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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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This issue's Promising Practices section highlights how a range of school-, district-, and state-level efforts incorporate the three components of HFRP's family involvement frameworks: Family involvement a) matters across ages but changes over time, b) occurs in many different settings, and c) should be coconstructed by families and professionals. 

Amy Schulting from Duke University explores the role of teacher outreach to families during the transition to kindergarten.

The transition to kindergarten is a critical time in a child’s academic career—and a time at which low-income children are especially at risk. Given the link between early school achievement and later outcomes, difficulties during this transition can presage long-term academic failure. Many education scholars frame this challenge in terms of “kindergarten readiness,” implying that the critical factors lie wholly within the child. However, children’s cognitive and behavioral skills, while important, are not enough to ensure school success. Of equal or greater importance are the support and involvement of the child’s family and a positive relationship between home and school.

The majority of American elementary schools implement transition practices to facilitate children’s adjustment to school. These practices range from sending letters home or inviting families to an open house to having teachers conduct home visits. Most transition practices involve families and are implicitly designed to increase parent involvement, improve home–school relations, and facilitate communication. How helpful are these practices? Do they increase student achievement and parent involvement? Do they help the low-income children most at-risk for early school failure? Along with my colleagues, Kenneth A. Dodge and Patrick S. Malone, I set out to answer these questions.

Despite the near-universal implementation of kindergarten transition practices, ours was the first rigorous study to examine the impact of transition practices on parent involvement and child outcomes. The study examined data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten Class of 1998–1999 (ECLS-K), which has the largest and most nationally representative dataset available with which to study schools’ implementation of seven different kindergarten transition practices. Data on 17,212 kindergarten students from 992 schools were included. Our analyses utilized hierarchical linear modeling to find the following answers to our questions:

Are transition practices associated with improved academic achievement in kindergarten? Yes. We examined the effect of transition practices on kindergarten achievement, controlling for child demographic factors, and found that schools implementing the average number of transition practices had student achievement scores that were higher than the achievement scores of students offered no transition practices. This difference is statistically significant.

Are transition practices especially helpful for low-income children? Yes. Low- and middle-income students demonstrate the largest increase in achievement for each additional transition practice offered at their school. The impact of transition practices on upper-income children was much less. These findings suggest that kindergarten transition policies might be a very important tool in reducing the achievement gap across income groups.

Do transition practices increase parent-initiated involvement? Yes. Transition practices have the greatest positive impact on the involvement of low- and middle-income families. In fact, parent-initiated involvement scores for low- and middle-income parents offered seven transition practices was substantially higher than the involvement of parents offered zero. Increased parent-initiated involvement was also found to partially explain the link between transition activities and increased student achievement. One of the primary ways that kindergarten transition practices exert their effect on student achievement is by first increasing parent-initiated involvement, which, in turn, yields stronger student performance.

Who receives transition practices? Here is where the ironic and unfortunate reality of American education rears its head. Affluent children, whose already high levels of achievement and parent involvement are not further increased by kindergarten transition practices, are offered the greatest number of transition practices. In contrast, low-income children, who are at greatest risk of early school failure and who would benefit the most from kindergarten transition practices, are least likely to receive them.

The positive impact of transition practices on low-income children and families is striking, given that these practices are not tailored to this high-risk population. One can only imagine the impact of transition practices designed to address the multiple barriers to involvement and achievement faced by low-income children and families.

Home visiting is one transition practice that enables teachers to reach out to even the most at-risk families. My colleagues and I are currently conducting a randomized controlled trial of home visiting as a kindergarten transition practice with 44 kindergarten teachers and approximately 1,000 families. With a strong, positive relationship at the beginning of school, parents and teachers can work together to ensure that all children experience a smooth transition to kindergarten and successful academic careers.

Amy B. Schulting, M.Ed., M.A.
Duke University
Center for Child and Family Policy
Box 90545, Durham, NC 27708-0545

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project