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!
Bakopoulou, I., Triggs, P., & Novak, T. (2021) The Impact of Covid-19 on Early Years Transition to School. University of Bristol School of Education: Bristol. https://edn.bris.ac.uk/eprs/download/202177
Cazaciuc, R. & Köppe, S. (2021). UCD Covid Compared (UCD CoCo) – Displaying Restrictions across the Globe. University College Dublin. https://publicpolicy.ie/downloads/perspectives/2021/Covid_Compared_UCD%20CoCo_Displaying_Restrictions_across_the_Globe.pdf