The Kindergarten Milestone

A smooth transition to school lays the groundwork for later success

By Bari Walsh, on March 31, 2015 11:49 AM
The Kindergarten Milestone: A smooth transition to school lays the groundwork for later success #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

It’s one of the earliest milestones we reach — the start of a lifelong adventure in learning and, to teary parents, the official end of babyhood. It’s kindergarten, and it turns out that the way families and schools prepare for it can make a significant impact on a child’s later success.

According to research compiled in a new report by the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), a smooth transition to school can pay dividends down the road. But for children on the lower end of the socioeconomic divide — those who could most benefit from support and preparation — a well-planned transition is hardly the norm.

Just in time for kindergarten registration, here are four important things to know about the transition to school, as outlined by HFRP:

1. Transition is an equity issue.

Research has shown that children from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds are better prepared for achievement when they enter school than children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The disparity has a lot to do with access to quality preschool, family stress, and social support, among other factors. The good news is that school readiness and transition activities can shield kids from the effects of these risk factors  — although these children are the least likely to receive such support.

Among the successful programs trying to bridge the gap in high-risk districts, HFRP highlights three: Comienza en Casa (It Starts at Home), a Maine effort run by the nonprofit Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand) that works with migrants on school readiness; Bridges to Success, a California effort to build community around school readiness, led by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation's Center for Early Learning; and Iridescent, a national nonprofit that engages underserved families in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

2. Transition affects outcomes.

A smooth transition to school means that children can make friends, understand and follow the rules, and meet the academic expectations of the classroom. HFRP’s research shows that when those ingredients are in place, they increase the likelihood of positive social, emotional, and academic outcomes in later years.

3. Families make a difference.

When school begins, a child’s world expands dramatically. During the transition period, the stability and constancy of family is key. Families can help the process by:

  • telling stories, doing puzzles, and playing math and science games during the pre-kindergarten year;
  • talking about the importance of practice and persistence;
  • conveying acceptance about a child’s anxiety; build a relationship that allows the child to be honest;
  • aligning home routines and sleep schedules with kindergarten’s routines; and
  • getting kindergartners involved in structured activities outside of school.

4. Strong family-school-community relationships are essential.

Partnerships between families, schools, and communities become more essential during transition times. To avoid a falling-off of family engagement as elementary school progresses, schools should communicate with families at the start of their affiliation about what they are doing to ease the transition. Schools can also listen to parents’ interests and concerns and integrate their ideas into teaching and learning in the classroom and beyond. These early interactions will bolster continued engagement over the coming years. 

But communities also play an important role. “We know that the transition to school is such an important time in children’s and families’ lives, and there are so many systems and connections involved in the process that make it complex,” says Margaret Caspe, Ed.M.’01, the report’s lead author and a senior research analyst at the HFRP. “Fostering strong linkages between schools and the community is one important strategy to make transitions successful.”

As part of Boston’s larger transition-to-school process, for example, the Boston Children’s Museum co-hosts a Countdown to Kindergarten Celebration with Boston Public Schools each August. “By holding the event in the museum and including a variety of community partners — like health providers, libraries, after-school programs — it becomes clear to everyone that children’s learning and success, from the very get-go, is a shared responsibility,” Caspe says.

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