The 4th Transnational Meeting for the Erasmus+ funded TRAINS project, which centres upon the development of a suite of educational materials and parent and practitioner guides designed to promote and support more successful school transitions for all learners, was recently hosted at the offices of ICEP Europe in Maynooth, Co. Kildare on October 19th and 20th.
The meeting provided a vital opportunity for partners to share ideas and feedback in relation to the draft iterations of the TRAINS Parents’ and Educators’ Guides that had been drawn up over the preceding six months and decide upon final amendments which would be made prior to the soft launch of the outputs for piloting across the three participating countries. Also discussed were the arrangements for the upcoming multiplier events across the partner countries, ahead of the Final European Launch Conference, which will be held at Leeds Beckett University in December 2022.
All six attendees actively contributed to the two-day meeting, bringing the knowledge, expertise and camaraderie that has been central to the successes of the TRAINS project to date, and the project consortium looks forward to finalising the project outputs and sharing them with practitioners and parents over the coming weeks, and, in turn, positively influencing the transitions practices within the UK, Ireland and Bulgaria, as well as across Europe more generally.
Upon the completion of the piloting of the TRAINS project outputs, they will be refined further in line with the feedback gained from practitioners and parents before being made available in mid to late December, on a bespoke online learning platform that can be accessed freely by all interested parties.
When the TRAINS consortium embarked upon this Erasmus+ project in 2019, few of us could have foreseen the seismic alterations that would have occurred in broader society and, more specifically, in the manner in which the educational system has been forced to adapt and pivot in order to continue to provide European learners and families with the support and assistance required to navigate the transition into primary school settings. Though the phrase “unprecedented times” is one which has rapidly become tired and overused in the context of the pandemic society, one could not argue against the fact that those working in education have been forced into unchartered territory in their efforts to respond adequately to the needs of their learners and maintain some level of consistency in the educational provision of our young people amidst a backdrop of chaos.
Across the four participating countries on the TRAINS project (United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland and Bulgaria), response measures of varying levels of severity and duration have brought with them undeniable upheaval, confusion and stress for learners, educators and parents alike. For instance, a recent study investigating the stringency of virus response measures across Europe indicated that the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany ranked in the top ten European countries (ranking (2nd, 3rd and 5th respectively) in terms of the strictness of the measures imposed (Cazaciuc & Köppe, 2021). Bulgaria, meanwhile, has been forced into four separate instances of lockdown amounting to a period of approximately two months in total.
The Impact of the Pandemic on the Transitions Process
As a result of these ongoing measures, enforced school and preschool closures have been dotted throughout the two-year pandemic period, and an array of transitions activities and practices, which have previously been a staple of the support provided to parents and families during this challenging period of change, have had to be curbed to prevent risk of transmission. Research into the impact of the pandemic upon the transitions process has revealed that the ongoing health crisis has:
Impinged upon the level of face-to-face time available to parents and families with the intaking school;
Reduced opportunities for advance visits to allow for familiarisation with the new surroundings, teachers and peers
Limited/removed the availability of many typical transitions activities (open nights etc.), thereby disrupting the settling in process;
Resulted in the furloughing of key early years staff and closure of many preschool settings, thus removing the possibility of critical inter-organisational liaisons between preschools and school staff.
Created additional difficulties for marginalised/vulnerable learners or learners with SEND, as opportunities to meet with learners and their families or observe learners prior to their arrival in the new setting could not be availed of. Access to key workers and the attainability of specialist medical, speech and language, and social and emotional reports were also adversely impacted.
(Bakopoulou, Triggs, & Novak, 2021)
Parental Perceptions of the Transitions Process During Covid-19
Given the level of upheaval induced by the ongoing crisis, the TRAINS team has set about capturing some of the prevailing parental perceptions of how the pandemic has impacted upon the experiences of both themselves and their children across each of the partner countries. Our preliminary explorations have indicated that the pandemic has influenced the transitions experience for learners and families in the following ways:
Creation of Anxiety and Uncertainty: Many parents indicated that the level of confusion and lack of clarity concerning their child’s transition was exacerbated by an absence of the typical support structures that regularly accompany the transition process. One parent lamented the “missed opportunities” to engage with staff and the new setting prior to their child’s entry into the school environment, and indicated that the absence of such elements had made the transition process more challenging as a result.
