How Can Educators Help Children Thrive in Kindergarten and the Early Grades?

Blog Post
Photo taken by Laura Bornfreund
May 3, 2023

This blog post is the third in a series on Promoting Impactful Teaching and Learning in Kindergarten. You can find the first post, "Teaching in the Ways Kindergartners Learn Best," here, and the second post, “Deepening Math and Science Learning in Kindergarten and the Early Grades,” here.

It’s not just what is taught (reading, for instance) that matters, but equally important is how and sometimes where it’s taught. For young children to learn at high levels there must be attention to the following areas beyond specific content and curricula: safe, supportive, and enriching environments, responsive relationships, family engagement, instructional approaches based on the science of learning and development, opportunities for motor development, and time for building their knowledge about the world around them. Teachers have some control over their approaches, the materials they use, and their environment, but they must also adhere to policies set by school, district, and state education leaders. And, some factors that affect student learning require engaging partners beyond the school walls to find opportunities and solutions.

One such factor is attendance. To learn, students need to be in the classroom. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has exacerbated chronic absenteeism. On the webinar Creating Environments and Conditions for Thriving Kindergartners, Hedy Chang of Attendance Works highlighted the “incredibly high levels of kindergarten chronic absence,” which she said shows an erosion of positive conditions for learning in schools. These conditions include safety, belonging, connection, academic engagement, and adult and student well-being.

In California, for example, 40 percent of kindergartners were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year. Chang said that if we want our children to thrive, we must invest in positive conditions for learning. “When kids feel engaged, when they feel connected to their peers, to adults, when their families feel connected to the adults in the school, when kids feel the joy of learning, engagement of learning, then they’re more likely to want to show up every day.” Getting this right in kindergarten helps set a foundation for future attendance and engagement.

In the same discussion, Sheresa Blanchard, Ph.D., of SRI International also hit on positive learning conditions and noted the importance of the physical space, curriculum and materials, daily structure, people in the environment, and the ambiance of the environment. All of those things are important for fostering belonging.

Blanchard connected culturally responsive pedagogy and critical cultural competence, saying that “culturally responsive educators are not colorblind, they can consider their own cultural background, and how it can limit their understanding of students, and they value student strengths and incorporate student language and culture into teaching.” Blanchard also discussed how these educators reject meritocracy, provide content and supports for student success, and reject deficit ideas. “They go beyond traditional teaching strategies to be inclusive and intentional and involve children and families.”

Blanchard and Chang clarified the importance of belonging and engagement for meaningful learning in early elementary. Two other experts on the webinar highlighted different approaches to engaging children in content.

Rebecca Colbert of the National Wildlife Federation focused on the connections between early childhood health and the outdoors, saying, “Active kids learn better, and there’s a science behind it.” Colbert also talked about the importance of harnessing children’s natural sense of energy and wonder because it's such a strong motivational force for learning. “When we provide rich and diverse outdoor play and learning settings, we can achieve both physical activity and the cognitive benefits that sustain our academic lessons indoors.”

Natural Settings Support Kindergarten Curriculum

Nature Settings Support Kindergarten Curriculum- Colbert's slide deck includes the slide shown above.

And, when learning outdoors, teachers can take advantage of the natural settings as inspiration for children. “Can you do a nature scavenger hunt that also reinforces letters down? Can you hunt for letters or sounds in the environment? So literacy can really be supported, and kids can be inspired to tell stories about what they're seeing and experiencing in the outdoor setting,” said Colbert. Children can also use the loose parts they find outdoors as manipulatives to support early math and science learning.

Ann Kay of The Rock ‘n’ Read Project in Minnesota connected singing, neuroscience, and reading. Most preschools and kindergartens include opportunities to make music, which can stimulate children’s cognitive, sensory-motor, and reward systems all at the same time. Music-making can also enable auditory processing and auditory memory. Singing and music-making improve the neural encoding of speech, which is important for literacy development. And, singing and music-making also help develop beat synchronization, and keeping a steady beat is correlated with reading. Kay highlighted a Minnesota pilot in nine schools where singing software was used with students who did not meet reading proficiency levels on the state reading test. After participating, student reading scores improved. You can find more about the research Kay highlight and the results of the pilot here.

Kindergarten children in Minnesota

Minnesota kindergartners at Meadow Ridge Elementary with their teacher, Lindsey Rymer, who incorporates music-making, including beat-keeping and singing, throughout her day.

Natalie Walrond from the Center on School Safety at WestEd summarized the webinar conversation by identifying four throughlines — the science of learning and development, equity, authentic family engagement, and multidisciplinary approaches. She said, “The big idea here is that when you think about the nexus of playful learning and safe, supportive and responsive relationships and environments, and then equitable mindsets and practices and policies and systems, the nexus of that is the creation of these fertile conditions in which young children can thrive.”

Helping to create the conditions for young children to thrive in kindergarten begins by better understanding what is getting in the way. And state and local leaders who set policies need to talk with educators and families to find that out. If we go back to attendance, for example, school leaders can meet with families and find out what they need to help them get to school or engage them in building a welcoming, joyful, and inclusive school community where every student wants to be.

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