Early Childhood Education
Transitions are a part of everyone’s life. Generally, a transition refers to the process in which an individual participates when moving from one setting to another. Changing schools or communities, entering the job market, marriage, and retirement are examples of normative, positive life transitions. At times, transitions may negatively impact an individual and/or family, such as divorce, death of a family member, or loss of a job. In the field of early childhood and early childhood special education, families and children experiencing transitions when leaving one program and entering another may encounter a smooth transition or one laden with difficulties. When transitions are supportive, the gaps that may have existed between the two programs are bridged, resulting in continuity (SERVE, 2002). Continuity refers to an uninterrupted connection or flow of services, such as a child leaving a Head Start setting and enrolling in a new preschool, or a child with special needs moving into another setting and receiving his therapy sessions without disruption. Continuity is critical to the success of transitions.
Transition considerations for typically developing children and their families must not be overlooked, as this time is critical in setting the stage for successful school experiences. Each child and family’s transition experience is unique and, thereby, cannot be characterized by specific standards or procedures. However, Pianta and Kraft-Sayre (2003) developed five guiding principles that may be applied to transition planning for all young children. These include fostering relationships as resources, promoting continuity from preschool to kindergarten, focusing on family strengths, tailoring practices to individual needs, and forming collaborative relationships. The literature regarding transitions mirrors the principles described above. In addition, parents must be recognized as experts and empowered as advocates for their children. Although these principles may be attainable, they require much preparation from all parties involved in transition planning.
Often parents of children with special needs experience a myriad of transitions long before their youngster reaches school age. Premature infants and those with birth complications may require the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and subsequent referral for early intervention services. Children diagnosed with developmental delays and their families must transition from early intervention provided in the home to an early childhood special education program in the local elementary school. The transition journey will continue as the child moves throughout school and into adulthood, each transition bringing its own challenges and successes.
Whether a child is transitioning from early intervention to preschool or preschool to kindergarten, transitions for some families may be matter of fact, while others are quite complex. Often concerns and stress are heightened during the process, and must be addressed accordingly. Issues such as differences in program philosophy and expectations, services provided, the level of parent involvement, and concerns related specifically to the child are only beginning points for transition planning. Specifically, a child’s preschool program may permit parents to volunteer in the classroom, but in his new kindergarten classroom, the policy might not include parent volunteers except for field trips. The preschool curriculum may differ significantly from that of the kindergarten, and the focus may be more academic than developmental. Class size differs, parents may receive progress reports quarterly rather than weekly, and the child’s classroom expectations will change. In the case of a child moving from early intervention to an early childhood special education classroom, children and families must adapt to an entirely different environment. Instead of a case manager or physical therapist coming to a family’s home each week, a school bus transports the young child to an elementary school for his education. Rather than addressing a concern during a therapy session, a parent must contact her child’s teacher to set up a conference among the child’s service providers at school. These examples are part of the transition process and program continuity and will require some adjustment on the part of all parties involved with the child.
An effective transition serves as a bridge between two programs, going from the familiar and comfortable to the unknown and uncharted course. Some educators perceive transition as an ongoing effort to link a child’s natural environment (home and family) with a support environment (the child’s program) (Kagan and Neuman, 1998). In some instances, transitions consist of a series of activities that take place prior to a child’s leaving one setting and entering another, characterized by a visit to the new placement, a meeting with parents, and an exchange of the child’s records. Other transitions may include an interagency agreement between the sending agency and receiving program. The goal is to provide as smooth as possible transition with no disruption in services (continuity) for the child and family.
Part C, Public Law 105-17 (IDEA, 1997) provides early intervention services for children with disabilities birth through age two, and Part B regulates the delivery of services for children ages three through five. Within the child’s Infant Family Service Plan (IFSP) and/or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a transition plan must be addressed in order to meet federal laws. A timeline serves as a roadmap for implementing the transition plan and should be established as early as the child’s enrollment in the early intervention program. Although transition procedures are not mandated until 90 days prior to the actual transition, agencies, schools, parents, and children need much more than three months to put all the pieces in place for an effective transition. When considering a preschool-to-kindergarten transition, educators should contact parents at the beginning of the preschool year to initiate a connection between families, schools, and agencies in order to plan transition activities for families and children during the course of that year (Pianta and Kraft-Sayre, 2003).
