In a recent Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) report “PK-3: What Does it Mean for Instruction?” authors, and members of the DREME Network, explain the many benefits of continuity of instruction and classroom management and offer ideas for how districts and schools can achieve it. (The DREME Network is a group of researchers dedicated to advancing early math education.)
While more and more elementary schools are offering pre-K, well-aligned curricula and instruction between pre-K and the early grades has not necessarily followed. The authors explain why instructional continuity should be made a priority and how it can help students both academically and socially. In their report, the authors write that children follow “fairly predictable learning trajectories” when developing an understanding of particular math topics. When teachers know their students’ learning trajectories, teachers are better able to identify the next learning topic and develop instruction just beyond a student’s current conceptual knowledge. This is also true for reading comprehension and other subjects.
Additionally, instructional continuity from one grade to another helps students develop a deeper understanding of previous knowledge. For example, when a student learns only one set of rules to solve a math problem, he or she may incorrectly use these rules with other questions. When skills are practiced in different contexts, students often gain more adaptive and flexible skills, such as understanding math concepts or reading comprehension, and are more likely to transfer these skills to other settings. “When experiences are disconnected, students have difficulty incorporating new understandings into prior knowledge and altering prior knowledge when necessary,” the authors write.
There are also social and emotional benefits for students who receive well-aligned instruction. When curricula between pre-K and third grade are aligned, students are better able to watch themselves master skills over time, making them more likely to build confidence and motivation in their abilities.
It may also be helpful to align classroom management practices and expectations across grade levels. Changing the rules each year can be confusing and takes away from instruction, the authors explained. By establishing routines for gaining students’ attention and exiting the classroom, for example, teachers can skip reteaching new rules each year. This is especially true for English language learners: consistent routines year-to-year can help English learners learn the language more quickly.
Two major players in achieving continuity in the classroom are schools and districts. The report outlined five ways these institutions can create academic continuity:
Investing in professional development continuity across grades
Aligning formative assessments and data systems
Emphasizing socio-emotional development in kindergarten
Creating a coherent instructional framework for other school practices besides academics
Developing and implementing an aligned curriculum across grades.
By investing in professional development continuity for teachers between pre-K and third grade, school districts can help bring these teachers together to understand the typical developmental trajectories of children. For some teachers, these learning trajectories may be a new concept. Additionally, for teachers to provide coherent and aligned academic instruction, they must understand the structure and interconnections of the subjects they teach. Through professional development, teachers can gain a better grasp of the material to help their students build on previous knowledge and skills. Professional development across grade levels can also lead to better communication and collaboration among teachers, which has been found to improve the quality of instruction. When teachers are knowledgeable about the grades before and after the grade they teach, they will better be able to provide continuous instruction.
Additionally, using assessments and data systems, such as Kindergarten Readiness Assessments, can lead to continuity by providing teachers with information that can be used for adjusting instruction. An assessment system in New Jersey, for example, includes progress indicators that are aligned from pre-K through third grade with the skills that students are and are not attaining, allowing teachers to prepare accordingly and create individualized plans to help students meet the standards.
In addition to promoting continuity academically, schools can also create continuity of social-emotional skills. Some in the early childhood field worry that creating continuity between pre-K and elementary school will “push down” negative practices such as limiting time for social-emotional development and play. But simply “pushing up” good pre-K practices into kindergarten isn’t ideal either. Instead, the authors explain that a solution would involve “changes in both directions.” For stronger continuity between pre-K and the early grades, both an increased emphasis on appropriate academic learning opportunities in pre-K and on social and emotional development in K-3rd will likely be necessary.
Schools can also create a coherent instructional framework, or a set of guides and practices for school-level decisions such as hiring and evaluating teachers, to improve student achievement. One study, included in the DREME Network report, found that schools with a coherent instructional framework and that allocate resources toward the school’s common instructional framework have higher student achievement than schools without coherent instructional frameworks between pre-K and third grade.
Lastly, schools and school districts can develop and implement the same curriculum across grades from pre-K through third grade to improve continuity. Unsurprisingly, one study found that “preschools that adopted a packaged curriculum were more continuous with kindergarten than preschools that did not use a curriculum.” However, the DREME network authors stressed that a packaged curriculum does not necessarily guarantee continuity in instruction, nor is it required for continuity in instruction. It is important for teachers to be responsive to student needs and adjust their instruction accordingly.The PreK-3rd movement continues to grow. As more school districts and schools take steps to provide a seamless educational experience for children from pre-K through third grade, they would be wise to focus on what it means for instruction. You can read the full DREME Network report on the SRCD website.