School Transition and School Readiness: An Outcome of Early Childhood Development
Sara Rimm-Kaufman, PhD & Lia Sandilos, PhD
University of Virginia, USA
Children’s transition to kindergarten and their skills at school entry forecast long-term school success.1,2 In the United States, the primary objective of Goals 2000 set by the National Education Goals Panel was “to ensure that all children enter school ready to learn”.3 Nearly two decades later, the U.S. early childhood education system has undergone substantial growth in investment, enrollment, and workforce development4,5 in an effort to foster readiness. Most recently, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act reemphasized the importance of readiness by requiring states to document ways in which pre-kindergarten programs cultivate early skills. Countries around the globe are investing to improve and expand early childhood education, as evidenced by the 16% increase in world-wide pre-kindergarten enrollment between 1990 and 2014.6
There is no single indicator of kindergarten readiness.7,8 Readiness involves a range of skills and developmental domains. Presently, the U.S. Department of Education defines the “essential domains for readiness” as language and literacy development, cognition and general knowledge (e.g., early mathematics, early science), approaches to learning, physical well-being and motor development, and social-emotional development.9
Research suggests that children’s school outcomes, especially achievement, remain remarkably stable after the first years of school.10,11 Further, there is evidence that interventions are more likely to be successful in the early school years.12 As a result, researchers, policy-makers, educators and parents grapple with what it means for children to be “ready” for school.
This brief report summarizes evidence on school transition and readiness with the goal of describing stakeholders’ definitions of readiness, characteristics of child readiness, and readiness as an outcome of early childhood experiences.
Children and their families experience discontinuity as they make the transition into kindergarten. This shift is notable despite the fact that nearly 80% of American children receive care on a regular basis from a non-parental caregiver prior to this transition.13 Within the U.S., the shift toward academic priorities and the heightened rigor present challenges to children as they begin kindergarten. Emphasis on accountability has forced a “push down curriculum” in which children are expected to perform at higher academic levels at earlier ages. Many kindergarten classrooms now have increased teacher-directed math and literacy instruction, and less time engaging in free play or center-based activities.14
The transition to kindergarten has become an increasingly visible issue as federal and state governments consider the merits of federally-funded preschool programs. A national survey of kindergarten teachers examined teachers’ judgments about school transition and found that almost half of children entering school experienced some difficulty with the transition to kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers cited trouble following directions as the most prevalent problem.15 Efforts to improve kindergarten transition need to leverage home, school, neighborhood and community resources to prepare children for school.16 Some promising efforts include expanding access to high quality preschool programming,17 increasing preschool-to-kindergarten transition activities,18 and establishing stronger connections between home and school environments.19
Further, children entering kindergarten differ from those of a generation ago; they are increasingly diverse with regard to racial, ethnic, economic and language backgrounds.20 For example, in U.S. Head Start preschools, 29% of children and families are African American, 38% identify as Latino, and 29% speak a language other than English at home.21 Promising approaches to support transition to kindergarten need to identify and leverage the full variation of family strengths.
Three main bodies of literature inform discussions about school readiness. The first body is based on large-scale surveys that examine the views of stakeholders (e.g., kindergarten teachers, parents) on their perception of school readiness. The second body of research examines definitions of school readiness by considering the relative importance of cognitive, social, and self-regulatory skills, as well as chronological age. The third body of work examines school readiness and child outcomes in the early years of school as a function of classroom and family experiences.
Key Research Questions
Key research questions include: How do teachers and parents define readiness? What are the cognitive, social, self-regulatory and chronological markers of school readiness? What are the child-care and home contexts associated with school readiness?
What is Readiness: Teachers’ and Parents’ Definitions
Studies have examined the definition of readiness among different stakeholders in the kindergarten transition process. A national survey of kindergarten teachers showed that teachers identified “ready” children as those who are physically healthy, well-rested and well-fed; able to communicate needs, wants and thoughts verbally; and curious and enthusiastic in approaching new activities. Surprisingly, teachers did not attach particular importance to specific numeracy and literacy skills.22 Another study found that teachers place greater emphasis on self-regulatory and interpersonal skills rather than academic competence.23 Parents, in contrast, typically define readiness in terms of academic abilities, such as the ability to count, name objects, or identify letters.24
Readiness as Defined by Cognition, Self-regulation, Social Competence, and Chronological Age
Early signs of cognitive ability and maturity link to children’s performance in school. For this reason, this approach to assessing readiness has been used as an indication that a child is prepared for the school environment.25 Meta-analytic work shows that preschool and kindergarten cognitive assessments predict, on average, 25% of variance in early elementary school cognitive assessments.26 Thus, these cognitive indicators are important but other factors account for the majority of variation in early school outcomes.
