School readiness: what does it mean for Indigenous children, families, schools and communities?

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School readiness: what does it mean for Indigenous children, families, schools and communities?

Issues paper no. 2 produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse

Sue Dockett, Bob Perry and Emma Kearney, December 2010


What we know

  • School readiness is a multidimensional construct, recognising the interplay of children’s individual characteristics and the contexts in which they live, and have lived, as they grow and develop.

  • School readiness incorporates three major components:

  • children’s readiness for school

  • schools’ readiness for children

  • the capacity of families and communities to provide the necessary opportunities, conditions and supports to optimise children’s development and learning.

What works

  • Schools that employ and value Indigenous staff provide ‘ready’ links between school, families and communities which can enhance the transition to school for Indigenous children.

  • Positive professional links and regular communication between prior-to-school educators and school educators support children’s transition to school.

  • Positive involvement of families and engagement with other community members in Indigenous children’s transition to school are important components of making a school ‘ready’.

  • High-quality early childhood education helps prepare children for school.

What doesn’t work

  • ‘Lack of readiness’ is not a problem of children being insufficiently skilled to learn at school, but instead it is where there is a mismatch between the attributes of individual children and families, and the ability and resources of the school and/or system to engage and respond appropriately.

  • Assessment of Indigenous children through tests based in non-Indigenous culture can reinforce ‘gaps’ in knowledge and skills, rather than building positive images of Indigenous children as learners.

  • Approaches to readiness and transition to school that focus only on developing Indigenous children’s skills and not on broader factors such as schools, families and communities do not necessarily lead to improved school success.

What we don’t know

  • There is insufficient information on what Indigenous parents and communities understand by ‘readiness for school’.

  • There is no national agreement on what is important in terms of readiness for school, how to measure it and what the indicators of readiness might be.

  • We don’t know whether United States’ and other international interventions will work in Australia.

  • There is no solid evidence of benefits, particularly cost benefits, of many early childhood interventions in Australia.



There have been several literature reviews, topical papers and policy briefs in recent years, reflecting a growing interest across Australia in both the transition to school and perceptions of school readiness (see for example, Centre for Community Child Health, 2008a; Erebus International & Minimbah Consultants 2008; Farrar, Goldfeld & Moore 2007; McTurk et al. 2008; Smart et al. 2008; Sorin & Markotsis 2008). This growing interest is also seen in policy at national, state and local levels. For example, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has noted the early years as a critical time in development that influences children’s transition to school (COAG Reform Council, 2009; Commonwealth of Australia 2009b). These COAG commitments are reflected in the national Early Years Learning Framework (Commonwealth of Australia 2009a), which describes transitions as times of opportunity and challenge, recognising that many people and contexts contribute to successful transitions, including the transition to school.

The national roll-out of programs to support readiness, such as Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters (HIPPY) (Dean & Leung 2010), and the move to provide a population measure of children’s readiness through the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) (Centre for Community Child Health and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research 2009) are further evidence of the political interest in school readiness. At the state and local level, many school systems, districts and early childhood networks have developed approaches and programs to support children’s transition to school. These programs often address school readiness.

The transition to school is a focus point for considering school readiness (Boethel 2004), with the actions of children, families, educators and communities reflecting a range of perceptions and expectations. The transition process occurs over time and incorporates a broad range of experiences that together provide a solid basis for the start of school. Such experiences could include health and welfare services, community or parenting support programs and access to high-quality early childhood education programs (Ackerman & Barnett 2005; Centre for Community Child Health 2008a; Dockett & Perry 2007; Farrar et al. 2007).

There are many definitions of school readiness. Some refer to the skills and attributes of individual children, defining it as ‘the state of child competencies at the time of school entry that are important for later success’ (Snow 2006:9). Others are based more on holistic approaches, considering not only characteristics of the individual child, but also a range of influences on their development and learning, such as the family, school and community (Centre for Community Child Health 2008a; Dockett & Perry 2009; Vernon-Feagans et al. 2008).

In this paper, school readiness for Indigenous Australian children is investigated from the basis of the strengths of all concerned—children, families, educators and communities. Research is analysed and programs are described. An overview of these programs is provided in the section ‘Which readiness programs and activities have been developed both nationally and internationally?’, with more details provided in Appendix 2.

What is school readiness?

Early ideas about readiness focused on the characteristics of individual children, including their age, maturity and/or academic skills (Kagan & Rigby 2003; Snow 2006). As a result, children were labelled as ‘ready’ or ‘unready’ for school. With the advent of the then US President Bush’s United States National Education Goal that ‘... all children in America will start school ready to learn’ (National Education Goals Panel 1991), broader conceptualisations of readiness have been promoted both in the US and internationally. These refer to readiness as multi-dimensional, recognising the interplay of children’s individual characteristics and the contexts in which they live, and have lived, as they grow and develop (Kagan & Rigby 2003). Representing this view, Meisels (1999:62–3) has argued that:

Readiness must be conceptualised as a broad construct that incorporates all aspects of a child’s life that contribute directly to that child’s ability to learn. Definitions of readiness must take into account the setting, context, and conditions under which the child acquires skills and is encouraged to learn. Assessment of readiness must, in consequence, incorporate data collected over time from the child, teacher, parents, and community.

