Covid-19: Getting Ready To Start Big School

How are international schools in Singapore preparing children for that big jump from pre-school to primary school in the time of Covid-19? finds out...
Covid-19: Getting Ready To Start Big School
By Carli Allan
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The first day of school can be a difficult time for any child to face. There’s likely to be tears (and that’s often from mum too), plenty of nerves, and clingy, difficult goodbyes at the school gate. This August, in light of Covid-19, children could be taking their first steps into school with a host of new challenges to overcome.

After several months of living in quarantine, how will five-year-olds transition from home or pre-school into a primary classroom setting? speaks to early years and primary experts at international pre-schools and schools in Singapore to find out how they are helping to smooth what could otherwise be a bumpy road to ‘big school’.

How are schools managing the transition to primary?

The move from kindergarten or pre-school to primary is a milestone event for any child – and Term 3/Summer Term is always the time when teachers begin to prepare new starters for the transition from FS2/KG to Year 1/Grade 1. However, campuses in Singapore either won't fully open until August, or they will partially open with social distancing measures in place. This means that traditional induction days and parent information sessions are cancelled.

These transition days help pre-school children to familiarise themselves with the setting of a primary classroom, see the new materials and resources they’ll be using, and get to know their new teacher. In an all-through school, reception (FS2) teachers may spend a day in the nursery and Year 1 teachers in Reception (FS2) to meet their new class; a standalone kindergarten or nursery may incorporate ‘transition’ into role play by showing children photographs of Year 1 teachers, playgrounds, classrooms etc.

This year, however, schools have to offer this vital transition support from a safe distance.

Paula Craigie, head of infant school at Tanglin Trust School, said: “We have tailored our transition programme to include some remote aspects, which we will use if the school does not resume after the circuit breaker period. These include screencast assemblies to engage the children, and possibly some live streaming.

“We are hoping to be back to school on June 2 but we anticipate social distancing measures remaining in place. In this scenario, we will give live updates across the classrooms so the children can meet their Head of School, Nursery, Reception and Year 1 teachers and support staff virtually. There will also be virtual taster lessons so that the children can experience their new environments and teachers.”

Students at all-through schools such as Tanglin may have an advantage over children coming from standalone pre-schools or nurseries. They will already be familiar with the campus, know some of the teachers, and be part of the school community (for example, getting involved in house events from day one). Sir Manasseh Meyer International School (SMMIS) also has the advantage of being a small all-through school with less than 500 students and a very close-knit community.

SMMIS principal Elaine Robinson said: “The move from phase to phase is not as daunting as if they would be moving sites or schools. At SMMIS we are one big family and all the staff know all the children. Face to face opportunities with staff are very important to us and are still a very important aspect of our remote learning culture.”

Robinson says that transitions are all about giving children a sense of belonging and community so that students “remain positive and feel secure about their early years experiences and therefore continue with that mindset into K1”.

She added: “The teachers are preparing the children for their transition through a variety of medium: stories, songs and face to face interactions. During the circuit breaker period our pre-school children see their teachers each day for circle time and story time, as a well as other creative activities.”

And, looking ahead to August, Robinson said that if the school remains closed, there will be virtual tours of the campus, virtual meetings with the teachers', and online orientation days.

White Lodge pre-schools are preparing students for the move to primary through online platforms

Many children in Singapore will be moving from a standalone pre-school or kindergarten into an international school for the first time – so how are they preparing pre-schoolers for a virtual move into a brand-new school?

Jayne Nadarajoo is the founding director of White Lodge, which has eight pre-schools and childcare centres across Singapore. As they prepare students for the move into Invictus International School (where children can get direct admission if they meet the requirements) and other schools, Nadarajoo says that “it is most important to empower our children with information to help them be independent – especially when they will be moving on to the next big school.”

“We started with a focus on helping them understand why they can’t go to school and the need for all of us to stay healthy, practise good health habits, etc.”

How can schools prepare students socially for primary school during Covid-19?

Singapore’s youngest students will be starting school with a lack of ‘normal’ social contact with other children; during this period of distance learning they will have missed out on important classroom interactions that build social skills.

