Transitioning from preschool to kindergarten can be a fraught time for students who face a new learning environment — and for parents who might fret about how their children will fare and how to best help them make the shift.
Research shows kindergarten is a crucial time in a child’s development. Kindergartners who score high in social and emotional skills were more likely to graduate from high school, earn college degrees and have full-time jobs, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Full-day kindergarten boosts academic achievement and strengthen their social-emotional skills, helping to close achievement gaps, according to the National Education Association.
There are many ways schools can ensure a smooth transition for kindergartners and their families, experts say. That’s especially important for families whose children did not attend preschool or who are hesitant about enrolling their youngsters in kindergarten, perhaps due to fears over COVID-19, said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, which aims to expand high-quality early learning programs.
The following six strategies can help smooth those transitions and set up kindergartners for the best results.
Cultivate relationships with other schools
Elementary schools and preschools should build relationships with each other so kindergarten teachers visit preschools and preschool teachers visit kindergarten classes, said Rosa Floyd, a kindergarten teacher at Nellie Muir Elementary School in Oregon who was named Oregon’s 2023 Teacher of the Year.
That way, teachers learn what students experience in both classrooms and ideally they'll align their goals for reading and math, Floyd said. Additionally, preschool teachers can help prepare children for what's to come in kindergarten, where, for example, they are expected to serve themselves food and use bathrooms shared by many classes, she said.
Toward the end of the school year, preschoolers should visit kindergarten classrooms themselves, Floyd said. “They visit the school, they see the routine, and we create an activity to do with them,” she said. “Just an hour or two is enough, and it really helps.”
Help students who haven’t attended preschool
Floyd's Woodburn School District offers a “jump start” program for kids who haven’t attended preschool, which typically happens when families don’t qualify for free preschool and can’t afford private preschool, she said.
The program invites parents to bring their children to kindergarten a week before school starts so they can gradually experience the new routines. “Otherwise, it’s like you’re asking the kids to run before they walk. They need that transition,” she said.
Woodburn also offers a staggered start for kindergartners: A third of the class comes on the first day of school, another third on the second day, and the rest on the third day. On the fourth day, everyone starts coming to class regularly. This allows kindergarten teachers to start the school year by working with children in small groups, which makes it easier to get to know each child and their needs, Floyd said.
Spread the word
Organizing open houses and offering school tours the year before kindergarten is a great tool that allows parents to get comfortable, Floyd said. Woodburn School District also offers four kindergarten readiness classes for parents each year, during which teachers discuss topics like the stages of brain development and age-appropriate learning milestones, Floyd said.
School districts can also use traditional methods to publicize kindergarten enrollment, like posting fliers in high-traffic areas and community centers or pitching media stories — particularly to media serving communities that don’t speak English — about the importance of kindergarten, Lozano said.
Students’ parents are another great resource to help new parents navigate and adapt to a new school, Lozano said, so school districts should encourage them to make those connections — even via simple word-of-mouth among relatives and friends.
Create an inclusive environment
Families and children must feel welcome in their new school, particularly if they speak a language other than English at home, Lozano said. Schools should ensure all information is available to parents in their native language, have interpreters available — whether a staff member or bilingual parent willing to help — and intentionally embrace different cultures within the classroom, she said.
For example, kindergarten classrooms should have books and words on the wall in different languages, toys representative of various cultures, and even special days during which parents can bring traditional food to share in the classroom, Lozano said. “The more welcoming and inclusive, the better — especially for kids’ social and emotional learning and development,” she said.
Floyd said she always invites parents to an open classroom day at the beginning of the school year. “I explain to them the routine and the curriculum, and I set expectations,” she said. “Parents have a lot of rights, but also responsibilities, and what I reinforce is that we are a team.”
Encourage learning at home
Early childhood teachers can help parents understand how they can foster their children’s learning with simple daily activities, thus helping ease their transition into kindergarten, Lozano said. “Things like having kids count peas or blueberries at dinner, reading out loud to them, or even going for a walk and pointing out what’s in the environment — all of it leads to learning in little kids,” she said.
Bilingual parents have added anxieties about whether they can help their children when they attend English-language schools, Floyd said.
“I explain to them that whatever they are able to do in their own language is going to be really beneficial for learning" in English,” Floyd said. “If they read to them every night, or even talk about the pictures in a book [in their native language], all that is transferable to another language.”
Do home visits if possible
Over the course of the school year, Floyd visits the homes of all her kindergartners, starting with the children struggling the most. She lets the parents know the visit is informal and can take place at their convenience, and she brings a book to read with the child, she said.
The overarching goal of home visits — which she does on her own time — is to figure out what home challenges might affect her students’ learning, she said. For example, families might struggle with basic needs such as housing or lack necessities like clothing. Floyd said she tries to help however possible by gathering resources or putting families in touch with community organizations.
“More than anything, I want them [parents] to feel comfortable when they have questions, or come to me when they need help,” she said.