement of young children’s experience before, during, and after any time of transition and illustrate the many ways in which current systems shape children’s experiences. The understanding generated by research into early childhood educational transitions and the processes involved, must reach into policy and practices: a job done very well by many of the authors cited in this article

History of Transitions in Early Childhood Education Research

This section places research into transitions in early childhood education in context by introducing some of the earlier studies of school start. These studies focused more on continuity in early education: concluding that contextual constraints on children’s use of learning strategies made for discontinuities. As understanding grew of the limitations the move through different educational systems placed on the continuity of children’s learning, what was to become a field of research in its own right, research into early educational transitions, emerged. This emerging focus seemed promising in both pastoral and curricular terms. Three pieces of work—from England (Cleave 1982), Scotland (Watt and Flett 1985), and the United States (Ladd and Price 1987)—illustrate the early beginnings of a transitions focus and a range of linked factors. A number of innovative studies began to shape the field further in the 1990s including continuity to maximize the benefits of preschool (Love, et al. 1992), the importance of early learning, continuities, and discontinuities (Cullen 1992), and opportunities to develop positive learning trajectories and recognize what children bring to school in terms of their socio-emotional dispositions and their family experiences (Belsky and MacKinnon 1994). Belsky and MacKinnon 1994 found it surprising that beyond the work of Alexander and Entwisle 1998 (cited under Children as Learners: Engaging with Curriculum) and their colleagues and a very few others, transition to school was at the time under-researched. In Europe there was a growing interest in transitions issues, as evidenced by each of the following: the effectiveness of strategies smoothing the transitions to school (Kakvoulis 1994), the role of the teacher (McCail 1996, cited under Children as Learners: Engaging with Curriculum), assessment for continuity (Dunlop 1998, cited under Continuity and Discontinuity [Well-Being, Resilience, Relationships with Educators, Care-Givers, and Peers]), young children’s views (see Children’s Perspectives, Agency, Advocacy, and Voice), parental and child views (Hughes 2015, cited under General Overviews), and work on the connection between family transitions and school start (Fthenakis 1998, cited under Family Engagement (Parental and Family Transitions). Also see Alexander and Entwisle 1998, cited under Children as Learners: Engaging with Curriculum, and the section Diversity and Inclusion in Transitions to School). Nine articles published before 1996 are included here, the others are referenced in subsequent sections, but mentioned here to give a taste of the range of early work in transitions and showing the continuing relevance of the multidimensional nature of early childhood transitions.

  • Belsky, Jay, and Carol MacKinnon. 1994. Transition to school: Developmental trajectories and school experiences. Early Education and Development 5.2: 106–119.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15566935eed0502_3

    This article highlights the premium placed on developmental transitions and calls for a move away from a narrow school-readiness orientation to a recognition of the changes in role, expectations, relationships, and physical environments that occur in the transition to early schooling, a topic that was relatively under-researched at the time.

  • Cleave, Shirley. 1982. Continuity from pre‐school to infant school. Educational Research 24.3: 163–173.

    DOI: 10.1080/0013188820240301

    Summarizing a major National Foundation for Educational Research project on continuity of children’s experience, ages three to eight, this article emphasizes the significance of early relationships and identifies the interruptions likely to occur for children as they move from stage to stage: critical features of continuity included admission and entry processes; arrival and familiarity; visits before starting; building relationships; adjusting to novel experiences; work tasks and activities; and changing routines.

  • Cullen, Joy. 1992. Young children’s learning strategies: continuities and discontinuities. International Journal of Early Childhood 23.1: 44–58.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF03174607

    While much emphasis had already been placed on positive school start in terms of relationships, Joy Cullen importantly focused attention in Australia on young children’s learning strategies. Children whose approach to learning at preschool was characterized by a range of strategic behaviors and reflective skills maintained a strategic approach to learning in their first year at school.

  • Entwisle, Doris, and Karl Alexander. 1998. Facilitating the transition to first grade: The nature of transition and research on factors affecting it. The Elementary School Journal 98.4: 351–364.

    DOI: 10.1086/461901

    Drawing on the Baltimore Study, the authors identified a random sample of 790 children who began first grade in 1982: their longitudinal study of this group, they emphasize the importance of the first grade transition, offer practical suggestions and underline the role of resident grandmothers, more time in kindergarten and school continuity for children’s success.

  • Kakvoulis, Alexandros. 1994. Continuity in early childhood education: Transition from pre-school to school. International Journal of Early Years Education 2.1: 41–51.

    DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2003.10807105

    A Greek investigation surveyed three stakeholder groups: parents, preschool and primary teachers on the extent to which differences between home and primary school or between nursery school and primary school make children’s preparation and adjustment to the first class problematic, and evaluated the claimed effectiveness of strategies for smoothing the transition to school.

  • Ladd, Gary W., and Joseph M. Price. 1987. Predicting children’s social & school adjustment following the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Child Development 58:1168–1189.

    DOI: 10.2307/1130613

    The relevance of this and many useful articles by these authors sustain today. They studied a sample of children in their year before school entry and followed them up in school. Finding that children’s social characteristics are a strong influence on their school experience they advocate assessing more than intelligence before school entry.

  • Love, John M., Mary Ellin Logue, James V. Trudeau, and Katharine Thayer. 1992. Transitions to kindergarten in American schools. Final report of the National Transitions Study. Portsmouth, NH: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Policy and Planning.

    The results of this study of early transitions are given through a report of the National Transition Study, a government document. As such it does not explore the conceptual underpinnings of cultural, social-poverty, and language differences, but provides a clear set of statements of what is known in these areas and calls for differentiating transitions for these groups of children.

  • Pianta, Robert C., Nicholas Smith, and Ronald E. Reeve. 1991. Observing mother and child behavior in a problem-solving situation at school entry: Relations with classroom adjustment. School Psychology Quarterly 6:1–15.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0088238

    An early publication from Pianta’s research team, which continues to publish on transitions today, this paper provides an early acknowledgement of the richness of observational rather than assessment data to understand cognition, motivation, exploration, and social school relationships. These elements in ecological relationships illuminate children’s school entry profiles.

  • Watt, Joyce, and Marion Flett. 1985. Continuity in early education: The role of parents. Mimeo: Univ. of Aberdeen, Department of Education.

    Another theme in early transitions writing is the role of parents in continuity. They must play a part in the child’s early years and early school experience. Parents support children to communicate what they know in different settings. Parental self-respect is found to be significant for their child’s learning.

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