Many states and individual school divisions or agencies have developed their own particular procedures for the implementation of transition plans. These plans often include specific timeframes for each aspect of the transition, such as dates set aside for parents and children to visit programs, deadlines for sending children’s records, and/or guidelines for a transition coordinator to follow. Professionals involved in planning should guard against the transition becoming a series of events rather than a process that takes time and is intended as an individual plan for each child and family.
Because transitions are different for each child and family exiting one program and entering another, it is imperative that those identified as stakeholders periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the system. The input of parents, teachers, administrators, therapists and community agencies must be considered in the process to accommodate the needs of children and families. The ultimate result will be improved transitions for all persons involved.
The literature offers numerous suggestions of activities and procedures designed to prepare families, children, and receiving agencies or schools for the successful, smooth transition from the current program to the new program. The following suggestions serve as a starting point for planning transitions, and are applicable to most early childhood transitions. It is important to note that extenuating circumstances may arise in which much different activities would be more appropriate.
Transition planning for children with developmental delays must begin early in the child and family’s interaction with the initial agency or program. It is as if parents should be told at the onset of services that the transition process will be initiated immediately to prepare them for future changes. For example, parents of infants and toddlers with disabilities need to be aware of services available to them when their child reaches age two or three. Although their child may or may not require further services beyond the early intervention program, parents should be prepared to consider alternatives available to them. A case manager, generally the early interventionist, should either serve as the transition coordinator or maintain close contact with that individual during the child’s early intervention services. It is advisable to develop a transition timeline, even though some changes will most likely take place. Stakeholders will demonstrate a stronger ownership if a plan is visible and each person is included in the process.
The participation of parents is key to successful transitions. Parents need to be recognized for their expertise and concerns and priorities must be addressed at the onset. Agency and school personnel should protect parent and child confidentiality, ensure compliance with federal and state mandates, and encourage and respect parental input. Parents should consider themselves partners in the process.
In transitions for typically developing children, such as home or preschool to kindergarten, or those for children with special needs, receiving programs should be aware of prospective students in order to be prepared to meet their needs should they be placed in their care. Staff members of sending and receiving programs should be introduced to each other to begin collaborative relationships. Where feasible, these individuals should be participants in assessments and meetings, striving to increase their visibility, knowledge, and involvement with children and families. When families visit programs they most likely will feel comfortable, welcomed, and willing to participate in the program activities with their children. Introducing parents to the principal, school nurse, office staff, therapists, and paraprofessionals, along with a tour of the facility, should help in alleviating fears of a large building for their little child. Inviting parents for a return visit or telephone call signifies openness on the part of staff.
An evening should be designated for meeting other perspective and current parents and staff members on an informal basis. Children and siblings should be invited to attend, and babysitting and refreshments provided. Parents should have an opportunity to learn about program curriculum and materials, participate in activities with their children, and to ask questions. A highlight for the evening could be the arrival of a school bus and driver inviting parents and children to board. At the end of the school year parents may be guests at graduation or a picnic, and during the summer months sending and receiving teachers might conduct home visits to new families. Finally, parents can be invited to attend an open house prior to the opening of school. Kindergartens may choose a staggered enrollment for the first few weeks of school in order to introduce the children to school on a gradual basis, or permit parents to spend the first several mornings in the classroom with their children.
Transition services are not achieved without careful planning, involvement of all stakeholders, an evaluation component, and the establishment of a timeline. Recognizing transition as a process instead of a series of activities, as individualized for each child, and as subject to change, will result in a smooth transition and continuity of services for everyone.
Further Readings: Kagan, S. L., and M. J. Neuman (1998). Lessons from three decades of transition research. The Elementary School Journal 98(4), 365-379; Pianta, R., and M. Kraft-Sayre (2003). Successful kindergarten transition; Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. Rosenkoetter, S. E., A. H. Hains, and S. A. Fowler (1994). Bridging early services for children with special needs and their families; Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. SERVE (2002). Terrific transitions. The School of Education, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.