Impaired Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: For many young learners, engagement with the preschool routine and the diverse array of activities that are entailed serve as a pivotal scaffold in assisting a smooth preschool-school transition. However, a punctuated preschool schedule generated considerable disruption around this process. Numerous parents from across the partner countries spoke of how they felt their children were “less mature” when it came time to make the leap into primary school. Others highlighted that the extended lockdown periods had adversely impacted their child’s social skills and capacity to form strong and healthy relationships with their peers. One particular respondent told of how they felt the lockdown periods had led to a more anxious attachment relationship with the parent that made the process of separation more distressing when it came to entering the new school environment. Other parents felt that the gaps in the preschool attendance had led to equivalent learning gaps which left their child less prepared for the commencement of their schooling, with one particular family noting that the imposed deficits were so deleterious that it led to their child repeating their final preschool year.
Loss of Key Habits and Routine: An additional noteworthy impact of transitioning to school in the Covid-19 climate emerged in the manner in which the upheaval impacted the learners’ routines and capacity to behave within the previously established parameters of the school environment. The inherent uncertainty and frenetic changing of circumstances that has accompanied the pandemic created issues relating to the learners’ capacity to seamlessly conform with school rules and expectations. Additional attention had to be given to the re-establishment of structure and order following such a period of chaos and unforeseen alteration.
A Closing Note of Positivity: Much has been spoken of the resilience and adaptability of children in recent times, almost to the point where it is now a point of conversation which is often taken for granted. However, through our surveying of parents, the unrivalled capacity of our young people to manage change and navigate uncertainty took centre stage once again. While, as expected, the TRAINS team did receive a wealth of feedback on how the pandemic had adversely impacted the transition experience, the nature of the experiences was far from being entirely negative in tone. Parents highlighted how the additional time spent with their children during the lockdown periods had helped to enhance the familial bond. One parent even noted that their child exhibited considerable gains as a result of their additional exposure to their siblings, while another believed that the unforeseen periods at home had served as something of a boon to their child’s self-perception and confidence.
Many credited the flexibility and commitment displayed by preschool and school staff to ensure that the adverse impact of the pandemic was negated where possible. Staff were said to embrace evolving methods of teaching and learning and displayed considerable resourcefulness in how they availed of technology to bridge the potential gap that could have emerged between provision prior to Covid, and the supports offered amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Such facilitatory methods were said to include the incorporation of video tours of the school into the transition process, enabling visits to the external facilities of the new school to help remove some of the ambiguity around the setting, and the hosting of online story times and art lessons with students about to make the leap into the new environment. All of these activities were said to be hugely helpful in demystifying the experience and helping to quell burgeoning anxiety about the impending changes about to occur in the learners’ lives.
Perhaps more interesting still was the indication that some parents believed that some of the offshoots of the Covid-19 response adopted within schools had actually led to aspects of the transition experience being improved. Namely, the restrictions preventing parents from entering the school owing to health and safety protocols actually proved to be beneficial, in terms of allowing students to make a “clean break” when entering the school grounds and ensuring that the class environment achieved a more settled and focused atmosphere at an earlier point in the school day.
Having entered the final calendar year of our TRAINS research collaboration, our team will endeavour to harness the good practices that have proved to be so vital in maintaining the best standard of educational provision through such an unforeseen crisis in order to develop a range of resources rooted in a high quality, contemporary evidence base and the first-hand experiences of educators, parents and learners. The voice of the key stakeholders in the transitions process will continue to take a central role in the process of development. Thus, the ongoing input of those participating in our research is greatly appreciated, particularly given the considerable burden that these individuals have been holding for the majority of the duration of the TRAINS research project.
Wishing you and yours all the best for the holiday period, and looking forward to a prosperous New Year for all associated with the TRAINS project!
The Ministry of Education in Berlin (Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Familie – SenBJF) is part of the government of the federal state of Berlin, Germany. The SenBJF is i.a. responsible for the general education system and in part for the education of teachers in Berlin. Berlin has round about 660 schools in the general education system. The current strategic plan of the ministry contains a focus on student early school career. One focus of this road map is on transitions into school and transitions between primary and secondary schools.
