How to Enable Smoother Transitions Into Kindergarten and the Early Grades

Blog Post
Laura Bornfreund
Sept. 8, 2023

Many students and families have started transitioning into kindergarten for the 2023-24 school year. My family is one of them. My youngest daughter, "T," started kindergarten on August 10th. She attended an excellent pre-K program, which she loved and where she flourished. And she was excited for her first day of kindergarten. Still, the transition back to the classroom after summer break was tough. She wasn’t returning to the same familiar and comfortable place she went for pre-K; she was starting a new school with new adults, children, routines, and expectations. There were a lot of unknowns, and her first couple of days were a little bumpy. But with a kindergarten teacher and a parent well-versed in early childhood development, T was well-supported.

Bumps and unknowns are expected with any transition, right? Yet state and local leaders could change policies and practices to smooth the transition into (and through) elementary school grades and reap better outcomes for children, their families, and their educators.

First, PreK-12 education leaders need to look beyond the typical kindergarten transition activities, such as providing summer kindergarten readiness camps, distributing kindergarten activity books to families, and holding welcome events that happen just before or after the new school year begins.

Don’t get me wrong, these activities have their purpose, but they are not the primary drivers of seamless transitions. A toolkit New America published in 2022 with our partner EducationCounsel, outlines two key elements for ensuring more seamless educational transitions:

  1. A multi-year, school system-wide strategy to support the process of children moving from one grade level or school setting to another and
  2. Curriculum, instruction, and assessment are aligned from one grade level to the next.

To help illustrate some of the transformations needed, I’ll use my other daughter’s kindergarten transition experience as an example.

“A” went to pre-K in 2016, where her classroom was two doors down from what would be her new kindergarten classroom. However, I quickly learned that her pre-K and kindergarten experiences would be extremely different. At the end of A’s pre-K year, I attended a meeting for parents of rising kindergarteners. The purpose was to help parents prepare for kindergarten. One of the first slides displayed by the kindergarten teacher leading the meeting said, "Kindergarten is not how it used to be: Old school kindergarten comprised of finger painting, playing with blocks, and eating snacks.” She then let us know that there is no naptime in full-day kindergarten and explained that “Kindergarten is much more academically rigorous” while showing a list of eight things children would be learning. The list included things like mastering the 52 letters and sounds, blending sounds to make words, writing a complete sentence, and recognizing numbers up to 100.

The teacher made clear that the emphasis would be on reading and math and showed us the typical daily schedule:

9:00-9:15 Opening

9:15-10:00 Phonics/Phonemic Awareness

10:00-10:05 Brain Break

10:05-10:25 Story Time

10:25-10:45 Writing Block

10:45-11:30 Guided Reading

11:30-12:30 Lunch and Recess

12:30-1:00 Health/Science/Social Studies

1:00-1:45 Specials

1:45-3:15 Math Block

3:15 Dismissal

Eek! But, not surprisingly, this is similar to the schedule I’ve seen in many kindergarten classrooms. Problematically, it is missing important elements of what child development research says about how young students learn best. Choice time and guided play, for instance.

It boggles my mind that even when public pre-K is in the same building, there is such a lack of alignment around schedules, routines, discipline approaches, and teaching strategies. In A’s pre-K, the entire class received simultaneous instruction on just a few occasions, but in kindergarten, A had long stints of whole-group instruction. In pre-K, A’s teacher focused on teaching students how to work through their emotions and ignored things like how kids sat as long as they respected other children’s personal space. In kindergarten, A’s teacher used a behavior chart (with red, yellow, and green areas) and had strict rules about children sitting still in a certain way. In pre-K, A’s teacher used play as a teaching tool, which is best practice for early education, including kindergarten and the early grades. But in kindergarten, students had no “free choice” opportunities to focus on things they wanted to learn or gain socializing skills: there was no time for building with blocks or make-believe play. In pre-K, A had a full-time paraprofessional who understood early childhood development. In kindergarten, the paraprofessional, who was in the room for much of the year, did not understand how young students learn and clearly did not want to be around them.

School districts can improve students’ transitions into kindergarten and their overall school experiences by:

  • Providing teachers with time and resources during the year for planning, joint professional development, and data sharing across pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade.
  • Investing in professional development for school leaders to understand how PreK-3rd grade students learn best.
  • Creating time in the kindergarten schedule for play-based learning and equipping classrooms with building materials, creative arts, and games to support academic learning, social and emotional development, and executive function.
  • Ensuring that at least all pre-K and kindergarten classrooms have paraprofessionals with an understanding of early childhood development.
  • Identifying and building relationships with the ECE programs that typically feed into their kindergarten classrooms.

States also have important roles in creating smoother transitions through funding levels, guidance, or state laws and regulations in areas such as teacher and leader preparation, professional development, and program and content standards. For example, states can promote seamless transition by aligning kindergarten standards and expectations with state-funded pre-K and program design and standards.

Smoothing transitions from one grade to another is important at every point in a child’s educational journey. Still, the transition into kindergarten is often one of the most fraught points in children’s educational journeys. We know there are many ways to improve them. Now is the perfect time to start thinking about how to improve transitions for next year and beyond, and you can leverage our Toolkit for insights on how to make the shifts needed in your state or school district.

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Birth Through Third Grade Learning