Research Reveals Opportunities for Easing the Transition to Kindergarten
Children’s success in school may, in part, depend on how well they transition to kindergarten from early childhood care and education (ECE) programs like Head Start.
However, in facilitating this transition, decision-makers too often focus only on teachers, children, and families rather than taking a more holistic approach that includes improving communication, collaboration, and coordination between ECE and K-12 systems at multiple levels—including agency, administration, and classroom. Since 2019, NORC has partnered with Child Trends, the National P-3 Center, and consultant Dr. Kyle DeMeo Cook on Understanding Children’s Transitions from Head Start to Kindergarten (HS2K), a project funded by the Administration for Children and Families. The team recently identified three opportunities for improvement:
Providing More Diverse Kindergarten Transition Activities to Lower-Income Families
Research shows that some kindergarten transition activities, including kindergarten classroom visits, home visits by teachers, and sharing information with families are linked to better kindergarten outcomes. Using a 2011 survey of kindergarten teachers and parents, NORC identified four common combinations of such activities, examined which combinations Head Start enrollees and their families had experienced, and studied whether this was associated with how children were adjusting to kindergarten.
“While these briefs fill in several systems-level knowledge gaps, we’re looking forward to analyzing recently collected data from five case studies that will, ideally, identify promising kindergarten transition strategies that will inform practice, policy, and institutional changes, to everyone’s benefit.”
Lower-Income Families Receive Less Information than Higher-Income Peers
NORC found that families with lower incomes received less information and had fewer face-to-face interactions, such as parent orientations and classroom visits, than their higher-income peers. Children and families who were offered a greater variety of activities showed better kindergarten outcomes. This suggests that engaging Head Start families and other families with lower incomes in more in-person and varied activities and providing them with more information on what to expect in kindergarten could improve experiences and outcomes.
Strengthening the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that Govern the Transition to Kindergarten
Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) can help govern how the Head Start and public K-12 systems collaborate on the transition to kindergarten, but little was known about actual MOU content until the HS2K project analyzed 23 of them. MOUs between Head Start and K-12 can serve multiple purposes, one of which is how to structure support for the transition to kindergarten. While 18 MOUs cited the kindergarten transition, the majority did not include details, procedures, or processes, nor did they reference federal laws or regulations. Instead, they often set high-level policy goals without charting a clear path to achieving them.
The implication is that MOUs may not be living up to their full potential. This offers administrators from both sides of the transition a chance to collectively consider—and articulate in their MOUs—joint policies, perspectives, practices, and professional supports governing the kindergarten transition.
Encouraging Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) Centers to Actively Engage with Schools
Because their families follow an agricultural schedule, the children of migrant and seasonal workers are more likely to experience multiple ECE settings before kindergarten, putting them at risk of a bumpier kindergarten transition and making them a key population from which to learn about transitions. Data from a 2017 survey of MSHS center directors showed that their centers focused on engaging with families directly during transitions, whether to kindergarten or another ECE program.
However, coordination between the centers and other ECE programs and schools—known as center-to-school practices—was less frequent. We hypothesize, based on the literature, that more in-depth collaboration among center, school, or other ECE program administrators may better support MSHS families’ transitions.
This article is from our flagship newsletter, NORC Now. NORC Now keeps you informed of the full breadth of NORC’s work, the questions we help our clients answer, and the issues we help them address.