Early Years Transitions

The information below has been taken from a document sent to Tower College from St. Helens Council – we think! It is written for staff but I’m sure that parents will also benefit from the expert knowledge and advice given. Thank you to the author whoever you are!

Transitions experienced in the early years can be a time of excitement and opportunity, as children begin to explore new worlds available to them.   However, they can sometimes also be a source of anxiety and stress.  Children are more vulnerable at times of change; a transition into a new setting is a ‘big deal’ and will involve significant adaptation as children learn to separate from their caregiver, adjust to unfamiliar environments and secure new trusting relationships. This will also be an uncertain time for parents and carers who may also harbour multiple concerns about their children’s welfare, such as how they will settle, how their individual needs will be catered for, and how safe they are to return to social contact etc.

The Coronavirus pandemic has presented a considerable challenge to daily life and the majority of children will have experienced significant disruptions to their typical routines.  For many, this extra time at home will have been rewarding and beneficial for many aspects of their development.  However for some, this prolonged time at home may have been challenging; with families learning to navigate the additional pressures of shrinking worlds with limited social contact whilst managing demands of employment and childcare. Even from a very early age, children are receptive to stress and anxiety experienced by their loved ones and so may find separation from parents and carers more challenging than usual.

Some key points to consider:

Separation from parents and carers

Children may find it especially difficult to separate from parents and caregivers following extended periods at home. This could lead to difficulties in emotional regulation and/or changes in behaviour; this a normal response and to be anticipated. Difficulties with separation could last for some time as children adjust to their change in circumstances. It is important to remain empathetic whilst providing warmth and reassurance; try to question what children’s presenting behaviours may be communicating. Alternatively, some children may not experience any difficulties separating from their parent/carer, this is a normal response too!

Behaviour is a form of communication

Observation will be a key tool in helping interpret how children are managing their transitions into education. Many EYFS children may be unable to verbalise how they are feeling but clues will be identifiable in their behaviour. Look out for behaviours that may indicate stress, anxiety or frustration. This can be facilitated by regular communications with parents and carers, as this will help identify which behaviours are typical and which might require further support.

Prioritise play

Play is essential to children’s social and emotional wellbeing and is fundamental in supporting all aspects of child development.  The benefits of unstructured, self-initiated, social play should not be underestimated, nor should such opportunities be reduced in order to ‘make up for lost time’.

Children learn when they are happy and settled

A key priority in EYFS settings is for children to quickly experience a sense of comfort and security within their surroundings. When children feel settled and secure they will experience the full benefit of the learning environment. Helping children to establish a relationship with a key person is crucial to this process as this will provide the continuity between home and their setting.  It may be tempting for practitioners to attempt to compensate for missed learning by prioritising more academic aspects of the EYFS curriculum over the prime areas of learning.  However this will likely be counterproductive; children’s personal, social and emotional development must remain a key priority throughout transition and beyond.

For further reading on ‘settling children well’ and the role of key person, see: The British Association for Early Childhood Education at https://www.early-education.org.uk/settling-children-well

Adopt a child-centred approach

Now more than ever it is important to lead from children’s interests and strengths as this will support their enjoyment of their environment and help them feel secure.  In the likelihood of pre-transition visits being cancelled, practitioners may wish to use remote methods to gather information about children’s interests, likes and dislikes, strengths and difficulties.

NB: When gathering key information from parents and carers it is especially important for key staff to find out whether children have experienced any loss or bereavement so this can be factored into their care.

Transition into Reception

Reception practitioners need to remain mindful of children’s starting points.  Many children may have experienced a reduced period of time in nursery (if at all) and most will have had reduced access to peer interaction through groups, play gyms and clubs etc.  Thus Reception staff may recognise significant differences in children’s starting points than they are typically used to and considerations should be made towards planning and provision to accommodate this.  For example, children may require a significantly longer period to focus on settling in, making friends, coping with feelings, playing with others, sharing adult attention etc.  However there are many areas of children’s development that will have benefited from additional time spent at home with loved ones; it is important that these are recognised and celebrated.

