Children’s Transitions to Kindergarten May Benefit from Effective Coordination Across Early Childhood and K-12 Systems

BlogEarly ChildhoodAug 18 2022

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.

Head Start and K-12 system leaders have begun to craft policies and professional supports to facilitate coordination around children’s transition to kindergarten. For example, the federal Head Start Act now requires grantees to collaborate with local education agencies (LEAs) and develop memoranda of understanding to ensure smooth transitions to kindergarten. In addition, Head Start grantees must establish family and community collaborations (e.g., joint professional learning opportunities with school districts or community services personnel) and provide additional transition services for students with an individualized education plan, or IEP. Similar types of collaborations are now required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for K-12 districts receiving Title I funds.

Nearly half of states and the District of Columbia have policies requiring transition plans, but the scope of these plans vary. Plans may include any or all of the following: clear expectations about kindergarten readiness, collaborative professional learning for Head Start and kindergarten teachers, aligned standards and assessments, and teams to oversee the implementation of transition practices. ESSA also allows LEAs to use Title II funds to provide joint professional development opportunities between public school teachers and ECE educators. Although research on the impact of joint professional development is limited, some evidence suggests that pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers who receive specialized transition training are more likely to engage in research-informed transition practices. In addition, opportunities for ECE educators and kindergarten teachers to observe one another seem to foster aligned perspectives, connections across systems, and trust.

ECE and K-12 leaders play critical roles in establishing policies and professional supports that can facilitate cross-system practices. These might include shared meetings between Head Start and kindergarten teachers to discuss which skills Head Start teachers emphasize in their classrooms, providing elementary schools with student records from the Head Start center, and ensuring that both Head Start and kindergarten teachers participate in initial IEP meetings for special education students.

Ideally, both sending and receiving systems should include coordinated supports for working directly with children and their families. Research suggests that connections between families and programs/schools—particularly those that focus on relationship building in addition to information sharing—can lead to greater continuity across environments and improved experiences for children and families. This results in better short-term initial school adjustment, and improved social and emotional adjustment and academic outcomes for children throughout the kindergarten year. Additional research suggests that children may further benefit from coordinated transition practices if they lead to increased family involvement in children’s elementary school education.

Although families and teachers are the primary supports for children in their transition to kindergarten, ECE and K-12 system leaders play a critical role as well. These leaders may improve kindergarten transition experiences for families by intentionally designing transition policies, professional supports, and practices that are coordinated both within and across sending and receiving systems. By doing so, ECE and K-12 leaders create the organizational conditions and capacities that prioritize successful transitions to kindergarten for all children and families.

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.