Three components have been identified in broad definitions of readiness:

  • children’s readiness for school

  • schools’ readiness for children

  • the capacity of families and communities to provide the necessary opportunities, conditions and supports to optimise children’s development and learning.

Aligned with these components are several dimensions, noted in Table 1. It is the interaction of each of these that constitutes readiness for school: each of the components and dimensions is considered necessary, but not sufficient, for children’s readiness.

Many of the state-based strategies for improving readiness developed in the United States in recent years have recognised these components of readiness (for example, First 5 2004; Rhode Island KIDS COUNT 2005; The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families 2003). Similar definitions have been promoted in Australia (Centre for Community Child Health 2008a,b; Dockett & Perry 2007, 2009; Farrar et al. 2007; Sorin & Markotsis 2008). In addition to these components, there is recognition that support for readiness needs to go beyond individual communities to the broader societal level, where focus on the importance of the early childhood years, commitment to investment, supportive government policies and programs underpin notions of a ‘ready society’ (Dickens et al. 2006; Mustard 2006).

Broad definitions of school readiness are based in ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner & Morris 1998), which recognises the influence of the children themselves, family, school, community and the availability of appropriate services and support within conceptualisations of readiness for school. From this perspective, school readiness is a multifaceted construct, which incorporates a broad picture of children’s abilities, health, and behaviours, as well as the capacity of families, educational programs and the broader community to support children’s early learning and development (Boethel 2004; High PC & The Committee on Early Childhood Adoption and Dependent Care Council on School Health 2008).

Reflecting the different components, discussions of school readiness draw on the following three major bodies of research:

  • children’s readiness—the relative importance and interplay of children’s skills and abilities across developmental domains. This literature includes issues related to the measurement of readiness and assessment of young children

  • ready schools—the contributions of school contexts to children’s readiness

  • family and community supports—readiness as an outcome of children’s early educational experiences and home environment.

Children’s readiness for school

There is a great deal of research connecting readiness with child-specific factors that are linked to children’s later school success. Some of this research focuses on the age at which children start school, despite recognition that age is not a reliable predictor of school success (Meisels 1999).

Considerable attention has also been directed towards children’s cognitive and language skills at school entry and, more recently, to other developmental domains and their contributions to readiness (Arnold et al. 2006; Duncan et al. 2007; Janus & Offord 2007). For example, in addition to studies of children’s literacy and numeracy skills (Blair 2001; Leigh & Gong 2008), there have been studies emphasising the importance of:

  • children’s physical and mental health (Cook, Schaller & Krischer 1985; Zubrick et al. 2006)

  • emotional wellbeing, and social skills as they start school (Blair 2003; Mashburn & Pianta 2006; Stacks & Oshio 2009)

  • some studies have considered the interaction of children’s development across different dimensions and the implications of these at school entry (Hair et al. 2006).

Results indicate that all areas of development—not just cognitive and language domains—are important in promoting school success (Forget-Dubois et al. 2007). This approach was reinforced in The Report of the Review of Aboriginal Education (NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc and NSW Department of Education and Training 2004) when it was recognised that ‘a holistic approach to addressing the specific health, development and wellbeing needs of Aboriginal children in the context of strengthening the capacity of families and communities to meet those needs’ was required in transition to school programs.

Recognition of the importance of developmental domains in readiness has spurred a range of assessment approaches, often focusing on levels of achievement in specific areas, as measured on a range of tests. While it is possible to identify such tests (Meisels 2007; Snow & Van Hemel 2008; Sorin & Markotsis 2008), problems with their use as school readiness measures have also been identified. Readiness tests are used much more in the United States than in Australia. However, there is debate about the appropriateness of assessing young children on high-stakes tests, and in particular, basing major educational decisions on the outcomes of such tests (Meisels 1999, 2007).

Pianta’s (2004) analysis of over 70 published studies showed ‘significant instability in the way children perform on formal assessments of academic and social skills during the transition period’. Meisels (2007) describes young children as ‘unreliable test takers’, affected by the nature of the testing environments as much as the tests themselves. Further, he argues that testing children at school entry assumes that children have had access to the same learning experiences and opportunities before school and that they are all being prepared for the same educational context.