In collaboration with The Bridge Centre and Early Years Quality Inclusion Team, Dr Trish Lunt provides further important factors for consideration.

Consideration for the curriculum

Changes in behaviour: what might you see?

Adult use of language

What are children communicating in their behaviour?

Facilitating connectedness with parents and carers

Establishing strong relationships with parents and carers should be a core focus for EYFS settings as this will be a key factor in supporting young children’s recovery and re-integration.

Whilst settings may continue to be restricted in delivering their typical transition practices (e.g. home visits, setting visits, transition days prior to September, new parent meetings etc.), now more than ever effective lines of home-school communication will be crucial in addressing questions and alleviating fears.  Each parent/carer will likely have individual concerns about their child attending your setting; the more connected and informed they feel the fewer anxieties they will have, which over time will positively influence their child’s emotional wellbeing.

Wherever possible, try to provide parents and carers with opportunities to be involved in decision making; encouraging parents’ sense of agency and control in their children’s wellbeing will be supportive of their coping.

The Key for School Leaders provide a collection of very useful tips for supporting parental engagement for new reception children, however many of these practices would be suitable for EYFS settings across the age groups.  In addition to the ideas suggested above, settings may wish to consider some of the following ways to facilitate parental connectedness:

  • provide an accessible platform to regularly share information
  • keep information up-to-date and try to ensure no conflicting messages are communicated
  • consider providing an area for FAQs, this could save a lot of time in the long run!
  • seek parent/carer insight regarding children’s wellbeing during transition perhaps through simple online survey tools or home-school diaries, to feed into practice
  • seek parent/carers’ involvement in planning practices
  • having a suggestion box or feedback form available for parents to contribute their ideas and comments (further demonstrating how these are being acted upon)

Emotional wellbeing during transition

The Early Years Foundation Stage is a crucial time in children’s social and emotional development.  This is a stage when children are motivated to explore the world around them. They experience strong preferences and begin to communicate their likes, dislikes to those around them through their emotions.  However, skills of cooperation, flexibility and self-control are in their early stages of development, meaning children tend to act on impulse and often become overwhelmed by their emotions.  Frustration occurs when children are unable to effectively express their feelings, wants and desires to those who can help them.

As children learn to navigate complex emotions in their new social environments they will benefit from a sense of safety, comfort, confidence and encouragement offered through trusted relationships with key workers.

Facilitating self-regulation

Self-regulation describes how well a child can manage their emotional responses and physical impulses within their given environment.  This is a key component for ongoing motivation and capacity for learning throughout childhood.

Babies learn self-regulatory skills very early on through key attachments.  Well-attuned caregivers are sensitive to their infants’ wants and needs; their attentive responses foster a sense of security within the child confirming their needs will be met.  This over time allows infants to develop skills of self-regulation.

Just like older age groups, EYFS children returning to a setting after a prolonged time away are likely to experience a range of feelings.  This may be a mixture of positive emotions such as happiness and excitement but may also be accompanied by uncomfortable feelings such as fear, anxiety or anger. Depending on their previous experiences, children will enter their setting from a range of starting points; some may be independent in their self-regulation whereas others will need constant adult support to reassure, soothe and co-regulate at times of heightened emotion.

Frustration and overwhelm commonly occur during the early years as children begin to experience a range of strong emotions but don’t yet have the understanding to realise what has made them feel this way, nor the verbal skills to effectively communicate how they are feeling.  Teaching children about their emotions will help towards developing emotional self-regulation.

Resources to support the development of young children’s emotional wellbeing

Be responsive to children’s emotions

Help children identify and understand their emotions by naming, describing, and validating emotions as they occur.  Follow this with simple coping strategies. For example, if a child looks frustrated, you might respond:

“You look cross because someone took your toy, your head is down and you stamped your foot.  I would feel cross too if someone took my toy.  Shall we go and ask them to bring it back?”

