Thirty-nine parents from communities of relatively high disadvantage participated in this study. All parents had at least one preschool age child (i.e., a child who had not started full-time school) and were attending pre-school programs such as LiL, kindergarten or CFCs with varying frequency. Five parents (13%) reported undertaking any form of further education after completing senior secondary schooling and just over half reported their highest level of education was Year 10 or less (see Table 2). Results are presented according to the five themes of school readiness parents discussed: physical, behavioural, socio-emotional, literacy and numeracy, and language and communication. Three non-child based themes are also presented: how parents see their own role in readiness, parents being prepared for school and services assisting parents and children prepare for school.
Parental discussions of school readiness revealed four specific developmental competencies that were considered critical aspects of school readiness. These were toileting (physical theme), ability to interact positively with other children (socio-emotional theme), separation from parents (socio-emotional theme), and listening (behavioural theme). The four key competencies are discussed in more detail under the relevant themes. Significantly, parents also recognised that children differed and developed at their own pace. In the results, quotes attributed to parents are identified by P, followed by a number while quotes referring to fieldnotes will be identified as fieldnote.
For parents, independence was important and was chiefly signalled by a child’s ability to manage hygiene (use the toilet and wash their hands); they also talked about children’s fine and gross motor skills. Parents felt their child needed to be independently using the toilet. “You can’t go to school [son], if you don’t go to the toilet. And that was a really big issue” (P1). Even when children were “in night-time nappies” (P6), being able to manage their own hygiene at school was a sign of readiness.
Some parents identified the need for fine motor skills, like “holding a pen or crayon, you can encourage but it comes along later” (P3), as linked with readiness. One parent’s daughter “has had an awesome pencil grip from about 18 months old.[Son] started kinder and he still didn’t know if he was left or right handed.[…] He needs a bit of extra work on his fine motor” (P19). Again, the idea that a child developed at their own pace was acknowledged.
Parents spoke of the need for children to be able to run, skip, climb and use play equipment in order to be ready for school. A second aspect of this skill set was the capacity of the child to exercise control over their body.
[Son] had an absolute ball. He loved it, he loved it. He spent time outside with other kids riding bikes, playing in the sand, swings and so on plus we also did activities inside. Drawing and colouring and painting and pasting, reading books and that sort of thing. (P14)
Pre-school services and opportunities like those provided by the CFC or LiL were recognised by parents as being part of building these skills. “It [pre-kinder] was a very important service to get him ready for kinder” (P14). These programs provided opportunities for developing greater physical skills.
Physical readiness was also understood in terms of how children use their bodies in the school setting. This readiness was evident in RJ′s observation of a teacher aide referring to crossed legs as “kinder legs” and requiring a child to sit with his legs crossed during mat time (River Town fieldnotes), something they found difficult.
Behavioural readiness was conceptualised as the capacity to listen to teachers and follow instructions: “if they’re going to listen […] well they’re going to learn aren’t they?” (P10). “Listening to instructions” is part of the AEDC measures and was provided to parents as one of our prompt statements; they agreed that it was important:
No, I think to learn […] to understand orders or whatnot, it would help when it comes to learning from a teacher. Like a teacher said, “Can you go and grab this” or “I want you to draw today.” I think it might help. (P16)
Parents felt they had to prepare their child for having “to do some new things” and that “it’s going to be school and that she’s going to have to listen to the teacher” (P18). Children being ready to listen and follow instructions was also identified as making life easier for teachers. While listening is clearly linked to language and communication, parents’ discussions reflected a behavioural aspect to this concept.
Parents in the study recognised that their children needed to be able to separate from them; this was a significant theme and is congruent with their recognition of the importance of being able to use the toilet. Both signal the child’s developing independence. Parents wanted their children to be “confident enough to be away from me for a day or half a day” (P8). Being ready for school meant coping with not having “that little safety net of Mum or Dad around” (P30), and knowing “that they can be by themselves and […] that they can socialise sort of with some other children” (P25).
Some parents found the idea of separation distressing. They were nervous about sending their child to school for the first time—“you just didn’t know how he was going to go and whether he wanted to come home” (P17). Separation could be a source of anxiety, with one mother expressing concern about how her child was going to cope in kindergarten. This parent considered keeping their child at home another year because they were “very shy and did not like being away from Mum” (fieldnotes).
Parents reported that social-emotional readiness matters: they felt that children’s ability to get on with teachers and with other children was part of being able to manage at school. They considered it important for children to develop the necessary social skills before they started full-time school. In the meantime, they could “go at their own pace” (P23, P21). Kindergarten, too, was an opportunity for some of this skill development to take place:
I think when they get to kindergarten I think they more need to learn to be sociable and play with others and have fun[…] I want them to enjoy kindergarten and learn to be around other people more and sharing (P21).
Parents listed several skills needed for being around other children. They included sharing, respecting other children and how to “stick [speak] up for herself if she needs to” (P8). They knew that their child needed to “get used to meeting different kids and dealing with how other kids interact with you” (P12). Readiness also meant children relying less on parents as social contacts and as go-betweens for their social interactions. Without such preparation, “It’s just too much of a shock to rock up at school on the first day and go, hey, this is what you’re going to be doing” (P1). For this parent, the need for the child to develop this capacity overcame the distance they had to travel to attend activities like LiL or the CFC. However, a few parents who used services less frequently considered their child had sufficient opportunities to socialise through regular interaction with same-aged cousins or children of friends.
