ISSUE: In most instances, children come to school ready to learn but with different cultural, educational, and environmental experiences to draw from. It is the responsibility of the educational system to meet children where they are and encourage and support their development from that point. To promote learning for all children, educators must provide a school environment that acknowledges children's diverse backgrounds, helps children transition comfortably into the next instructional level, and provides community supports when necessary. Such provisions support each child's readiness to learn as well as each school's readiness to educate young children.
OVERVIEW: The concept of school readiness has been defined and redefined over the years, resulting in differing viewpoints. Several theories of child development and learning have been used to explain the term. In fact, there appears to be two types of readiness: readiness to learn, which involves a level of development at which the child has the capacity to learn specific materials, and readiness for school, which involves a specific set of cognitive, linguistic, social, and motor skills that enables a child to assimilate the school's curriculum (Kagan, 1990; Crnic & Lamberty, 1994; Lewit & Baker, 1995). Early studies fostered the belief that children should have certain skills--such as being able to count or recite the alphabet--or that they should be able to conform to a set of desired behaviors before they enter kindergarten. Current research in the fields of early childhood education, child psychology, and neuroscience is changing what many researchers, practitioners, and parents have come to understand about child development and the learning process, however. Instead of placing the burden of readiness on children, educators are being challenged to reconsider traditional beliefs about the school's role in helping young children continue learning and succeed in the school culture (Southern Regional Education Board, 1994; Lamberty & Crnic, 1994, Katz, 1991). Recent studies on readiness, children, and schools indicate that there actually are two sides to the readiness issue: getting children ready for school and getting schools ready for children.
As part of the 1994 legislation Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the National Education Goals established a framework for improving education and helping schools support children's learning. The first goal of the National Education Goals relates to school readiness: "By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn." With the passage of Goals 2000, U.S. lawmakers acknowledged that many young children enter school unprepared to learn optimally and that school readiness should be a priority for the nation. The objectives of Goal 1: Ready to Learn note the importance of children's access to developmentally appropriate preschool programs; training and support for parents as their child's first teacher; and adequate nutrition, physical activity, and health care for children so they arrive at school with healthy minds and bodies. Meeting these objectives helps children get ready for school.
The National Education Goals Panel recognizes that "strengthening achievement requires not only getting children ready for school, but also getting schools ready for the particular children they serve" (Shore, 1998, p. 3). By coordinating efforts with families and community resources to address the needs of young children, educators can improve children's readiness for school (Kagan, 1994). Through school programs and strategies, educators can improve the school's readiness to promote optimal learning for all children (Southern Regional Education Board, 1994). Schools also must acknowledge the many individual differences between children and establish appropriate expectations for all children entering kindergarten (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995). All children are born learning, and schools are charged with the responsibility to nurture each child's learning potential and to provide opportunities for continued growth.
Tim Laner, a K-1-2 multiage teacher at Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, discusses how schools can provide learning experiences that nurture and build upon the experiences that each child has had. [448k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Tim Laner (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text transcript is available.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995) discusses the need for universal school readiness in the NAEYC Position Statement on School Readiness. This statement makes the point that school readiness should not be determined solely by the capabilities of the child:
"The traditional construct of readiness unduly places the burden of proof on the child. Until the inequities of life experiences are addressed, the use of readiness criteria for determining school entry or placement blames children for their lack of opportunity. Furthermore, many of the criteria now used to assess readiness are based on inappropriate expectations of children's abilities and fail to recognize normal variation in the rate and nature of individual development and learning. NAEYC believes it is the responsibility of the schools to meet the needs of children as they enter school and to provide whatever services are needed in the least restrictive environment to help each child reach his or her fullest potential." (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995)
Central to the issue of school readiness is the discussion about when children should start school. Crnic and Lamberty (1994) note:
"The predominant conclusion of recent scholars addressing the issue of school readiness is that the only fair and ethical criterion for school readiness is a legal chronological age. Although arbitrary, it applies to everyone equally and removes the sole burden for readiness from the child."
Kagan (1990) points out that if the entry age is the same for all children and if individualized educational supports and services are provided, schools will have an equitable strategy that is sensitive to the differences between children. When children's needs are met, they are more likely to be successful in school.
Educators, parents or caregivers, and community members need to be aware of the factors that affect children's success in school. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995) states that the discussion of readiness must consider three critical factors:
Because of inequities in children's experiences and differences in their backgrounds, schools and and communities must pay attention to the factors that influence how families support readiness and the transition to school (Kagan, 1990; National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995). Low maternal education, minority-language status, low family income, and family structure are important predictors of children's developmental accomplishments and difficulties (Zill, Collins, West, & Hausken, 1995). Low family socioeconomic status can limit the experiences, resources, health care, and the quality of child care available to children. Untraditional family structures or situations--such as foster care, single-parent families, or families who are migrant workers--also have an impact on children's early experiences. In addition, linguistic and cultural influences can affect a child's assimilation of the school culture.
