Narratives of Starting School: Learning from Aboriginal children, their mothers, and their educators

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The transition to school is a pivotal life phase that has significant implications for each individual’s sense of self. The transition to school is a time when children’s and families’ established ways of being, knowing and doing interface with those expected and promoted in schools. Each of the children in the study had Aboriginal heritage through one or both of their parents, lived in suburban, western Sydney, Australia, and started school in what can be considered a mainstream school. In Australia, Aboriginality can uniquely position children and parents in mainstream educational contexts. Historical, political and social conditions intersect to produce this position for Aboriginal peoples. This positioning can add further complexity to the new set of relations that Aboriginal children and their parents experience during the transition to school. This thesis explores the intersections amongst children’s, their mothers’ and their educators’ ways of being, knowing and doing as the children started and progressed through their first years of primary school. Participants in the study were identified from mothers and their children participating in the Gudaga Goes to School (Gudaga-GtS) study, a longitudinal study that explored the health, development and early educational experiences of Aboriginal children in an urban setting. Data were drawn from interviews conducted in the Gudaga-GtS study with seventeen children, their mothers, and their educators over a period of two years. A narrative approach was employed to re-present the key narratives of self expressed by children and mothers. The narratives engage children’s and mothers’ self-descriptions and endeavour to locate each individual in their particular set of social and cultural arrangements. Narrative analysis was employed to characterise the ways of being, knowing and doing in relation to starting school in the six schools the children attended. An important focus for this study was its intent to listen, and be responsive to multiple perspectives. To facilitate this, the methodology employed two conceptual frameworks: the bioecological model of development (Bronfenbrenner, 2005; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006), which provides a model for examining the mutually effectual influences of the individual and contextual characteristics of the child on their development; and The Cultural Interface (Nakata, 2007b), which theorises the nature of exchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and their respective knowledge systems. The complementarity of these two theoretical viewpoints and their combined potential to open up exploration of the relational aspects of successful transition to school and sense of self in the research are explored. The results from the study show that children’s and their mothers’ sense of self in relation to school is multifaceted and mediated by relationships with people and aspects of the school environment. Children generally held positive conceptions of themselves as learners, as friends, and their ability to meet school-related expectations. Most mothers were positive about their children’s preparedness for school and their capacities to support their child as they started school. Children’s and mothers’ self-representations relating to their Aboriginality were diverse. With positive sense of self as a marker for successful transition, the findings indicate that almost all of the children and their mothers had experienced a successful start to school. However, it was evident that some experiences during transition had led to diminished sense of self. Questions arose about how best to support positive sense of self for all children and parents, across all dimensions of self that are essential to successful transitions. The study affirms collaboration amongst key stakeholders as critical to successful transition to school for Aboriginal children and their families. The need for collaboration was intensified where potential existed for children to experience difficulties or discontinuity in their school context. Open and reciprocal engagement amongst stakeholders, characterised by respect, recognition and ‘working together’ facilitated relationship-building and patterns of collaboration.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Dockett, Sue, Co-Supervisor
  • Perry, Bob, Co-Supervisor
Award date23 Mar 2016
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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