Spotlight Exclusives

To Help Low-Income Children Succeed, Focus on the Transition to Kindergarten

Aaron Loewenberg, New America Aaron Loewenberg, New America, posted on

Back when I was teaching kindergarten the first day of school was an exciting and anxious time for both students and teachers. As students entered the classroom for the first time, some jubilantly and others a bit more reluctantly, I knew the first few weeks would be focused on gaining a better understanding of each child’s unique strengths and needs.

Unlike teachers of most other grades, kindergarten teachers typically don’t have the luxury of knowing where their students spent the previous school year. As I looked out at the twenty new faces that would define my professional life for the next nine months, I knew some had probably spent the last academic year enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs, some were likely enrolled in a Head Start program, and still others had no previous formal school experience because they spent their days in the care of family, friends, and, neighbors.

Partially due to the fact that students enter kindergarten with such a wide variety of previous education experiences the transition to kindergarten can be fraught with stress and uncertainty for many children and their parents. Kindergarten represents a markedly different environment for children who used to spend their days at home or enrolled in a pre-K program. Interactions in a kindergarten classroom become more focused on academic progress with specific, targeted goals for literacy and math that may not have been present in earlier educational settings. In a new report, Connecting the Steps, I highlight examples of state initiatives aimed at smoothing pre-K to kindergarten transitions for children, families, and educators.

Evidence suggests early education experiences can have a powerful effect on students’ later school and life outcomes, meaning state and local policymakers have strong incentives for making the transition to kindergarten as smooth and stress-free as possible for children, particularly low-income students since they benefit disproportionately from high-quality early learning opportunities.

Transition activities such as teacher home visits; parent orientation sessions; and collaborative meetings and trainings between principals, child care center administrators, and pre-K and kindergarten teachers are key strategies for closing the persistent achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

In fact, a 2005 study established a link between the number of transition activities schools facilitated prior to and near the beginning of the kindergarten year and gains in academic achievement by the end of the year. These positive gains were greatest for children whose families were low- or middle-income.

A separate study, which focused on pre-K programs, found a positive association between the number of transition activities undertaken by pre-K teachers and kindergarten teachers’ later perceptions of student skills, particularly those of low-income students. Unfortunately, while low-income children stand to benefit the most from a smooth transition to kindergarten, they are also the least likely to attend schools that provide meaningful transition activities.

One particularly innovative approach to improving the transition process is taking place in Washington state. In order to improve collaboration between early learning providers and elementary schools, the state has partnered with Child Care Aware of Washington to launch the Bridging Communities and Making Connections program. This program allows elementary school principals throughout the state to submit a data request to receive a report of licensed child care providers in their area.

Principals receive a list of local child care providers and regional Child Care Aware offices provide follow-up resources to facilitate communication between the providers and principals. By building connections between providers and principals, the program helps principals form relationships with the families of incoming students prior to the start of kindergarten.

There are several steps states and districts can take to actively encourage intentional efforts to smooth the transition to kindergarten. In Connecting the Steps, I offer some recommendations.

For example, with the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA),  states now have greater flexibility to invest in early learning. Under Title I of ESSA, federal funds can be used for a variety of activities to help smooth the transition. An important piece of all strategies is to focus on educators. Bringing center directors and principals together, for instance, to discuss transition practices, share data, and coordinate standards and curricula is an effective method for breaking down barriers that have traditionally hindered close cooperation between early education settings and elementary schools.

Whatever specific strategy is enacted, states and districts have roles to play in the process of making the transition to kindergarten less difficult for students and families in order to ensure successful academic and life outcomes for low-income children.

Starting kindergarten is a daunting prospect for any child. We should ensure that these children are beginning this new chapter of their lives with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed.

Aaron Loewenberg is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America.

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