Strengthening Early Childhood Transitions Using ESSER Funds

Now is the time to prioritize the transition of young children leaving pre-K and entering elementary school
Blog Post
Oct. 25, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many young students to enter the classroom for the very first time this year. With schools back to in-person learning and with an influx of federal funding, now is the time to prioritize the transition of young children leaving pre-K and entering elementary school. States already doing this work are setting up their youngest learners for success moving forward and may provide a positive blueprint for other states to follow suit.

In March of 2021, Congress allocated additional funds to address the challenges facing public education in light of the pandemic. With the signing of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) came an unprecedented $122 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund (known as ESSER III). Like previous ESSER investments, these funds were provided to state educational agencies and school districts to address safe school reopening and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on students. In order to access the ESSER funds, states had to submit an application describing their plans for evidence-based interventions to address learning loss, as well as the academic, social, and emotional needs of students, with a particular emphasis on addressing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on students of color.

Currently, 41 states have had their ARP ESSER plans approved and have received all three tranches of fund allocations. Of these 41 states, only nine mention plans for addressing early childhood transitions. (It’s important to note that previous ESSER investments did not require states to submit a detailed plan for the expenditures of funds, although they do have to report on how the funds were spent.)

An analysis of approved ARP ESSER plans shows that many states are acutely aware of the difficulties facing young children in their return to school. When it comes to transition policies, however, state plans seem to prioritize transitions into higher grades (for example, middle to high school and high school to post-secondary) with a focus on using social and emotional learning strategies and support staff, like counselors, to ensure smooth transitioning. Our analysis of early childhood transition priorities shows that a few states focus on early childhood transitions for students with special needs, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), while other states are aiming to establish effective statewide supports for all students. Further, while many states have identified the decline in kindergarten enrollment due to COVID-19 as a problem likely to affect learning loss, some have stopped short of outlining transition goals from early learning settings to elementary school.

Of the nine approved state plans that explicitly included transition plans for their youngest learners, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and South Carolina all planned to establish summer learning opportunities for children to make gains in literacy. Other states, like Idaho and Massachusetts, mentioned the importance of collaboration across various state agencies to deliver effective transition supports.

Massachusetts offered a detailed plan that establishes early literacy academies for incoming kindergartners, first graders, and second graders, in order to get students on track to meet literacy goals throughout their formative years in elementary school. The Massachusetts plan also takes a holistic approach to early childhood well-being by allocating funding to support partnerships between districts and community-based organizations (CBOs). For example, the state has allocated funding to its Early Childhood and Out-of-School Time workgroup, which includes early learning and out-of-school time practitioners and coordinators in both public school and CBO settings. Other efforts to increase in-school and out-of-school partnerships include using funds to hire family and community engagement coordinators or liaisons to work closely with CBOs and share available resources with families. All of these efforts help to reach students and families who may have difficulties accessing resources that make the early childhood transition easier for young learners.


There is still ample opportunity for states and districts to prioritize early childhood transition efforts, as states have several years to spend these funds. Over the summer, we released A Toolkit for Effective and Supportive Transitions for Children, Families, and Educators in Fall 2021 and Beyond, where we offer the following recommendations for states:

  1. Use a self-assessment tool, such as this one, to take stock of current transition policies.
  2. Determine who should help design policy, be sure that all relevant stakeholders are included in the policy design process, and identify a lead agency and role to ensure that policy shifts are implemented.
  3. Create a plan for improvement that identifies the policy changes needed to strengthen what is happening in local communities. The improvement plan should include three buckets for policy action: (1) alignment, coordination, and collaboration; (2) transition planning and direct support; and (3) guidance, evaluation, and resources. The plan should view transition as an annual, ongoing process of relationship building, collaboration and coordination, with intentional feedback to inform future changes.
  4. Decide on strategies to adopt and identify funding streams to support the strategies, such as ARP ESSER funding.
  5. Develop a timeline for implementation.
  6. Evaluate success and make changes as needed.

More details on setting up successful transition policies can be found in our comprehensive toolkit.

While only a portion of states with approved ARP ESSER plans currently outline transition supports for young students, it is our hope that more states will view the return to in-person learning as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for strengthened early childhood transition policies. A smooth transition into school has always been important for ensuring student success and its importance has only been heightened by the numerous pandemic-related challenges faced over the last year and a half by young children and their families.

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