At Tanglin, parents have been organising virtual playdates to keep their children socially connected. The school's head of school counselling, Claire Holmes said: “Counsellors are also often involved in the class mixing process, at all transition points. In addition, our Friends of Tanglin outreach group have been calling every family to support individual concerns.”

White Lodge is encouraging parents to help their child feel confident and positive about the next step into primary education – by fostering their independence. Nadarajoo added: “Parents should keep to a routine and provide many opportunities for children to continue to do independent tasks while at home.

These experiences of isolation and remote learning away from their peers, teachers and classrooms have provided our children with the need to adapt to changes as well as value the importance of face-to-face social interaction from a young age. So, they should be excited about the new school, new friends and uniform as we have saved it for the big transition to primary school. I think a strong sense of self belief is better than just knowing the academics.”

Sir Manasseh Meyer International School is preparing children for their transition through a variety of medium

How will schools address gaps in learning?

After weeks of distance learning during the school closures, some children may find the academic jump to a primary school curriculum more difficult. Yes, we’re seeing schools such as SMMIS deliver online daily circle time, story time and other creative activities; White Lodge continuing with its academic programmes in reading, numeracy, Mandarin etc in preparation for primary education; and Tanglin delivering a remote learning programme for all students. But how will schools address any gaps in learning as children return to the traditional classroom?

Robinson says that the key issues arise from a “change in environment from more play- based learning experiences to more formal education and expectations of behaviour and performance”. Outlining SMMIS’ approach, Robinson adds:

“Some children may not be developmentally ready to start more formal education. Primary teachers will need to work closely with the early years team to plan and adapt the learning environment for where the children are developmentally, rather than feeling pressure to begin the year as they always have.”

White Lodge is giving parents an option to continue with remote learning throughout the summer break. Nadarajoo said: “The online sessions do help children to learn at their own pace, revisit concepts, re-read books, or push on with accelerated learning. We have extended our term to allow for continuity from June to August 2020 to help us provide learning opportunities and bridging if needed.”

This is also a time when school counsellors and learning support staff should be identifying any learning gaps, as Holmes explains.

“Our counselling team (at Tanglin) are an integral part of the transition process, which includes running support groups during remote learning to ensure students can discuss any concerns. The Learning Support team also ensure that pupils with individual needs are well planned and catered for, both remotely and if able to return.”

TTS Curiosity
Tanglin Trust School has tailored the transition programme for its youngest students to include some remote aspects

How can parents prepare their child for primary school?

One of the key messages from educators is that, when it comes to preparing for primary school, academic skills are far less important than fostering your child’s social skills and independence. Rather than focusing on phonics and pentagons, parents should be making sure their child understands the rules and routines of big school.

Harrington-Wilcox (Tanglin) said: “Parental input and modelling can have a huge impact on a child’s initial experiences of a new school year or a new school. Simply modelling excitement and positivity for the year ahead, the opportunities for new subjects, new teachers and classmates, can do wonders for setting children up for a positive start. Finding a good balance between having a break from school and not forgetting everything is key!

“Young children can find the step up exciting and challenging in different measures. Either way, your child may need more soothing and reassurance than usual as the levels of arousal can lead to more instances of being overwhelmed.

Harrington-Wilcox offered some more advice for how to prepare your child for school during the long summer break, saying:

“Reading for pleasure, a mix of fun and educational trips or days out, plenty of exercise, and learning some life skills is a great way to use a summer break, but there is no harm in more intensive activities/camps etc if your child is interested. Other things that can be helpful are – establishing a good sleep routine the weeks before school starts and having a think about any topics or books that it might be useful to explore before term starts.”

Nadarajoo (White Lodge) encourages parents to share as much information as possible about their child’s new school.

“Parents should talk about the new school, look at photos of where they will be going, school premises like classrooms, canteen, playing fields etc to get them excited. Connect with new families starting at the same school or class and help your child find a new friend to help with the transition. This will help cut down on anxiety and empower with information on what to expect, who to meet etc.”

And Robinson (SMMIS) says that communication is key. “Allow the children to share their feelings and thoughts about the transitions, communicate as much as possible through conversations, art, drama or any medium that your child enjoys. Also, enjoy exercising together, eating family meals together, write a diary together.”

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