To help equalize the differences in children's backgrounds, schools can work with community resources to meet the needs of children before they come to school. Katz (1992) notes, "The community, working with local preschools, adult education programs, children's librarians, and other similar agency and resource people, can help by providing experiences for preschoolers that help them make sense of their everyday worlds" (p. 4). Prior to approaching community agencies, schools should put together a team consisting of parents or caregivers, teachers, administrators, and interested individuals. This team can design a plan that illustrates the fit of community agencies in the school's efforts to address readiness issues. Collaboration, the prerequisite for school readiness and success, is necessary when schools reach out to work with families and the community. Collaboration among multiple stakeholders works best when strategies that build consensus are used and when channels of communication are open at all times.
Restructuring schools to support school-linked services is another way to meet the needs of children and families. Children who come to school healthy, with a variety of experiences to draw on and a strong support system in place, have a greater likelihood of succeeding in school. Schools can serve as a hub for the delivery of services by working with pediatricians and social service agencies to provide health care, parenting classes, and other resources. School administrators can take the lead in this approach through interactions with community groups and agencies that provide services for children.
Screening for school entry is one way to determine what supports or services a child might need. The measure being used should be one that has been norm-referenced on a population of children that includes children in the school. If a screening tool is used, educators must remember that screening should be used to identify children needing help--not to exclude children from programs for which they are eligible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (1995) cautions against such inappropriate use of school readiness tests. Rescreening at designated intervals also is important because young children change and grow so much in the early years (Hills, 1987). (Refer to the Critical Issue "Assessing Young Children's Progress Appropriately.")
Activities that connect schools with families and community groups can help parents seek out resources and know where to go for help when they need it. Supporting families' efforts to raise their children is important to ensure that children enter school ready to learn (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995).
Linda Espinosa, former director of primary education for the Redwood City (California) School District, and currently education professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, talks about the importance of schools working with parents, families, and the community to meet children's needs. [364k audio file] Excerpted from Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #5, Meeting Children's Needs (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text transcript is available.
Besides working with families and the community to meet children's needs before they enter kindergarten, educators can develop specific programs and strategies that promote the school's readiness to ensure optimal learning for all children. The Ready Schools Resource Group, a committee convened by the National Education Goals Panel, has published the results of their research on the essential attributes of a "ready school" (Shore, 1998). That report, Ready Schools, identifies ten keys to ready schools. The keys recommend policies and strategies that schools can use to create learning environments for young children from preschool to Grade 3. Continuity and transition among home, early-care programs, and elementary schools are critical, as is a commitment by the school to ensure the success of every child through individualized programs as well as qualified teachers and staff who interact with the child. Approaches to help children explore and make sense of their world, especially approaches known to raise achievement, also are important. Other characteristics of ready schools are strong leadership as well as a willingness to take responsibility for results and to alter practices and programs if they do not benefit children.
Although the concept of continuity for young children makes sense, schools often do not take action to ease the transition of young children into kindergarten. Most American schools do not have a transition program in place (Shore, 1998). According to a national study, nearly half of U.S. elementary schools have no program for school visitation by parents or families of incoming kindergartners; only one in five of the nation's school districts uses a wide range of transition activities (Love, Logue, Trudeau, & Thayer, 1992). Such transition programs would be valuable throughout a child's early elementary experience.
The move from home, day care, or preschool to kindergarten or elementary school can be intimidating to even the most secure and confident children. They are leaving a familiar environment and being asked to spend time in a new place with virtual strangers. They are unsure of what to expect. Families often feel the same apprehension as they bring their young children to school. Children who are not native speakers of English or who come from low-income or minority families also may have to bridge a cultural gap (Shore, 1998). When there is a difference between the culture of the home and the culture of the school, teachers must be careful not to misread children's aptitudes, abilities, or intentions (Delpit, 1995).
Beth Rohloff, a K-1-2 multiage teacher at Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, notes that all children--regardless of their cultural, social, or economic background--are motivated to learn if their basic needs have been met. [392k audio link] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Beth Rohloff (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text transcript is available.
To make the transition experience less traumatic and more beneficial to everyone, schools can adopt practices that support continuity. Such practices emphasize the importance of making connections between the school and the children's families and building on the development that has occurred in the home. "The influence of the family upon the child remains fundamental throughout these early years. It is important to link subsequent steps in children's education to their earlier experiences and to involve the parents in these activities," notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1987). Through careful planning of continuity, schools can reap the benefits of facilitating transition for children, parents or caregivers, and teachers.