Accumulated evidence points to the significant role of self-regulation and executive functioning.27,28 These features have a neurobiological basis and provide the foundation for many of the behaviours and abilities required in kindergarten.29-31 Ability to attend selectively, show appropriate social responses, and stay engaged in academic tasks are all implicated as factors that contribute to and define school readiness. Relatedly, children’s “approaches to learning”, which include emotion-regulation, attention, persistence, and attitude, support their ability to take advantage of learning opportunities in the classroom and predict achievement in later elementary grades.32,33
Other research links children’s social competence to academic performance. For example, children’s early social-emotional skills and social adjustment (e.g., relationships with peers, positive emotions, and prosocial behaviours) are associated with academic outcomes and classroom engagement in kindergarten.34-36 Conversely, problem behaviours, such as aggression or withdrawal, interfere with classroom learning.37
Children’s age is also a marker of school readiness insofar as it indicates maturity in the cognitive, social and self-regulatory domains. Research on the effect of age is mixed. Some studies suggest that while there is some advantage to being slightly older upon the transition to kindergarten, these effects disappear by third grade.38,39 Other work finds that an earlier state-wide entry cutoff for kindergarten (resulting in older kindergartners, on average) linked to higher state test scores in 4th and 8th grade.40
What are the antecedents of “readiness”?
Attributes of children’s child-care environment contribute to their transition and adjustment to school. Stimulating and supportive teacher-child interactions in early childhood classrooms can enhance students’ social-emotional and academic competence.41-44 Quality preschool or child-care also predicts ease of kindergarten adjustment,45 strengthens social and self-regulatory skills46 and reduces the likelihood of some negative outcomes, such as grade retention.47 Higher caregiver training and lower child-staff ratio are associated with cognitive competence prior to school entry.48 Further, research shows that children who face early adversity, such as growing up in low income or impoverished homes, may have the most to gain from high quality early classroom experiences.49,50
Family processes also influence children’s competencies as they enter school. Quality of parent-child relationships, specifically parental sensitivity and stimulation, contribute to early school success.51-55 Parents’ behaviours toward their children and the stimulating materials and consistent routines they provide in the home environment are associated with children’s adjustment to the first months and years of school.56,57 Moreover, parents’ involvement in school, such as participating in school activities and attending teacher conferences, forecast early gains in achievement.58
The evidence suggests that school readiness is an important factor for predicting children’s school success and that the characterizations of school readiness are multi-dimensional. Teachers and parents have different definitions of school readiness – teachers emphasize readiness in the social and self-regulatory domains, whereas parents emphasize basic academic skills. Research shows that cognitive skills, social competence, and self-regulatory abilities provide a foundation for academic success and that chronological age, alone, is not an effective indicator of school readiness. Early predictors of school success point to the contribution of sensitive and stimulating family processes, and high quality child-care environments.
Programs designed to prepare children for kindergarten should strive to boost students’ self-regulatory, social, and cognitive skills.59 Parents and early childhood teachers are key contributors to children’s readiness.
Awareness of the multi-dimensionality of readiness and the importance of early teacher-child relationships is essential for practitioners. Transition practices are needed to help families and schools develop congruent expectations for the kindergarten year. Given the increased diversity in U.S. schools and the heightened academic rigor of the early years of school, extra resources allocated toward such transition practices may benefit children, especially those at risk for early school problems.
- Magnuson KA, Ruhm C, Waldfogel J. Does prekindergarten improve school preparation and performance? Economics of Education Review 2007;26(1):33-51.
- Sabol TJ, Pianta RC. Patterns of school readiness forecast achievement and socioemotional development at the end of elementary school. Child Development 2012;83(1):282-99.
- National Education Goals Panel. National education goals report executive summary: Improving education through family-school-community partnerships. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel; 1995.
