Now that we’re in back to school season, educators across the country are preparing for the first day of school. For many incoming kindergarteners, this will be the first time they’ve set foot inside a school building. Some of these incoming kindergarteners might have previously attended a pre-K program or Head Start program, but the majority will arrive with no prior school experience at all.
Because kindergarten is often the first school experience for many students, ensuring a smooth transition into the school year is essential for setting up children to succeed in both kindergarten and future grades. In a recent report, I highlighted states taking steps to help smooth the transition into kindergarten and outlined actions all states should consider.
While states certainly have a role, most of the action around improving transitions is at the local level. What actions can individual principals and teachers take to ensure a smooth transition to kindergarten if they happen to work in a state and district that has not yet made a concerted effort to improve the transition?
Leaders of elementary schools can do a number of things to help incoming kindergarteners and their families. Perhaps most importantly, principals can make time and space for pre-K and K teachers when they are housed in the same building to plan together and share data on incoming children, and principals can connect with other early learning providers in the community who served students who will soon be entering elementary school.
In Washington, principals are able to submit a data request to receive a report of licensed child care providers in their area. Principals receive a list of local child care providers and regional Child Care Aware offices provide follow-up resources to facilitate communication between the providers and principals. Principals in any state, though, could take the initiative to reach out to their regional Child Care Aware offices for assistance in gaining a better understanding of the child care providers in their area. Once principals know the providers in the area they can reach out to those providers and get a sense of which ones have children typically attending their school. Principals and directors can collaborate to allow time for kindergarten teachers to meet with the pre-K teachers to review children’s previous assessments, discuss curricular alignment, and discuss the skills that are most important for children to possess prior to kindergarten entry.
Principals also have an important role to play when it comes to connecting with the parents of incoming kindergarteners, preferably well before the first day of the school year. A smooth transition not only means that students feel supported when beginning kindergarten, but also that parents feel welcomed and empowered with the knowledge necessary to help their child have a successful kindergarten year. Principals can help make this happen by organizing activities, such as parent information sessions prior to the start of the school year, in which teachers meet with parents to help them gain a better understanding of the academic and social expectations of kindergarten, learn about the family, and understand parents’ goals for their children.
If time and funding permits, principals can also set aside some teacher development time to allow teachers to visit incoming kindergarten families at home. These home visits are not only exciting for students, but also allow parents to talk with teachers in a setting that is comfortable to them and more conducive to establishing a positive relationship between parents and school staff right from the start.
While individual kindergarten teachers don’t have the authority that principals do to institute new school-wide programs to assist kindergarteners, teachers can exercise autonomy when it comes to gaining a better understanding of their incoming students’ previous educational experiences. If they attend pre-K at the elementary school, teachers can visit with the pre-K teaching team and review any data they have about incoming students, including everything from formal academic data to anecdotes about student behavior.
Teachers can also begin to help students and parents feel comfortable once they know who is in their class. For example, most classroom teachers are provided with a class roster at least a few days prior to the start of school. Even if there’s no school-wide home visiting program in place, teachers can call the parents of incoming students to welcome them to class and ask about their goals for their child for the upcoming year. These early, informal conversations can help build a reservoir of goodwill between teachers and parents that will help lay the groundwork for a trusting relationship. When I was a kindergarten teacher, these conversations gave me important, and sometimes surprising, information as I prepared for the first day of school. When I asked about the “hopes and dreams” parents had for their child for the upcoming year I often learned things I would not have thought of on my own, such as a desire for a child to be more assertive with classmates in social settings.
The older siblings of an incoming kindergarten student can also be an important resource for gathering helpful information. For example, when a parent is picking up an older sibling from school with a younger child in tow it is a good opportunity for administrators to ask when the younger child will enter kindergarten and where they spend their days now. If the child is entering kindergarten in the next year then that’s a great opportunity to set up a face-to-face meeting to get to know more about the child, the family, and their expectations for kindergarten.
Finally, teachers can make a concerted effort to gather any and all data that exist about their incoming students. Even if a student attended the prior year in a pre-K classroom located in the elementary school building, data isn’t always transferred from grade to grade as it should be.
In a perfect world states and districts would have robust systems in place to facilitate a smooth transition to kindergarten for all students. But that’s not currently the case in many places. Largely, it’s up to elementary school principals, other early childhood leaders, pre-K, and kindergarten teachers to take steps to ensure parents and children enter the kindergarten door on the first day of school set up for success.