The start of kindergarten is a major milestone in the lives of young children and their families. Across the nation, families, teachers, and schools support this transition in young children’s lives through activities such as reading books about what to expect, attending family orientations, or visiting children’s future classrooms. Research emphasizes that well-supported kindergarten transitions build on the skills developed in high-quality early care and education (ECE) settings such as Head Start, set the tone for children’s relationships with teachers and engagement in school, and provide a strong foundation for their education and future success.

A recent report from the Understanding Children’s Transitions from Head Start to Kindergarten (HS2K) Project, funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), highlights that the kindergarten transition is not a one-time handoff, but occurs over time, beginning the year prior to kindergarten and extending into kindergarten itself. The report also posits that successful kindergarten transitions rely on systems-level supports—such as policies and investments in professional learning (including training on addressing equity concerns and implicit bias in transitions and supporting authentic family engagement)—to align expectations and build relationships among administrators, teachers, and families across ECE and elementary settings. When utilized, systems-level supports can improve the transition for many children across entire Head Start programs and school districts.

The report and accompanying video offer a theory of change that proposes how Head Start and K-12 systems can collaboratively improve the experiences of children and families during the kindergarten transition. The theory posits that aligned perspectives (e.g., beliefs, priorities), intentionally designed policies, and professional supports within and across the two systems (both “sending” and “receiving”) will influence the quantity, quality, and coordination of transition practices that directly affect the transition experiences of children and their families.

However, it’s challenging to coordinate perspectives, policies, and professional supports across Head Start and elementary schools. For example, Head Start and kindergarten may use different standards to define what is important for children to know and be able to do. As a result, preschool and kindergarten teachers often differ on their beliefs about which skills will make the adjustment to kindergarten easier for children, and on their own respective roles in the transition process. According to one nationally representative study, misalignment in perspectives across preschool and kindergarten teachers was associated with lower levels of social skills, approaches to learning scores, and math achievement among students. Greater alignment of preschool and kindergarten teachers’ perspectives requires coordination, both within and across organizational systems.

This blog was a collaborative effort between Child Trends researchers Dana Thomson and Tamara Halle and the following individuals:

  • Stacy Ehrlich, PhD, is a senior research scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago.
  • Kyle DeMeo Cook, PhD, is an assistant professor at St. John’s University.
  • Kristie Kauerz, EdD, is the executive director at the National P-3 Center, University of Colorado Denver.
  • Mitchell Barrows is a senior research associate I with NORC at the University of Chicago.