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Robert Pianta, from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, shares some ideas for improving the competencies of young children during the transition from preschool to kindergarten and into the early years of grade school.

This commentary draws on my involvement in several large-scale research and intervention efforts related to schooling and young children, work conducted in partnership with schools and school systems. This approach to supporting effective transitions has been implemented in at least three states, and our efforts have been supported by two major studies: the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD) and the National Center for Early Development and Learning (NCEDL). The study approach used in these efforts is guided by a developmental systems theory model of early schooling.¹ The model underscores the premise that children's competence in the early years of schooling is fundamentally intertwined with properties of the contexts and settings in which these competencies are fostered.

Assessing School Readiness
Central to any focus on early education is the goal of fostering the child's emerging social and academic competencies. Parents often wonder whether their child is ready for school as they face the prospect of registration for kindergarten; teachers focus on how best to assess, judge, or predict whether a child or group of children is ready for school; and communities deliberate how to marshal and deploy resources to improve children's readiness. Underlying all these questions is an assumption that readiness is best understood in terms of aspects of a child's performance that can be assessed, and that such assessments will result in information that can be used to predict how well a child will adapt in school.

Related Resource

With support from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Educational Sciences, the National Center for Early Development and Learning is committed to enhancing the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children from birth through age 8. For further information on the center's work, visit the website at

We conducted NCEDL-sponsored surveys of kindergarten teachers on the readiness of children to adapt to the demands of the classroom environment. Specifically, we asked a nationwide sample of more than 3,500 kindergarten teachers to identify the attributes that contributed most to children's failure to adjust well in the early months of kindergarten. Among a large number of identified attributes, the most frequently listed had to do with following directions, preacademic skills, getting along with peers, and cooperation—a cluster of skills that reflect “teachability.” These teachers estimated that 16% of their current classroom had substantial difficulty and that another 30% had problems in these areas. In sum, survey responses suggested that almost half the children who entered kindergarten had difficulty during the transition period.

As noted above, “readiness” connotes assumptions about the stability of children's skills and the extent to which assessment can predict the need for additional help or intervention. To explore this issue, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of all available published studies that reported information on the stability of children's social/behavioral and cognitive/academic competence over the transition from preschool to kindergarten.

Our analysis of over 70 published studies has shown significant instability in the way children perform on formal assessments of academic and social skills during the transition period. This low level of stability across time raises serious concerns about how accurately formal assessments of children's academic, cognitive, or social skills conducted prior to school can forecast performance at kindergarten entry.

Variation in the Nature and Quality of Early Education Classrooms
The NICHD SECCYD and NCEDL research programs also conducted extensive observation-based descriptions of classroom environments in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade settings. Observations were scheduled on the days and times teachers identified as being the most academic; they describe classroom settings, teacher practices and behaviors, and social and instructional quality in more than 1,500 classrooms in the pre-K to first-grade period.

Overwhelmingly, data show exceptional variability in experiences offered to children. Although for the most part children were involved in whole-group experiences throughout much of the day, in many rooms there were no occasions in which the child was taught in a whole group. Literacy instruction was the predominant activity, but in a substantial number of rooms there were no literacy activities at all. In fact, over 20% of first-grade classrooms were rated “poor” on the amount and quality of literacy experience offered to children. There was little to no evidence of consistency in children's experiences, nor was it evident that children had access to high quality experiences.

In general, the picture that emerges of the modal (i.e., typical) pre-K to first-grade classroom indicates that children are exposed to mostly whole-group activities in a fairly positive social environment but are exposed to generally mixed-to-low levels of productivity and engagement. That is, the classroom is generally characterized as socially positive but academically/instructionally passive—children mostly listen and watch. A large portion of time is spent on routines or management of activities and materials, and children have little direct contact with teachers in instructional situations. These settings are generally well organized, busy places, but they lack what we call “intentionality”—the directed, designed, rich interactions between children and teachers in which teachers purposefully challenge, scaffold, and extend children's skills.

Another major finding relates to the factors used for policy. Regulating classroom quality based on the level and nature of teachers' education and experience, on whether or not there is a curriculum in place, or even on class size bears little or no relation to the nature and quality of experiences offered to most children in early education classrooms.

Transition Practices and Policies: Linking Children, Families, and Schools
The NCEDL research program has been focused on the ecology of transition, that is, the connections among the various areas in which competence develops: families, classrooms, teachers, schools, and communities. Our survey of kindergarten teachers across the United States indicated that for the most part school practices intended to better link families and children to school are too late, too impersonal, and too cursory to have much of an effect.

The vast majority of school-related transition practices (over 90%), for example, involve group meetings or letters to parents after school starts! Teachers identify a number of barriers to offering more comprehensive and intensive family-focused transition experiences, most of which are bureaucratic in nature (e.g., the lack of a transition plan or focus in the school or school district, or teachers not receiving a class list until the week before school starts).

Our subsequent work with more than 100 families suggested that transitions can be improved by building and maintaining supporting relationships and effective communication with families starting the year before the child enters school and continuing through the kindergarten year.

Conclusions and Implications
As noted above, research on the predictive validity² of many commonly used formal assessments of young children raises doubts about the usefulness of these tools. It also suggests that solely focusing on skills and competencies during the transition from preschool to kindergarten may be a mistaken strategy. Clearly, classrooms vary as much as children in the first few years of school. The level of variation in children's classroom experiences is considerable and does not appear to be a result of tailoring a curriculum to children's needs. Instead, this variability suggests there is little agreement on curriculum or how best to deliver it.

It was also the case that the instructional value in these early education classroom settings was fairly low. For the most part, classrooms exhibited only moderate or low levels of productivity or richness of instruction, with children typically engaged at a low or passive level.

These findings suggest that it is not curriculum per se that should be the primary focus of policymakers; instead, it appears that implementation of curriculum is the key issue. Policies that result in provision of direct and thorough feedback to teachers regarding high quality implementation may result in better outcomes for children than policies that focus on one or another curricular approach.

The few associations found between classroom quality and the educational level and experience of teachers have been weak. These findings raise questions about the effectiveness of the teacher credentialing and reward system in ensuring high quality experiences for young children. In fact, we argue that rather than linking a reward structure and professional development system to credentials and educational levels, it may make more sense to link professional development and reward structures to observable indicators of classroom quality.

Finally, our work on transition planning and processes has changed how we think about the outcomes of early school transition. Family-school links should indeed be considered an outcome of the early school transition. Linkages and relationships are an important part of the transition ecology and contribute heavily to children's school competence. The transition to school is a period in which every parent of an entering child begins a new relationship with that child's school or teacher. A child's competence in a kindergarten classroom may not be the only or the best outcome measure of a successful transition. Instead, the quality of the parents' relationships with teachers, with school staff, and with the child's schooling may be an equally valid indicator of transition outcome.

¹ Developmental systems theory provides a framework to examine how multiple elements (biological, psychological, behavioral, and environmental) interact and shape a person's life.
² Predictive validity refers to an assessment's capacity to accurately predict something that it, in theory, should be able to predict.

Robert C. Pianta, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Curry School of Education
P.O. Box 400270
Ruffner Hall
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4267
Tel: 434-243-5483

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