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All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Transition to school and the social skills children need

In her response to my question about what children struggle most with when they first make the transition to school, Kim said “the increased independence required, communication, social skills and attention to task skills.” I want to talk a little about the things that you can do to help your child learn these skills.


Dealing with separation

A part of going to school is learning to separate from parents and/or carers. This can cause both parents and children increased anxiety if there is no preparation for this separation (Kienig, 2002).

To help your child get used to being away from you for a part of the day the best way is to start small and slowly wean your child into spending more and more time away from you. You might start with a few hours at a relative’s home. If possible, part-time enrolment in early intervention or an inclusive pre-school setting will help.

Here are some hints about making the actual separation on the day manageable for both you and your child:

- Talk to your child in a positive way about where they are going, focusing on a specific activity that you know they enjoy, or person to whom they relate well. This may be a teacher or a student buddy.

- Try to follow the same routine every time you arrive at the new setting.

- Go to the activity and/or that person you have been talking about as part of that “settling in” routine. Make sure you have let the teacher or buddy know that this is the plan so that they can be waiting for your child.

- Don’t prolong the good-byes, even if your child is upset. And never slip out without telling them. Quickly settle them into the activity, let them know who will be there to look after them, a kiss, a hug and leave. If you have confidence and try to remain positive, it will help your child be more confident even if they initially are upset.

- Make sure you ask the teacher or aide to contact you to let you know how your child is going if you feel any anxiety. Alternately, you might ask how you can contact them to find out this information.

Sharing information is very important to ensure you can keep up with your child’s progress, even when you are not there (Newman, 2004). A great way to keep up with what is happening at school even if your child struggles to communicate with you is to use a communication book. This could be a little exercise book that travels from home to school and back again with your child. Other schools might use email. In these “books”, you, your child’s teachers and anyone else who is working with your child, can record your child’s achievements and any other information about what is happening at home and at school.

Coping skills

As Margettes (2002) states, at school children will need a level of self-confidence or a range of coping skills to help them cope with new things and unexpected events. We can start helping our child to develop these skills through a range of activities at home.

The first thing you can do is to try new things. For example, a new game, a small change in routine in your day (eg. having apple juice instead of orange juice at lunch time). For some children (such as children with Autism) you will need to warn them and then keep reminding them of the change before it happens. You may even need to have a reward – like a sticker, special activity or anything else your child enjoys – that they will receive once they have participated in the new or changed routine.

To teach coping skills you can use a range of different games. However, puzzles can be a simple way to teach children to cope with difficulties. Find some puzzles related to your child’s interest. Start with simple puzzles and work up to harder ones according to your child’s ability or achievement.

To teach your child to cope by themselves, when they are struggling to find a place for a puzzle piece, prompt and encourage them to keep trying until they find a place for the puzzle piece, and give lots of praise if they do. Try not to do it for them, though you might guide them to the right place if they are about to give up. But each time they try, help them persevere for longer.

Next, teach your child to ask for help. As your child’s skills develop, teach them to ask for your help when they need it rather than getting upset or sitting back and waiting for you to jump in. Have a question or prompt that will help them remember to do this.

For example, your child might be struggling with a puzzle piece and

is becoming agitated. You could get their attention by saying “Stop” and using the appropriate hand gesture to go with this.

Then you might point to yourself and say, “Help?” (You might learn the Makaton sign, use PECs such as Boardmaker, or download the free sign from seen below – all of which your child could use at school).

Then get your child to say it by prompting them through a gesture and/or facial expression (see previous post on teaching communication).

Don’t help until they have at least attempted to ask for help. This may mean the puzzle doesn’t get finished straight away. But keep trying. This will help your child to develop coping skills.

You can use this same procedure in every day events, such as tying shoelaces, getting dressed, opening containers etc. Waiting until your child asks for help is important as they will need to be able to do this to get teacher or peer assistance at school.


I have already discussed ways of teaching communication, and what words might be important for school. Kim also suggested similar words in her interview.

Social skills

Margetts (2002) and Dockett and Perry (2006) discuss a range of social skills important for children on entering school.


Saying and responding to “hello” (picture above from and “good-bye” are important social skills for your child to learn before going to school. These greetings can be the first step in developing friendships with peers. If you prompt and praise your child for using the “greetings” it is not just about politeness – it is about decreasing the likelihood that they will be isolated on the playground.

Joining in

I told the story of “Isaac” who struggled with this in a previous post. It is fairly common for children with communication and social difficulties to make themselves unpopular with their peers by just “barging in” to their games. At home, in early intervention and pre-school settings it will be important to start teaching your child key phrases to help them join in games without “barging in”. Insisting that your child ask before they join in what you and/or their siblings are doing is a great way to start teaching this skill. Again, remembering that if your child struggles with language, using pictures and gestures is just as effective.

Sharing, taking turns and waiting

The ability to wait for your turn and share is a significant part of cooperating with peers in the school environment. So start teaching these skills early.

Play games where there is one toy that must be shared. For example, playing ball games. You and your child sit at opposite ends of a room. Then you take turns rolling the ball to each other.

Card games, board games, party games such as pass the parcel – all are examples of ways to help your child learn to take turns and share.


Margetts (2002), Dockett and Perry (2006) and Kim highlight the importance of self-control, concentration and paying attention. Some of the games mentioned above can help with this.

Puzzles require sustained attention. Drawing and craft do as well. Reading together is another important activity to help increase your child’s ability concentrate and pay attention.

You may find that when you start, your child only pays attention for a very short period of time. But use prompts, praise and encouragement to gradually increase the length of time your child stays at a task, keeping in mind that they may be expected to work on one task for around 15 minutes at a time when they first go to school.


One of the concerns that parents often have when their child goes to school is the issue of bullying. This is often most concerning when a child is moving to high school. I have discussed bullying elsewhere, but I will write a bit more on this topic… but I will do that in a future post.

Just a final note

As Dockett and Perry (2006) state:

Encourage your child to play with and use pens, paper, paint, water, balls etc. Through play, young children learn naturally. Play activities provide opportunities for your child to explore, interact and solve problems. (p44)


Dockett, S, and Perry, B. (2006). Starting School: A Handbook for Early Childhood Educators. Pademelon Press: Castle Hill.

Kienig, A. (2002). The importance of social adjustment for future success. In H. Fabian & A. Dunnlop (Eds), Transitions in the Early Years, p23-37. Routledge Falmer: London.

Margetts, K. (2002). Planning transition programmes. In H. Fabian & A. Dunnlop (Eds), Transitions in the Early Years, p111-122. Routledge Falmer: London.

Newman, S. (2004). Stepping Out: Using Games and Activities to Help Your Child with Special Needs. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



balmeras October 24, 2009 at 2:05 AM  

Great post. I also think that parents need to start fostering more independence in their children while still at home.

Shelley October 24, 2009 at 7:46 AM  

Amanda - thanks for these posts - they are great - very helpful. I was particularly interested in the 'passport' - will print it off and see if it works for Han - I might be able to give it to the kindy teachers at orientation.

Amanda October 24, 2009 at 12:18 PM  

Thanks ... and hope it proves useful :)

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