Parents tended to see emotional readiness in terms of emotion control, like “being able to share, be a little bit responsible” and knowing that “if you are mean to someone, they are going to be mean back” (P11). Being able to articulate emotions was seen as “a good thing. That’s about self-awareness and emotional maturity (P18).
Literacy and Numeracy Readiness
Parents in the study mostly regarded academic skills (Thomas 2013) (e.g., writing words, counting) as skills that are taught in Kindergarten, “just because he can’t write his name on the day that he starts kindergarten doesn’t mean he won’t be able to write a sentence a year later” (P9). For other parents, these skills were something that they explicitly taught their child or were things the child could just do. One mother said that her son “knew his colours”, a sign that “he was ready” (P36). Another child met this readiness domain because she “could talk fairly well. She could count to 20. She knew her A, B, Cs” (P16). Those parents who taught their child argued that it was important for the child to:
learn at least a few numbers or something and maybe some words. Like, probably not to be able to spell them, but how to say words and at least count numbers, not actually write the numbers down. That’s what I do with my children. (P17).
Most parents recognised the importance of reading, and reported they were doing this with their children.
Language and Communication Readiness
Parents linked language and communication skills with socialising, and with being responsive in class. One parent reported that their child’s “communication is really good, too. She’ll talk to the children when she needs someone to help them or whatever” (P15). Communication meant expressing needs and this required that the child could speak clearly. Parents wanted to address children’s speech and communication problems now, rather than: “leave it till when he's nearly due to go to school and still ha[s] a speech problem” (P21). The social aspects of communication were also part of readiness, as one father pointed out: “I think language might be a big one there too actually—you don’t want a child to go to school that thinks it’s alright to swear!” (P10).
How Parents See Their Own Role in ‘Readiness’
Parents considered it their role to impart many of the requisite ‘readiness’ skills to their children, though they framed them more generally as life skills. Encouraging was an important part of this work (e.g., “I will always read them to her because we're always trying to encourage her to be proactive in books”, (P2)). Parents wanted to provide opportunities that support their child’s readiness, exposing their children to new experiences and activities: “I am her parent, her sole carer, so I think that I should be teaching her all these things, so she can be a better kid” (P13). Some of this was linked with ensuring the child’s independence through “just practice and reassuring them: you’ve got to wash your hands, you’ve got to do this” (P30). Parents understood much of this teaching or readiness preparation as “all mixed into one. You’re playing with toys, you’re teaching them to tidy them up, […] Going outside to play ball or play on the swing, doing physical development. So, without even thinking of teaching them you’re teaching them” (P21). Parents were teaching by example and acknowledging their role as teacher “parents have to teach their children listening skills” (P16). They were taking on a training role, focusing on “holding a pen and scissors” (P12), “go[ing] through numbers with her and the alphabet” (P12), and “in the bathtub we count fingers and toes and stuff like that” (P16).
Some parents did not always feel they had the skills to impart the needed lessons and sought the advice of teachers:
… I think I was doing something wrong and then I got advice from teacher or someone here [CFC]… Teachers can teach our children a lot more than what we can I think, in certain areas, if you know what I mean. (P16)
Parents Also Being Prepared for School
It was clear that some pre-school services were also readying parents for their child’s schooling. Teachers and other service staff recognised that parents played a critical role in supporting their child’s transition to school and were preparing parents for the behaviour expected—of them and of their child—at school. For instance, before reading an end-of-session story, a LiL teacher “addressed the parents—speaking to them about modelling listening behaviour and paying attention to the story” (fieldnotes). When asked about this, the teacher said that parents “are role models for their children”.
The need for ‘good manners’ was also promoted. At one LiL, this was evident in conversations teachers had with parents and was a feature of “art displays that have a focus on manners, respect, and behaviour. How to speak to other people [and] how to behave in the classroom” (fieldnotes). The researcher noted the link between these displays and “comments from [teacher] today about the large amount of work she needs to put into teaching children and parents what sorts of behaviour are acceptable at school” (fieldnotes). At a CFC, promoting manners occurred via songs and stories. Parents were also encouraged not to speak when the teacher was speaking or use mobile phones in the classroom. Some CFCs displayed posters encouraging parents to put their phones away, linking interaction between parent and child as important for a child’s brain development. One teacher commented that they experienced challenges “engaging families who do not always share [their] values and perspectives on their child’s development” (fieldnotes).
Services Assisting Parents and Child Prepare for School
Parents identified the services delivered by the Department of Education (LiL and CFCs) as supporting them to prepare their children for school. Parents valued the CHaPS service, but it was not directly linked to school readiness by parents. LiL and CFCs were considered important in supporting their child’s social readiness and preparation for the school environment, particularly for the development of social skills— “a good thing about coming to a place like this [CFC], you get used to meeting different kids and dealing with how other kids interact with you” (P12). These services were identified as important for encouraging children to listen, a skill parents felt was important for learning and managing the transition to school; “the listening and following instructions and things like that which is what LIL is good for” (P20). LiL also introduced children and parents to the school environment, teaching and support staff, and potential classmates. This scaffolded the transition to school. Starting school would be “easier on [them] because [they] sort of seen the teachers around the yard, [they’ve] been around the school, [they’ve] been in the kinder yard” (P21).