Concerning students with special educational needs, Berlin offers various funding. Focussing on the individual allows different support options and distinguished options appropriate for the students need. For several years, school psychologists and special educators have been working together in district support centers to provide a level of support that is as uniform as possible to students with different needs for help and their parents. These centers are called “School psychology and inclusion education counseling and support centers” (SIBUZ). In two of the city’s 12 districts, diagnostic and counseling teachers work for the autism support program and are responsible for the advisory care of autistic children throughout Berlin. At present, six colleagues advice for 1400 children aged 5 to 18 years.
The Temple Grandin School is one of the famous schools in Berlin with focus on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The school is on the way to a school for all from grades 1 to 10. The Temple Grandin School’s successful work is supported by the following characteristics: a) Primary School: multi grade courses for all students from grades 1 to 3 and partly for grade 4 to 6; b) each class consists of 20 pupils of which up to 5 pupils may have disabilities that needs special help; c) special small classes: Contain up to 6 pupils with ASD that are being taught on the basis of the general curriculum of Berlin for grades 1 to 10; all-day-school special small classes: Pupils of all grades are being taught after the TEACCH-method.
Stephanie Ahl is the headmaster of the Temple Grandin School.
Anke Baumann is a teacher for special education at the Temple Grandin School.
Prof. Dr. Ulrike Becker is a former head master and teacher and is now leading the section for policy matters of primary schools.
Christiane Kose is the head of the division for policy matters of schools in the general education system. Previously, Christiane worked as a school supervisor, headmaster and teacher.
Renée Kundt is a teacher for special education and is delegated to the SenBJF to work in the section for policy matters of primary schools.
Kerstin Michlo is a teacher for special education with a focus on autism. She is working for the SIBUZ in Berlin and is counselling and diagnostic teacher at the Temple Grandin School.
Guido Schulz is member of the School Supervisory Board for the Temple Grandin School.
Dr. Katharina Thoren is an education researcher and is now leading the section for strategic quality improvement in Berlin schools.
NARHU is a non-governmental and non-profit association registered in the public service in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It comprises of various types of professionals who are working with people with disabilities in terms of their social inclusion, education and employment. Its main activities are directed towards people with different types of disabilities – incl. physical, sensory, intellectual, cognitive and complex disabilities. The team of NARHU involves well-known experts in the field of inclusive education, psychology, social work and support, vocational counselling, as well as early intervention support for children with special needs.
NARHU is in charge of developing:
Inclusive education materials based on the P-level system;
Supporting educative materials for youth and adults with disabilities and their teachers/trainers;
Providing guidance to teachers and trainers in relation to how to collaborate and adapt their teaching and training strategies to learners with intellectual disabilities and cognitive impairments.
Artificial intelligence and educational games designed to boost students` engagement in the training activities;
Flexible schemes helping the carrier development of young people and adults from disadvantaged groups, such as mentoring and coaching, instruments for attractive and effective self-presentation in front of potential employers;
Innovative programmes for vocational education and training in accordance with the up to date requirements of the labour market in European context;
Trainings for professionals working with children and adults with disabilities in specific focus on their independence, quality of life and inclusion;
Cooperation with NGO’s, vocational training organizations, universities, and other institutions on regional, national and international level with the aim to exchange and transfer good practices and successful strategies in inclusion domains;
A validation framework for evaluation of the achievements of people with disabilities and disadvantaged;
Innovative approaches in implementation of training processes, incorporated in ODL Systems and mobile applications for flexible and accessible training, based on contemporary researches and methods for inclusive education and VET.
Maria Goranova has been the Chairperson of NARHU, Bulgaria since its establishment in 2014. She has master’s degrees in Applied Psychology, International relations and English philology. Mrs. Goranova has more than 20 years’ experience in project management and implementation. Her background is in disability expertise, applied psychology and inclusive education, in addition to her work as a well-known supported employment pioneer in Bulgaria, who introduced this service for the first time in the country. She is a coordinator of a number of European projects, including Erasmus+ funded programmes amongst others. She has conducted a variety of training sessions using different training methods such as presentations, open discussions role-play games, video demonstrations and work in small groups, whilst also providing regular trainings on disability awareness and tips how to conduct oneself with colleagues/clients with disabilities.
Petya Grudeva is a member of NARHU since the beginning of its activities. She has university degrees in Marketing, Political sciences and Applied Psychology. She is an expert in the field of disability and employability of people with special needs, as well as in initiatives for the improvement of the independent living and quality of life. She is an expert in “Peer Education”, “Disability Etiquette”, Psychological counselling and development of entrepreneurial skills. At present, Petya engages in training for people with disabilities in relation to the development of transversal skills and professional competences. She has also been engaged in research related to user requirements, establishing quality management strategies, public campaigns initiatives, pilot trainings and their implementation, as well as “train the trainers” programmes in the field of social affairs since 2002.