Schools must find ways to connect with children and families before the beginning of the school year. Preschools can help in preparing children for transition from preschool to kindergarten by arranging visits to the new school and discussing upcoming changes. Elementary schools also can focus on ways that families can help children make the transition comfortably. Activities such as conducting home visits, helping parents or caregivers get involved in family literacy programs, and inviting children and families to the school before the start of the school year help connect the families to the schools and ease the transition. Such activities also can help ease the transition between instructional levels as the children move through elementary school.
Keeping parents or caregivers informed of class activities and explaining the curriculum will help them understand what their children are learning in school and give them clearer ideas of how to support the effort at home. Parents are more actively involved in their child's education during the preschool years than any other time. Involving parents in the transition of their children from preschool to kindergarten is an important step in keeping them involved as their children grow older. When parents are treated as partners in this transition process, are able to participate in school activities, and can communicate openly with teachers, the transition is more likely to be a positive experience for the children. In addition, primary teachers who acknowledge and respect students' home cultures are more successful in encouraging parents to participate in their child's education (California Alliance for Elementary Education, 1996).
The emphasis on continuity remains important as the child progresses through school. Every move to the next instructional level is a transition for children. Communication between the child's current teacher and the next-level teacher helps to identify each child's strengths and needs as well as the best way to work with him or her (Southern Regional Education Board, 1994). This continuity also allows for a flow of knowledge and less of an interruption in the children's learning.
Maintaining ongoing communication between preschool and kindergarten staff is another way to promote continuity. "Elementary schools can help to ease the transition to kindergarten," notes Shore (1998), "by forging links with the community, feeder preschools, local Head Start programs, and all of the other settings where their kindergartners have spent their days, and by drawing on the best practices of the early childhood centers" (p. 8). Contact between the current teacher and the previous caregiver or teacher can provide continuity for children and families, help in developing programs for individual students, and align the curriculum across programs.
Even a relatively small amount of time spent finding out what children worked on prior to entering school produces benefits (Shore, 1998). The effort of the elementary school to contact and work with the early childhood program is more successful when there is support at the building and district administrative levels. Because preschool teachers and caregivers may have children who will attend several different elementary schools and primary teachers may have children coming from a number of feeder programs, developing a community transition program or network is helpful in this effort (U.S. Department of Human Services, 1987).
Another important part of transition is found in research that suggests that today's kindergartens are becoming overly focused on academic goals (Shepard, 1994); this trend can make transition from preschool to kindergarten even more difficult for students (Love, Logue, Trudeau, & Thayer, 1992; Eggertson, 1987). Katz (1996) states that when young children experience formal instruction that is too intense and abstract, they may learn the skills with some difficulty but may not develop the disposition to use that knowledge. The best early childhood classrooms are structured to provide a full range of curriculum and experiences for all children. In such classrooms, the teacher considers the developmental level of each child when planning instruction. A developmentally appropriate curriculum provides for the child's physical, emotional, social, linguistic, aesthetic, and cognitive growth; it builds upon what children know and fosters the acquisition of new skills (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1996).
Linda Kunesh, former director of Early Childhood and Family Education at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, discusses five developmentally appropriate practices that educators can use to promote school readiness. [448k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #5, Meeting Children's Needs (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text transcript is available.
Early childhood teachers can ready their classrooms for young children's learning. "Teachers of young children can create child-centered environments capable of accommodating each child's individual learning level. To do so may involve changes in attitude and behavior for some and a keener awareness of children's different developmental paces for others," notes the Southern Early Childhood Association (1993). Developmentally appropriate practices are important throughout the primary years. In early childhood classes that promote such practices, children participate in active learning experiences and learn through hands-on activities. The teacher ensures a balance between teacher-directed and child-directed activities using varied instructional techniques. Children spend time learning through curricular units, learning centers, an integrated curriculum, and the project approach in addition to class activities. A text transcript is available.
Schools also need to be ready to respond to the wide range of cultural and linguistic experiences children bring to school; this readiness can be accomplished through a modified curriculum that includes spontaneous dramatic play, arts and crafts, and small group work (Southern Early Childhood Association, 1993). Teaching with a multicultural perspective encourages children to appreciate and understand other cultures as well as their own (Gomez, 1991). By modeling positive behavior and setting the tone for class interaction, early childhood teachers can help children who are in the process of acquiring and strengthening social skills within the school setting (Katz & McClellan, 1991).
Staff development is an important way to ensure that educators are using developmentally appropriate practices to promote the school readiness of all children. Educators must have an understanding of the children in their classrooms as well as the type of curriculum and expectations that are appropriate.
Educators, parents, families, and community members need to give careful consideration to the fit between a kindergarten program and the child. They can advocate for kindergarten classrooms that accommodate the diverse needs of young children, promote continuity, provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum that responds to children, and maintain a healthy school-family relationship. Schools, families, and community resources all have the potential to influence children's readiness for school. By working together, they can address young children's needs prior to school entry and build on the children's unique strengths, experiences, and skills to nurture growth and success.