- Barnett WS, Friedman-Krauss A, Gomez R, Horowitz M, Weisenfeld GG, Brown KC, Squires, JH. The state of preschool 2015: State Preschool Yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research; 2016.
- U.S. Census Bureau. Table A-1. School enrollment of the population 3 years old and over, by level and control of school, race, and Hispanic origin: October 1955 to 2015. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/school-enrollment/cps-historical-time-series.html. Accessed July 18, 2017.
- UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Gross enrollment ratio, pre-primary, both sexes. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRE.ENRR. Accessed July 18, 2017.
- Kagan SL, Moore E, Bredekamp S. Reconsidering children's early development and learning toward common views and vocabulary: National Education Goals Panel. Darby, PA: Diane Publishing; 1998.
- Office of Head Start, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Head Start child development and early learning framework: Promoting positive outcomes in early childhood programs serving children 3–5 years old. 2011. Contract no. HHSP233201000415G.
- U.S. Department of Education. Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Program - Definitions: Essential domains of readiness. https://www.ed.gov/early-learning/elc-draft-summary/definitions. Accessed July 18, 2017.
- Alexander KL, Entwisel DR. Achievement in the first 2 years of school: Patterns and processes. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 1988;53(2):1-157.
- Entwisel DR, Alexander KL. Early schooling and social stratification. In: Pianta RC, Cox MJ, eds. The Transition to Kindergarten. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing; 1998:13-38.
- Ramey CT, Ramey SL. Intensive educational intervention for children of poverty. Intelligence 1990;14(1):1-9.
- Redford J, Desrochers D, Hoyer KM. The years before school: Children’s non-parental care arrangements from 2001 to 2012. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; 2017. NCES 2017-096.
- Bassok D, Latham S, Rorem A. Is kindergarten the new first grade? AERA Open 2016;2(1):1-31.
- Rimm-Kaufman SE, Pianta RC, Cox MJ. Teachers’ judgments of problems in the transition to kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2000;15(2):147-166.
- Rimm-Kaufman SE, Pianta RC. An ecological perspective on the transition to kindergarten: A theoretical framework to guide empirical research. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 2000;21(5):491-511.
- Watson S. The right policy at the right time: The Pew pre-kindergarten campaign. Washington, DC: Pew Center on the States; 2010.
- LoCasale-Crouch J, Mashburn AJ, Downer JT, Pianta RC. Pre-kindergarten teachers’ use of transition practices and children's adjustment to kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2008;23(1):124-139.
- Dearing E, Kreider H, Simpkins S, Weiss HB. Family involvement in school and low-income children's literacy: Longitudinal associations between and within families. Journal of Educational Psychology 2006;98(4):653-664.
- Zill N, Collins M, West J, Germino-Hausken E. Approaching Kindergarten: A Look at Preschoolers in the United States. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics; 1995. NCES 95-280.
- Head Start Early Learning and Knowledge Center. Head Start program facts: Fiscal year 2015. 2015; Available at: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/data-ongoing-monitoring/article/head-start...
- United States Department of Education. Readiness for kindergarten: Parent and teacher beliefs. Statistics in brief. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Office of Educational Research and Improvement; 1993. NCES 93-257. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/web/93257.asp. Accessed July 18, 2017.
- Abry T, Latham S, Bassok D, LoCasale-Crouch J. Preschool and kindergarten teachers’ beliefs about early school competencies: Misalignment matters for kindergarten adjustment. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2015;31:78-88.
- Barbarin OA, Early D, Clifford R, Bryant D, Frome P, Burchinal M, Howes C, Pianta R. Parental conceptions of school readiness: Relation to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and children's skills. Early Education and Development 2008;19(5):671-701.
- Meisels SJ. Assessing readiness. In: Pianta RC, Cox M, eds. The transition to kindergarten: Research, policy, training, and practice. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brooks Publishers; 1999:39-66.
- La Paro K, Pianta RC. Predicting children’s competence in the early school years: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research 2000;70(4):443-484.
- Rimm-Kaufman SE, Curby TW, Grimm KJ, Nathanson L, Brock LL. The contribution of children’s self-regulation and classroom quality to children’s adaptive behaviors in the kindergarten classroom. Developmental Psychology 2009;45(4):958-972.