The Institute of Child Education and Psychology, Europe (ICEP Europe) is the proud Irish partner on the Erasmus+ TRAINS research project. ICEP Europe is a leading training and research institution which uniquely combines a range of educational, clinical and research psychology and learning technology skills. Since 2001, ICEP Europe has established an excellent track record of developing translational crosscutting and interdisciplinary online university programmes and has long worked in partnership with established institutions to create programmes at undergraduate and post-graduate level. At a national level, the organisation has worked with various statutory agencies including the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Special Educational Needs (NCSE), as well as non-governmental organisations to build capacity of educators to deliver quality inclusive education in the 21st Century, thereby leaving the organisation well placed to contribute positively to a project such as TRAINS.
ICEP Europe also provides consultancy and research services and is currently involved in several large-scale national and pan-European research programmes and have established a strong network of partners which support its research activities. Research projects have included Project Iris, a national, longitudinal evaluation of the delivery of special needs education in Irish schools and the experiences, and inclusion needs, of pupils/students with special education needs and disability (SEND). ICEP Europe were also a key partner in iTIDE an Erasmus+ funded programme, which involved the development and delivery of inclusion training in intellectual disability which was targeted at educators. We are also currently involved in several funded Erasmus+ and Justice Programme projects and have collaborated with partners from over 14 European countries. Our areas of research expertise include: resilience building, inclusion, child and youth development, evidence-based practice and capacity development for educators and health and well- being and positive psychology.
Dr Deirdre MacIntyre (CPsychol, PhD) is a co-founder of ICEP Europe and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) and the European Network for Positive Psychology, and will lead ICEP’s contributions to TRAINS. Before joining ICEP Europe, Deirdre was principal clinical psychologist in the Eastern Regional Health Authority. Deirdre is also the co-author of the Stay Safe Programme, a nationally implemented child protection programme. Among Deirdre’s special interests are inclusion, resilience and wellbeing and applied positive psychology. Deirdre lectures on special needs and psychology for ICEP Europe and teaches on collaborative programmes with Dublin City University, Leeds Beckett and the University of East London.
Stephen Smith currently occupies the role of Senior Research Officer at ICEP Europe, having joined the team in January 2017. He holds a BA (Hons) in Psychology and an MSc (Hons) in Health Psychology, both from the National University of Ireland, Galway. Stephen has presented research in the area of trauma-informed educational practice at national conferences and possesses a keen interest in the area of inclusive pedagogy and the promotion of the rights of marginalised and disadvantaged groups. Stephen has extensive experience in participating in a range of successfully implemented Erasmus+ research projects in the areas of capacity building and the promotion of resilience.
Carnegie School of Education are just one of the partners working on the TRAINS project over the next three years. The Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University seeks through all its activities to redefine the education and professional development of the children and young people’s workforce. They offer distinctive and creative undergraduate and postgraduate degrees that are responsive to the changes taking place in society, focusing on the diverse skills required of modern professionals.
The School is committed to having a deep, beneficial impact within and beyond the education sector. All research undertaken within the school has a social justice focus with an emphasis on the research’s contribution to improving the lives of young people, the experiences of their families and the educational communities they are part of. Carnegie School of Education is proud to be involved in a wide range of international partnerships including the TRAINS project.
Carnegie School of Education is the lead organisation within the TRAINS project and is led by Dr Susan Atkinson. Susan is a Senior Lecturer in Carnegie School of Education with responsibility for Early Years programmes. Susan is a cognitive-developmental psychologist with research interests in transition to school, cognitive development in the early years, and factors affecting academic attainment through the school years and in students in HE. Susan led the previous Erasmus+ project, ITIDE, on behalf of Carnegie School of Education which aimed to foster inclusion for children and young people with complex needs through developing open access online training materials for educators and parents.
Dr Mhairi C Beaton is supporting Susan with the leadership of the TRAINS project on behalf of Carnegie School of Education. Mhairi is a Reader within the Carnegie School and has extensive experience of leading research projects funded by Scottish Government, the European Union and independent research funding bodies. Mhairi’s research interests lie at the interface of inclusion, teacher education and student voice.