ACTION OPTIONS: Administrators, teachers, parents or caregivers, and community members can take the following steps to ensure that the school promotes the readiness of all children:
Parents or Caregivers and Community Members:
IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: The different ways in which schools, teachers, and families view the concept of school readiness may hinder attempts at changing the current practices of assessment of school readiness. School administrators may need to take the lead in providing current information and developing new policies on readiness.
Most kindergarten teachers have been trained to assess children's readiness for kindergarten, rather than the kindergarten classroom's readiness for children. As a result, the concept of classrooms being appropriate and ready for all children may be foreign to them. These teachers may be hesitant towards any efforts by the administration to change the current practices in assessing children's readiness. To promote teachers' understanding and cooperation, school administrators can take the lead in providing teachers with professional development that will enable them to become familiar with all aspects of readiness.
Schools often do not provide opportunities for teacher collaboration. Successful approaches for transition require that teachers have time to collaborate with other teachers and align the curriculum between instructional levels. Such collaboration helps teachers prepare children for the next instructional level. School administrators can provide joint planning time for kindergarten teachers and their colleagues in the primary programs. When teachers are asked to implement new approaches to assessing readiness, support from the administration and clear guidelines for implementation are key to gaining their cooperation.
When schools implement new approaches that directly affect the children they serve, they often forget to involve parents or caregivers as an integral part of the implementation process. As a result, families may regard changes in school practices with suspicion. They may believe they were left out of the decision-making process because the school does not value their opinions. Families who are included in the implementation process are more more informed about school activities and more likely to support the school's mission and practices.
When putting together a planning team to address readiness issues with the community, adequate time must be allowed for planning and collaborating. School representatives should have a carefully thought-out plan before beginning discussions with community agencies. When community agencies can see how their work fits in with that of the school, the plan may need to be altered accordingly.
DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some parents and caregivers believe that educating children is the primary function of schools and teachers. Because teachers are trained and certified to teach, these families feel no need to involve themselves with the instructional tasks of the school. They also may think that schools are not set up to provide integrated services and should not be expected to address the diverse needs of the children they serve.
Some educators and others insist that the main function of kindergarten programs and teachers is to prepare young children for first grade. They say that 5-year-olds should enter kindergarten with certain cognitive skills (such as counting, reciting the alphabet, letter recognition, and simple word recognition), and a certain level of social and emotional maturity. They believe that the most effective way for kindergarten programs to assess young children's readiness for school is to administer standardized tests designed to measure children's cognitive skills and maturity. According to this viewpoint, decisions about young children's school enrollment should be based on their performance on such tests.
Some families believe that a child who is older and has developed more skills will be more successful in kindergarten than other entering children. This belief often leads families to delay their child's entrance into kindergarten or first grade. The work of Arnold Gesell (1940) and other maturationists supports practices such as delaying a child's entrance into kindergarten if he or she is the youngest in the entering class, and keeping a child in kindergarten for an extra year or placing the child in a transition kindergarten program as opposed to allowing the child into first grade. These practices sometimes are employed by families and schools when they believe that a young child is developmentally immature or will benefit from being held back.
Kindergarten Readiness Programs:
Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI)
11501 Georgia Ave., Suite 315
Wheaton, MD 20902
(301) 942-2443 or (800) 423-3563; fax (301) 942-3012
Contact: Marilyn Gardner, Director of Conferences and Marketing
4301 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 362-5580; fax (202) 362-5533
Contact: Lauren Connen, Executive Research Assistant
Annie E. Casey Foundation
701 St. Paul St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 547-6600; fax (410) 547-6624
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
1509 16th St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20036-1426
(202) 232-8777 or (800) 424-2460; fax (202) 328-1846
Contact: Pat Spahr, Information Services Director
National Association of Elementary School Principals
1615 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-3483
(800) 38-NAESP; fax (800) 39-NAESP
Contact: Gail Gross
National Center for Children in Poverty
Columbia School of Public Health
154 Haven Ave.
New York, NY 10032
(212) 304-7100; fax (212) 544-4200 or 544-4201
National Early Childhood Technical Assistance System (NECTAS)
500 NationsBank Plaza
137 E. Franklin St.
Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3628
(919) 962-2001; fax (919) 966-7463
National Head Start Association
1651 Prince St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 739-0875; fax (703)739-0878
This Critical Issue was researched and written by Jeanette Vo-Vu, program specialist with the Center for School and Community Development, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, in collaboration with Judy Caplan, coordinator of school and family partnerships with the Center for School and Community Development, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, and Lynne Huske, Pathways coordinator.
Date posted: 1999