In addition to questioning both the validity and reliability of assessments, or indeed any single indicator of children’s growth and development, researchers (Brown et al. 2007; La Paro & Pianta 2000; Meisels 2007; Snow 2006) have argued that assessments of readiness should be the start of an appropriate learning and teaching program, rather than a prediction about how performance levels are linked to future school success. This argument supports a view of readiness as a relative construct, where teachers in different schools will have different definitions of what is required to engage effectively in their classroom environments. Parents and caregivers are likely to have different views of readiness from educators (Barbarin et al. 2008; Hatcher & Engelbrecht 2006). It also supports children’s knowledge and skills being considered relative to the opportunities they have experienced (Graue 2006; Kagan 2007; Meisels 2007).

Following from this, readiness is not something that children should be required to demonstrate before they start school; rather, it develops within environments where adults and peers support children’s learning and development through participation in meaningful and relevant experiences (Rogoff 2003). Despite growing support for the view of readiness as relative, there remain jurisdictions in which measuring children’s skills is the main focus of school readiness assessment. Caution is required when considering the adoption of such approaches (McTurk et al. 2008; Meisels 2007).

Alternative modes of readiness assessment, including observational assessments (Meisels et al. 2008), those that focus on children’s learning and development across the first year of school (Tymms et al. 2004) and population measures such as the Early Development Index (EDI) (Janus & Offord 2007) and the AEDI (Centre for Community Child Health & the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research 2009) have been proposed. Meisels (2007) has argued that any assessment of readiness should consider not only child outcomes, but also program and support evaluations and home, school and other learning environments.

Various approaches to the assessment of children’s school readiness are employed across Australia. Rather than those to determine whether or not children should enter school, such assessments occur once children have commenced school and are intended guide learning programs in the first year (Dockett & Perry 2007). While these may not be the high-stakes tests used in the United States, the same cautions about formal assessments for young children apply. A recent review notes that few studies have assessed Indigenous and non-Indigenous cohorts separately. Indigenous children typically do not perform as well on standardised assessments as their non-Indigenous counterparts, and there is call for the development of suitable tools for assessing Indigenous children’s school readiness (McTurk et al. 2008).

Ready schools

Broad definitions of readiness emphasise the role of schools engaging children in meaningful and relevant learning experiences, in keeping with the premise that readiness develops in environments which offer support and challenge (Hair et al. 2006; Rogoff 2003), and that the school environment impacts on student outcomes (Frigo et al. 2004; Marcon 2002).

As part of the focus on defining readiness, the United States National Education Goals Panel (Shore 1998) identified ‘ten keys to ready schools’. Recent adaptations highlight the importance of the following characteristics of ready schools:

  • strong leadership; continuity between early education and school programs

  • support for positive transitions

  • respect for diversity and commitment to each child as a successful learner

  • focus on promoting learning for all, including adapting educational programs as appropriate for individual children

  • professional teacher preparation and opportunities for professional development

  • supporting and welcoming learning environments, including appropriate class sizes and quality curriculum

  • strategies to promote ongoing student attendance and achievement

  • commitment to family engagement

  • recognition of children as members of communities

(adapted from Ackerman & Barnett 2005; Arnold et al. 2006; Clark & Zygmunt-Fillwalk 2008; HighScope Educational Research Foundation 2007).

Each of these characteristics has been identified as important in promoting readiness. For example, promoting continuity between prior-to-school services and transition to school programs has been noted as assisting children and families to feel comfortable, valued and successful at school (Clark & Zygmunt-Fillwalk 2008; Dockett, Mason & Perry 2006). Children who participated in transition programs were judged by first-year teachers to make more positive adjustments to school than their peers who had not participated (LoCasale-Crouch et al. 2008). In addition, transition practices involving families can promote ongoing family involvement in school activities (Dockett et al. 2008; Schulting et al. 2005).

Clearly, ‘ready’ schools require ‘ready’ teachers and other staff who are able to support the listed characteristics of ready schools. In his work in Cherbourg State School, Sarra (2005) has reinforced the need for high expectations of all involved in Indigenous children’s education and for strong community/school relationships. The notion of challenge within a supportive environment is critical. While expectations need to be high, young children starting school need to establish their identities as successful school learners in ways that show school is ‘for them’ (Department of Education, Training and the Arts 2007; Dockett & Perry 2007). Hence, teacher education programs, both pre- and in-service, need to instil these expectations. More generally, teacher education programs should address notions such as ‘ready schools’ for all students, including Indigenous children.

Programs that focus on the transition to school can help set a school climate that demonstrates respect for individual learners and fosters a sense of belonging for both children and families (Dockett et al. 2008; Margetts 2007; Peters 2010; Rimm-Kaufman et al. 2000). Such a climate is necessary to promote the engagement of all children, but can be particularly important for children from minority backgrounds (Dockett et al. 2008; NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc. & NSW Department of Education and Training 2004; Purdie et al. 2000).

School environments that are welcoming and supportive demonstrate this in both their curriculum and organisation. For example, school organisation that promotes effective learning addresses issues such as class size—with children in smaller classes consistently outperforming those in larger classes (Finn et al. 2003). Further, curriculum and pedagogy that uses culturally appropriate approaches—including children’s home languages (Arnold et al. 2006)—and recognises cultural ways of knowing (Martin 2007) can promote engagement with school for Indigenous children and families (Department of Education, Training and the Arts 2007; Dockett et al. 2008; Frigo et al. 2004). For example:

When our children engage in the journey of education that does not do violence to their culture, it teaches them to dream of possibilities and not be a prisoner of certainty. It teaches our children to be the best they can be. Education that welcomes Indigenous identities reinforces Indigenous cultural views of the world (Rigney 2001).

In some Canadian as well as Australian contexts, recognising more than one way of knowing has been critical for schools to promote learning success for all children (Canadian Council on Learning 2007; Fasoli et al. 2004). A direct result is the need for schools to employ and value local Indigenous staff who understand the culture and language and who can provide a link for Indigenous children between home, community, and school (Sarra 2005).

One of the key features of the school environment is the teacher. It is well established that teacher quality plays an important role in the delivery of quality curriculum and student achievement in the early years (Early et al. 2006; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 2005). Positive relationships between families and teachers promote children’s engagement with school (Department of Education Science and Training 2005; Keyes 2002). Positive teacher–child relationships are noted as a key factor in children’s school success (Early et al. 2007; Hamre & Pianta 2001). Teacher–child relationships are bidirectional, with both teachers and children contributing to the nature of the relationship (Rudasill et al. 2006). When teachers and children have some common background, such as culture or language, teachers tend to view children positively (Saft & Pianta 2001).

This reinforces further the critical place of local Indigenous school staff in Indigenous children’s schooling (Bethel 2006; Dockett et al. 2008; Fleet et al. 2007; Sarra 2005). Positive teacher–child relationships act as important social resources for children, impacting on their willingness to engage in learning experiences at school (Hamre & Pianta 2001). In particular, strong emotional support from teachers is linked to enhanced engagement and academic performance (Curby et al. 2009), and school policies and programs that promote positive teacher–child interactions are reported to facilitate children’s school readiness (Mashburn et al. 2008).

Ready schools also promote family engagement—a key element in children’s educational success (Henderson & Mapp 2002). This is influenced by factors such as socioeconomic status, cultural and language diversity, community expectations and parent or family characteristics (Huntsinger & Jose 2009; Lareau & Weininger 2008; Waanders et al. 2007). Critically, schools need to be ready to work together with families and communities to develop such engagement.

The power differentials between schools and individual families require schools to take an active role in leading such development. Partnerships between families and teachers facilitate a positive start to school and promote children’s achievement (Brown 2009; Chan 2010). While some families find it challenging to engage with schools (Miedel & Reynolds 1999), teachers play an important role in promoting family engagement (Peters et al. 2007) and reaching out to families (Angus 2009). The importance of positive relationships between teachers and Indigenous parents, and caregivers, in promoting engagement with school has been emphasised in Australian and overseas reports (Malatest & Associates Ltd 2002; NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc. & NSW Department of Education and Training 2004). For example:

  • Teachers and school leaders are responsible for establishing positive prior-to-school relationships and supporting Aboriginal parents and students through the critical transition from home to school or from one world to another, by creating welcoming, family-oriented and parent friendly schools (NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc & NSW Department of Education and Training 2004).

In all state and territory curricula in Australia there is specified core material to be learned. Across each school week or term, there is also a period of discretionary time, where schools can include additional experiences. This flexibility encourages schools to undertake learning activities of relevance to the local children, families and community. One way in which schools could be ‘ready’ for their communities is to involve them in decisions around the specification, activities and teaching of these discretionary parts of the curriculum. An example of this can be seen in the Mathematics in Indigenous Contexts K–6 program (Board of Studies NSW 2007). There is concern that some of this flexibility might be lost with the advent of an Australian curriculum (Burgess 2009).

Assessing the readiness of schools involves identifying indicators of the characteristics outlined previously. This has occurred in some US states, such as South Carolina, which has developed an assessment protocol which records student attendance, student:teacher ratios, parent involvement, reports of external program evaluations, teacher professional development, teacher qualifications and classroom environment (Freeman & Brown 2008). Similar programs have been developed in other US states (Brandt & Grace 2005; Gonzalez 2002; The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families 2003).

Key issues for Australian schools to be ‘ready’ for Indigenous children, families and communities centre on the relationships that these schools can build with all of these people, their willingness to honour and celebrate local Indigenous culture and knowledge, and their ability to recognise the strengths of the children and build from these in relevant and meaningful ways. All of this depends on the school professionals accessing the required knowledge and dispositions and enacting them from a strengths-based perspective.

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