Introduction Transitions are now recognised as central to young children’s experiences and well-being, as well as a powerful integrative framework for research. This review surveys major conceptual tools that shed light on different aspects of early childhood transitions. The objectives are twofold: 1) to review major research perspectives on early childhood transitions and 2) to identify significant trends (and gaps) in the knowledge base of scholarly as well as professional studies. The findings of the review point to the value of widening perspectives on transitions in order to inform integrated and contextualised child-focused policy and programming. The major purpose of the review is to assist the Bernard van Leer Foundation and its partner organisations in their efforts to foster realisation of universal child rights in culturally sensitive ways. By linking concepts, theories and practice, the review offers an accessible resource that will, we hope, have wide appeal for both researchers and practitioners concerned with early childhood transitions. Following the working definition of General Comment 7 to the Convention on the Rights of the Child,1 ‘early childhood’ is understood as the period below the age of 8 (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2005: 2). Early years transitions research and policy is especially important to realising the rights of young children, as this phase of life is generally acknowledged as a period of accelerated and intense change, usually involving multiple developmental, social, and (for increasing numbers of children), institutional transitions, each of which has implications for current well-being and long-term outcomes. The term ‘transitions’ has a variety of meanings that are not readily captured in a single definition.
The review takes an inclusive understanding of transitions as its starting point. We aim to situate different approaches within relevant theoretical frameworks in order to highlight the underlying assumptions about childhood and child development that inform them. One generic definition would be that transitions are key events and/or processes occurring at specific periods or turning points during the life course. They are generally linked to changes in a person’s appearance, activity, status, roles and relationships, as well as associated changes in use of physical and social space, and/or changing contact with cultural beliefs, discourses and practices, especially where these are linked to changes of setting and in some cases dominant language. They often involve significant psychosocial and cultural 1 In 2005, General Comment 7 arose out of the Committee of the Rights of the Child’s concern about the lack of information being offered about early childhood and a perceived need for a discussion on the broader implications of the Convention on the Rights of the Child for young children. Through General Comment 7, the Committee wishes to encourage recognition that young children are holders of all rights enshrined in the Convention and that early childhood is a critical period for the realisation of these rights.
adjustments with cognitive, social and emotional dimensions, depending on the nature and causes of the transition, the vulnerability or resilience of those affected and the degrees of change and continuity of experiences involved. In practice, transition concepts are often used in much more differentiated and specific ways, for example, in terms of vertical and horizontal ‘passages’ (Kagan and Neuman, 1998: 366). Vertical transitions may be thought of as key changes from one state or status to another, often associated with ‘upward’ shifts (e.g.,, from kindergarten to primary school; from primary to secondary school, etc.). General Comment 7 as well as most research conducted within the field of education studies is primarily concerned with the kinds of vertical shifts produced within the context of formal schooling. Indeed, in many secularised societies the significant transitions of early childhood are intimately linked with educational institutions (Arnold et al., 2007: 2; UNESCO 2006: 14). Less attention has been paid by educational researchers to what are sometimes referred to as ‘education-associated transition processes’ (Fabian and Dunlop, 2007: 11), those less-formal changes in children’s lives and routines that occur outside institutional settings. Nonetheless, these apparently ‘peripheral’ changes may in fact crucially and continuously shape children’s experiences and pathways, and be very ‘central’
in shaping children’s life trajectory and well-being. Indeed, these key social transitions during the life course have been routinely studied by anthropologists working within a very different paradigm and most often within non-western societies where childhood has until recently been less decisively shaped by age-related institutions and laws. Social transitions are just as significant, seen as critical thresholds and often referred to as ‘rites of passage’, a term originally introduced by Van Gennep (1960). These transitions are rooted in local belief systems and typically expressed through rituals (e.g., circumcision, first communion) that may or may not be organised by formal institutions (Morrow, 2003: 268). Horizontal transitions are less distinctive than vertical transitions and occur on an everyday basis. They refer to the movements children (or indeed any human being) routinely make between various spheres or domains of their lives (e.g., everyday movements between home and school or from one caretaking setting to another). These structure children’s movement across space and over time, and into and out of the institutions that impact on their well-being. Research on early institutional transitions has tended to conceptualise transitions as a ‘one-point’ event (e.g., first day at primary school). However, since the late 1990s, research directions have been shifting, with more studies understanding transitions as a multi-layered and multi-year process, involving multiple continuities and discontinuities of experience (Petriwskyj, Thorpe, Tayler, 2005: 63). Nonetheless, transitions research continues to focus largely on modern educational institutions in Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, 2 with major research gaps on transition practices in less-industrialised contexts. To anticipate the conclusions of the review, more studies are needed to explore the impact of educational programmes that reflect and adapt to children’s diverse local environments.
At the same time, studies into children’s educational transitions increasingly emphasise the need to make more explicit the link between socio-cultural contexts and children’s school transition experiences (e.g., Yeboah, 2002). This review explores how a range of transitions concepts and research can inform rights-based early childhood policies and practices. It does not focus on policy and programme developments per se, but on underlying conceptualisations about transitions in early childhood. The review emerged in response to the growing need for orientation among the myriad concepts and theories in both child research and practice: “[P]eople often dismiss theoretical or pure research as being of no consequence for children and having no importance in the ‘real’ world. This attitude could not be more incorrect. Good applied research depends upon theoretical work both at the stage of developing a research project and when results are being analyzed.” (Boyden and Ennew, 1997: 10) The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child corroborates the importance of theory in informing rights-based work with children:
“Theory and evidence from early childhood research has a great deal to offer in the development of policies and practices, as well as in the monitoring and evaluation of initiatives and the education and training of all responsible for the well-being of young children” (UNCRC et al., 2006: 53). Overview
Chapter 1 begins by outlining developmental concepts which underpin transition themes, in particular those associated with the theories of Jean Piaget and other ‘stage’ theorists. Their ideas are highlighted early on because so much transitions research builds on or reacts to core developmental assumptions. Chapter 1 then introduces socio-cultural perspectives on early childhood transitions. These are distinguished by their focus on how children learn by interacting with their immediate socio-cultural environments (e.g., caregivers, peers). This emphasis has been elaborated by several disciplines within the social sciences and is increasingly mirrored in early child development programmes around the world. Chapter 2 examines the different ways in which transitions are structured, drawing attention to varying logics that can be employed to mark transitions in early childhood. Institutional settings often use biological age as the criterion for readiness. By contrast, socio-cultural transitions are often marked through rites of passage, following the cultural and economic reasoning of a given community.
Also, around the world children engage in horizontal transitions as they move between