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‘I just want her to be happy at school…’

At the heart of much of the recent COAG early childhood development strategy is the aim of promoting the best possible start in life for all Australian children. As well as promoting health and developmental outcomes, the strategy aims to promote a positive transition to school for all children. The rationale behind such an aim is usually related to the potential of education to disrupt cycles of disadvantage, hence improving the life experiences and expectations of children and their families. This is indeed an admirable aim. However, achieving a positive start to school can be a complex process, particularly if the children and families involved are considered to be disadvantaged or vulnerable.

Many families find schools daunting. They are unlikely just to ‘drop in’ to find out what happens at school, or how schools may have changed since their own experiences. Despite this, the majority of all families want their children to be happy and to succeed at school.

Jenny is one mother who expressed her hope that her daughter would be happy at school, even though she was not sure how to achieve this. She commented, ‘I just want her to be happy at school. I don’t know if I am making the right decisions. Different people tell me different things and I can’t make sense of it. I don’t want her getting into trouble all the time, like my other children’.

Jenny’s family is one of many that have complex support needs. She received support to manage her own mental health issues, the care of her daughter and maintain the family unit. Much of this support came from different services and, often, advice was contradictory – particularly in relation to whether or not her daughter was ready for school. Much of the support also ceased as her daughter started school. For Jenny, the transition to school was a time of major change. She was anxious to make that change positive, but not at all sure about how to achieve that. Despite this, she demonstrated major strengths in the ways she sought out and responded to information, managed conflicting advice, developed options, and drew on her supports in interactions with both preschool and school.

Tegan’s family also hoped that their son would make a positive start to school. They were concerned that the behaviour management program he had accessed at preschool would not be continued into the school and that the parenting program they had been involved in would also cease at the same time. They had extremely limited financial resources and were unable to access private services to support their son. Much planning had gone into supporting the son as he started school, including long-term planning to lay-by the uniform and pay it off before Christmas, so that he could start school “looking like everybody else”. One of the challenges Tegan faced as her son started school was that the uniform had been changed – only slightly to incorporate the school logo – but the family did not have the financial resources to purchase the changed uniform. Part of this family’s strength – their ability to plan ahead – was compromised by this situation.

Alice’s son has cerebral palsy. As well as having one leg shorter than the other, his extensive periods of hospitalisation and sometimes painful treatment meant that he was shy and often anxious, wary of new environments and people. He had attended preschool and early intervention services, accessing full-time support for both his physical and socio-emotional needs. His medical specialists recommended the continuation of this support as he started school. However, the criteria for receiving such support changed as he started school, and he was deemed ineligible. Alice had four other children, including an older son with special education needs who was also deemed ineligible for additional support. She had experienced his disengagement with school and related behaviour problems, and was determined not to repeat these. Over the transition to school, she met regularly with school staff to try and create the best possible environment for her son. She commented: ‘I’m so tired of fighting … [you would think] if a child goes to an early intervention service and you [have to prove] two areas of delay or disability … well this child obviously needs some support’.

Each of these families was keen to make their child’s transition to school as positive as possible. Like all 44 of the families in our recent study of the experiences of NSW families with complex support needs, they wanted to do all they could to promote their children’s positive engagement with school. To do this, they drew on many strengths to access support for themselves or their children, balance restricted financial resources, judge conflicting advice and persevere in supporting their children’s engagement in education. Many of these strengths went unrecognised, while challenges for the families and children were highlighted. For example, Tegan’s son had been at school for less than two weeks when he was ‘put on a level’ because of his behaviour at school.

One of the strategies promoted by COAG for achieving the best start to life for Australia’s children is the provision of integrated services. These reflect the diverse needs of families and children and aim to provide the most relevant and appropriate services. In many instances, this works well at the prior-to-school level, where for example, special education services and support can be incorporated into a mainstream preschool. However, such integration rarely extends to schools and the provision of services at schools, resulting in high levels of disjunction and discontinuity between prior-to-school and school.

One of the major findings of our study related to the discontinuity of support for families and children across the transition to school. Many of the families in our study did not have family or community support. A number had relocated to access emergency housing; others lived in communities where support was unavailable, limited, or very expensive. In the absence of such support, families relied on help from a range of government and non-government agencies. When support was available, it was often limited, financially or by a specified time frame.

Access to relevant, targeted support made a difference for families. This was particularly so when the support recognised and built upon family strengths, as well as responded to identified needs. Different families in different contexts sought different forms of support. Support that was effective recognised this as well as the need for support to change as children and families changed.

There was little evidence of families accessing coordinated support at the time of transition to school, unless parents themselves, individual teachers or agency staff actively set out to coordinate services. Coordination was often difficult because of the different focus provided by each service – for example, support for parents was often different from support for children – and when families experienced multiple challenges. Where support was contradictory or uncoordinated, parents reported feeling confused and disempowered.

Of particular importance for families involved in our study was that at the same time as children were making the transition to school, families and children were making a transition to different support services or to no services at all. Both Jenny and Tegan had been involved in parenting support programs before their children started school. These programs ceased. Tegan had planned to spend some time helping out at her son’s school, but felt unable to do so when his behaviour raised issues. As a result, her interactions with school, and her son, were strained. She was uncertain about how to manage the behaviour issues and saw no option but to employ authoritarian approaches. Jenny continued to receive support from her own case worker, but remained unsure about how best to support her daughter at school. She did not feel comfortable seeking advice from the school, as her older children had already experienced difficulties at the same school. Alice continued to meet with school staff and spent time at the school to support her son.

Each of these families felt a sense of abandonment as their support changed. The support had contributed to positive changes in their lives and those of their children. Despite this, there was a sense that the same level of support may not be needed or available at all times. However, the transition to school was in itself a time of considerable change – further changes in support added to the challenges.

Those providing the support also have to manage the changes after working with families over some time. A service provider commented on her frustration as ‘[we] have been able to get them that far, and then we have to watch all that good work go down the drain again and it’s really a double whammy…Build up then fall down.’

Starting school is a time of both vulnerability and opportunity; a time of highlighting the challenges faced by children and families, and a time for recognising what has already been achieved and building on this. Which one wins will have a major impact on how children perceive themselves at school and how others perceive them. This is particularly so for families with complex support needs but does need not to be the case. When family strengths are recognised and appropriate supports are in place, all involved are well placed to regard the transition to school as a time of opportunity.

Sue Dockett is Professor, Early Childhood Education, Murray School of Education, Charles Sturt University. Bob Perry is Professor, Murray School of Education, Charles Sturt University. Emma Kearney is Research Officer, Murray School of Education, Charles Sturt University.

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