Support children’s understanding of their emotions in the moment with reference to stories or videos to help provide a context, e.g.

PSHE EYFS / KS1: Feeling Better – Worried

Provide visual representations of feelings and emotions

Use simple visual displays to identify key emotions, e.g. happy, sad, worried, angry, excited.  These should be interactive where children can signal their own emotional states at different times in the day. Examples include:

How do you feel today? Emotion charts by Twinkl
Feelings Thermometer by Twinkl
Zones of Regulation

Explore feelings and emotions through play

Use EYFS provision to help children begin to understand their feelings. Adults can model key emotions and coping skills through use of puppets, role play, small world play, stories as well as guided social interactions across all areas of foundation stage provision.

Additional activities may include:

  • make different facial expressions and children guess which emotion you are feeling, ask them to copy
  • play ‘mirror faces’ by asking children in pairs to copy each other’s emotion expressions
  • have key times in the day when you discuss feeling and emotions as a group, perhaps at snack time, before a story or after the register.  A prompted sentence can help children verbalise their feelings, such as:

                              ‘Today I felt _________ when __________ .’

           Daily repetition will help children develop emotional literacy.

  • use story time to ask how the characters might be feeling, ask children to consider how they would feel if it was them
  • make a memory jarto collect some of the children’s best memories of being in their previous setting or at home during lockdown.
EYFS I Am Feeling Worried PowerPoint

Explore feelings and emotions through music and dance

The Excited Song

Music and dance can also be used as a therapeutically to support children’s self-regulatory skills. Some songs favoured by practitioners include:

Explore feelings and emotions through storytelling

Read-a-long stories:

Picture books for your bookshelf:

Supporting young children’s emotional dysregulation

The following information has been sourced in part from Southend Educational Psychology Service.


This is a simple but effective response to help contain children’s strong emotions.  This can be achieved by quietly ‘being there’ with:

  • presence
  • silent attention
  • waiting patiently, not intruding
  • holding, soothing
  • attuning to their non-verbal communications
  • bearing frustrations and distress, but not advising

Calm Box

This is an effective resource to have handy and accessible for children who are in an emotionally aroused state to help them experience a sense of calm.  They commonly contain a variety of sensory objects such as blowing bubbles, play-dough, fidget toys, squishy/stretchy toys, tactile fabrics such as sequin cushions, soft blankets, visual stimulators such as kaleidoscopes, glitter bottles, snow globes etc. See Send Gateway Calm Box for ideas.

Activities and puzzles can shift an emotionally aroused child’s emotional state by encouraging problem solving.  These might include:

  • jigsaw puzzles
  • matching games
  • dot-to-dots
  • sorting shapes, buttons etc
  • colouring pictures
  • simple lego tasks

Pinterest Calm Box Suggestions

Relaxing activities

  • sleeping lions
  • cuddle teddy and close your eyes
  • have a slow drink of water
  • mindfulness (see below)
  • meditation music
  • quiet hum / Om
  • peer massage (when social distancing allows) e.g. pizza on back / rainstorm
  • self massage/ squeezing/ rubbing/ tapping on different parts of the body
  • guided visualisation / imagining
  • roll in a blanket

Helping children to manage the rise and fall of emotional states:

  • parachute play
  • musical instruments ‘conducted’ by an adult to control rhythms and levels of excitement
  • run and stop games
  • dance and melt
  • dramatic ups and downs in movement
  • circle games which rise and fall in tempo

Mindfulness in EYFS

Research shows mindfulness can support mental and physical health conditions, social skills and emotional wellbeing, and can also support cognitive development and learning. Neuroscience research demonstrates mindfulness mediation can improve quality of thoughts and feelings (Weare, 2012).

Relaxation and mindfulness videos to watch online with EYFS children: