The first eight years of a child’s life are full of transitions. Many children experience a variety of early care and education settings during these years, starting in the home and then possibly including a child care center and pre-K, followed by the start of formal education with kindergarten.
In the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, authors emphasized the importance of creating greater vertical continuity across those settings for children as they grow, develop, and learn up through the early elementary grades. The continuity of learning is essential for ensuring that early academic success and social development are built upon by later educational experiences, a point emphasized in a recent report from the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD).
A seamless educational experience through third grade can help sustain the gains students make in pre-K and the early elementary grades. But creating an aligned birth-through-third continuum is no easy task. It requires teachers with an in-depth understanding of child development, curricula that are age-appropriate and build upon students’ prior knowledge, and principals and directors with expertise in early childhood education who are highly capable of providing instructional feedback to early educators (check out this map for information about states currently engaged in this work).
Transforming the Workforce discusses several ways states and districts can smooth transitions between settings and help ensure that children have well-coordinated learning experiences, including aligned learning standards, instructional strategies, and data systems.
Ensuring that learning standards across the birth-through-third continuum are aligned is one way to support children as they transition between settings. According to New America’s From Crawling to Walking research, 48 states have comprehensive early learning standards that include infants, toddlers, and pre-K students. These standards reflect expectations for children and describe what children should know and be able to do during specific developmental stages. In many states, however, the alignment of learning standards is only surface deep - terms and concepts may match up but there is often a lack of meaningful coordination where learning in one year is intentionally built upon in the following year.
Comprehensive early learning standards that span the entire birth to age eight range are important for a few reasons. The standards provide teachers with guidance when it comes to developing appropriate activities and lessons. The standards are also a helpful tool for educating parents about child development and empowering parents to make sure their child is on track when it comes to meeting developmental milestones. Finally, early learning standards can be a key tool in building continuity across care and education settings by reinforcing a shared vision of age-appropriate expectations for children from birth through age eight.
But aligned standards are not enough on their own. Transforming the Workforce also notes that consistent instructional strategies across settings is an effective method for ensuring educational continuity (For more on the importance of instructional continuity, read my colleague’s piece on the recent SRCD report PK-3: What Does It Mean For Instruction?). Key to ensuring consistent instruction across ages and settings is communication and collaboration among teachers in different settings. Joint professional development and planning for pre-K and kindergarten teachers is one way districts and schools can facilitate better communication and coordination. These joint sessions can provide time for kindergarten teachers to inform their pre-K partners of their expectations for students entering kindergarten and, at the same time, allow pre-K teachers to share effective instructional strategies that could be helpful in the kindergarten classroom, such as encouraging children to re-enact stories through dramatic play.
Data also play an important role in ensuring continuity across the early care and education continuum. Various data sources can be used to help build accountability systems and establish a clear plan for program improvement. Transforming the Workforce notes that developing longitudinal data systems that connect early learning programs, schools, and state agencies are essential for improving program quality and child outcomes. These data can be disaggregated by factors such as age, race, and socioeconomic status in order to allow program administrators to gain a better idea of how their programs are performing when it comes to meeting the needs of specific subgroups of students. Currently, only 16 states and D.C. have longitudinal data systems that connect early learning, K-12, postsecondary, and workforce data. And, as discussed in New America’s Beyond Subprime Learning report, few states include Head Start data from their longitudinal data systems. This is a key group of children to figure out how to include in state longitudinal data systems.
The report notes that several other factors are important for building a well-aligned early education system, including age-appropriate child assessments, high-quality learning environments, and sustained family engagement. Child assessments should be developmentally appropriate and results should be used to inform what sort of interventions are needed to support each child. The environments in which children learn should be safe and organized, full of materials that reflect the diverse cultures children bring to the classroom each day. And educators need to view family engagement as an opportunity to establish a two-way dialogue with families so that parents feel like partners in their children’s education rather than spectators.States, districts, schools, and other early childhood providers all have a role to play in helping smooth the various transition points across the birth to age eight continuum by establishing an aligned education system. Whether they are entering a child care center for the first time, transitioning from pre-K to kindergarten, or moving from kindergarten into the early elementary grades, children and families achieve better outcomes when they are supported by systems that provide continuous, uninterrupted learning experiences throughout the earliest years of life.