The Children’s Thoughts about School Study (CTSS) was a sub-study of the Preparing for Life (PFL) evaluation. PFL tested the effectiveness of an intensive parenting programme in promoting the school readiness of children living in a socio-economically disadvantaged community in North Dublin. The programme was developed in response to evidence that many children from the catchment area were starting school without the socio-emotional, cognitive and behavioural skills needed to navigate school successfully (Doyle, McEntee and McNamara, 2012). The PFL randomised controlled trial is one of the most extensive studies of its kind, utilising a state of the art design incorporating a multi-informant, multi-domain and multi-measure outcome battery. The CTSS sought to complement the main PFL evaluation by examining children’s own priorities and concerns about school readiness. Supported by the Children’s Research Network Prevention and Early Intervention Research Initiative Research Grant Scheme (2017-18), we were able to undertake a rigorous and detailed analysis of the CTSS data (Northside Partnership, Doyle, UCD Geary Institute PFL Evaluation Team, 2018) in order to distil children’s school readiness priorities from their accounts of their early school experiences. A full account of this study and its findings is currently under review for publication, and here we present a brief summary of the background and highlights of this secondary analysis of the CTSS data

Why might children’s views be valuable in understanding adjustment to school?

Despite growing international investment in school readiness (Sabol and Pianta, 2017), there is no one, agreed definition of what school readiness means. Rather, the term has caused confusion and provoked debate (Britto, 2012; Kagan, 2007) and there is often little commonality in the outcome measures used to gauge an intervention’s effectiveness. For example, some studies, such as PFL, use a combination of measures and informants including teacher and parent reports of children’s school readiness alongside direct assessments of children’s skills; while others may report on just one aspect of children’s functioning (for example, cognitive ability). One means of interrogating the suitability of outcome measures is to identify what is meaningful to service users themselves (see for example, Crawford et al., 2011; Orri et al., 2015; Singh, 2017). Yet, despite trends to incorporate stakeholder perspectives into evaluations of complex interventions (Moore et al., 2015; Pawson and Tilley, 1997), those targeting children’s lives tend to privilege adults’ observations over children’s priorities and experiences. This is despite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) asserting children’s right to a say in matters that affect their lives. Studies also show that young children provide reliable and valid information in clinical, courtroom and education settings, which adds uniquely to the understanding provided by teachers and adults, provided that appropriate methods are used (Brown and Lamb, 2015; Harrison, Clarke and Ungerer, 2007; Luby, Belden, Sullivan, and Spitznagel, 2007). Although valuable research has been undertaken exploring children’s experience of the transition to school (see for example, O’Kane, 2007), few studies have examined the experiences of children growing up in socio-economically disadvantaged communities.

How did the Children’s Thoughts about School Study work?

Forty-two children (aged four to five years) from a single school in the PFL catchment community participated in a multi-method interview approximately seven months into their first school year. The protocol was designed in consultation with local schools and was piloted to ensure its suitability with young children. Parents were given an information pack including an illustrated booklet for their child. Children whose parents had provided consent were then invited by the researcher to participate in a one-to-one interview in a familiar place, such as the library. Interviews were conducted concurrently (two at a time), and children were interviewed separately. First, the interviewer used the illustrated information booklet to explain to the child the research and their participation in it (i.e. to explore assent). To help address power imbalances the researcher positioned themselves as an ‘interested other’ who wanted to learn more about what school was like. To get a broad picture of children’s perceptions of early school experiences and adjustment to school we asked children to:

  1. complete a structured measure of school liking and avoidance (School Liking and Avoidance Questionnaire; Ladd and Price, 1987);
  2. complete a structured interview about nine potentially challenging everyday school scenarios (Pictorial Measure of School Stress and Wellbeing; Murray and Harrison, 2005)
  3. offer advice to a fictional character, ‘Riley Rabbit’, who was starting school for the first time;
  4. draw and describe a picture of themselves in school.

Using the principles of thematic analysis, we developed a thematic framework of children’s early school experiences. Children’s priorities were then distilled from themes and subthemes to extract essential components of school readiness. Further information on the analytic strategy is included in the full manuscript (currently in review).

What are children’s priorities for their school readiness?

Overall, children’s accounts suggested that school readiness is a multi-faceted construct; it includes a range of capacities and skills that are underpinned by motivation, is largely social in nature, and influences and is influenced by its surrounding environments. In this way, children’s responses strongly endorsed the view that school readiness is “more than a checklist of skills and contextually isolated knowledge and more than a set of behaviours that enable children to be considered as compliant in the classroom” (Dockett and Perry, 2002, p. 84). Twenty-five school readiness priorities were distilled from the data. These encompassed children’s enthusiasm for school, their sense of self-efficacy, traditional academic skills, physical independence, self-regulation skills, an ability to navigate peer interactions, a capacity to think and play creatively, supportive peer interactions, as well as a supportive and playful school environment, and strong connections between school and family life. Table 1 presents each priority alongside a brief description. Importantly, children endorse the significance of many of the core academic skills considered as part of school readiness and captured by batteries such as those used in the PFL trial. However, they also highlight targets that are overlooked (such as motivation, which includes children’s school liking and efficacy) that could aid greater prediction of children’s school success. It would also be instructive for future research to consider investigating children’s perceptions about school readiness and anticipated adjustment to school prior to school commencement. Although these results require replication across more diverse samples, they help to provide a starting point in affording children’s priorities a place in the policy and practice landscape that shapes their lives.

Table 1: Children’s school readiness priorities

Priority

Brief Description

1. School

Feel positively about school; like and look forward to school

2. Enthusiasm for learning

Enthusiastic and curious about learning

3. Self-efficacy

A strong belief in their own competence, even in the face of challenges

4. Write

Able to hold a pencil, trace, and write letters and numbers

5. Count

Numeracy skills for counting and solving number problems

6. Draw

Can draw simple forms (e.g. lines and shapes) as well as more creatively

7. Read

Early literacy skills such as letter knowledge / recognition and letter / sound correspondence

8.Independence in toileting

The confidence and skill to maintain dryness, ask to use the toilet, and complete toileting routines

9. Run and balance

 

Maintain balance, run, and avoid frequent falls, especially in the playground

10. Regulate behaviour

Control impulsive behaviour (e.g. being able to wait your turn, inhibit aggression)

11. Regulate emotion

Control emotions especially anger and frustration

12. Cope with separation

Maintain a sense of security in the absence of parents and family

13. Regulate attention

Ignore distractions, adjust attention, and stay on task

14. Follow directions

Listen to the teacher and follow rules and directions

15. Establish and maintain friends

Skills to make (e.g. introduce yourself, ask to play) and maintain friendships

16. Avoid rejection

Social skills to avoid rejection (e.g. control aggression, ability to approach peers and join play)

17. Resolve conflict

Adaptive coping skills in the face of conflict, including the ability to seek out external support when necessary

18. Think and play creatively

Capacity to use imagination for pleasure, learning, and exploration

19. Access to friends

Opportunity to develop and seek out friendships for enjoyment and support

20. Positive social climate

Positive social climate including an absence of victimisation and social distress

21. Regular access to play and supportive outdoor space

Regular access to both guided and self-directed play in classroom and outdoor settings and easy access to supportive adults when necessary

22. Clear rules and routines

Organised classrooms with predictable routines and clear rules to guide behaviour

23. Supportive teacher relationships

Warm and encouraging teachers who provide support with learning and peer interactions

24. Strong family school involvement

Positive connections between schools and families including opportunities for families to be involved in children’s school lives

25. Strong community network

Access to wider family and social networks and support (e.g. for after-school care)