- Schmitt SA, McClelland MM, Tominey SL, Acock AC. Strengthening school readiness for Head Start children: Evaluation of a self-regulation intervention. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2015;30(A):20-31.
- Blair C, Diamond A. Biological processes in prevention and intervention: The promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Development and Psychopathology 2008;20(3):899-911.
- Clark CA, Pritchard VE, Woodward LJ. Preschool executive functioning abilities predict early mathematics achievement. Developmental Psychology 2010;46(5):1176-1191.
- Ponitz CC, McClelland MM, Matthews JS, Morrison FJ. A structured observation of behavioral self-regulation and its contribution to kindergarten outcomes. Developmental Psychology 2009;45(3):605-619.
- Vitiello VE, Greenfield DB, Munis P, George JL. Cognitive flexibility, approaches to learning, and academic school readiness in Head Start preschool children. Early Education & Development 2011;22(3):388-410.
- Li-Grining CP, Votruba-Drzal E, Maldonado-Carreño C, Haas K. Children's early approaches to learning and academic trajectories through fifth grade. Developmental Psychology 2010;46(5):1062-1077.
- Nix RL, Bierman KL, Domitrovich CE, Gill S. Promoting children's social-emotional skills in preschool can enhance academic and behavioral functioning in kindergarten: Findings from Head Start REDI. Early Education & Development 2013;24(7):1000-1019.
- Ladd GW, Price JM. Predicting children’s social and school adjustment following the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Child Development 1987;58(5):1168-1189.
- Ladd GW. Having friends, keeping friends, making friends, and being liked by peers in the classroom: Predictors of children’s early school adjustment? Child Development 1990;61(4):1081-1100.
- Bulotsky-Shearer RJ, Bell ER, Domínguez X. Latent profiles of problem behavior within learning, peer, and teacher contexts: Identifying subgroups of children at academic risk across the preschool year. Journal of School Psychology 2012;50(6):775-98.
- Kinard E, Reinhertz H. Birthdate effects on school performance and adjustment: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Research 1986;79(6):366-372.
- Stipek D, Byler P. Academic achievement and social behaviors associated with age of entry into kindergarten. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 2001;22(2):175-189.
- Fletcher J, Kim T. The effects of changes in kindergarten entry age policies on educational achievement. Economics of Education Review 2016;50:45-62.
- Burchinal M, Zaslow M, & Tarullo L. Quality thresholds, features, and dosage in early care and education: Secondary data analyses of child outcomes. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 2016;81:1-120.
- Curby TW, Rimm-Kaufman SE, Ponitz CC. Teacher–child interactions and children’s achievement trajectories across kindergarten and first grade. Journal of Educational Psychology 2009;101(4):912-925.
- Hamre BK, Pianta RC. Early teacher–child relationships and the trajectory of children's school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development 2001;72(2):625-638.
- Williford AP, LoCasale‐Crouch J, Whittaker JV, DeCoster J, Hartz KA, Carter LM, Wolcott CS, Hatfield BE. Changing teacher–child dyadic interactions to improve preschool children's externalizing behaviors. Child Development 2016;[Epub ahead of print]. doi:10.1111/cdev.12703
- Howes, C. Can the age of entry into child care and the quality of child care predict adjustment in kindergarten? Developmental Psychology 990;26(2):292-303.
- Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study Team. Cost, quality and child outcomes in child care centers, Technical report. Denver, Colo: University of Colorado at Denver, Department of Economics, Center for Research in Economic and Social Policy; 1995.
- Zill N, Collins M. Approaching kindergarten: A look at preschoolers in the United States. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement; 1995. NCES No. 95-280. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs95/95280.pdf. Accessed July 18, 2017.
- NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. Child-care structure, process and outcome: Direct and indirect effects of child-care quality on young children’s development. Psychological Science 2002;13(3):199-206.
- Loeb S, Fuller B, Kagan SL, Carrol B. Child care in poor communities: Early learning effects of type, quality, and stability. Child Development 2004;75(1):47-65.
- Yoshikawa H, Weiland C, Brooks-Gunn J, Burchinal MR, Espinosa LM, Gormley WT, Ludwig J, Magnuson K, Phillips D, Zaslow M. Investing in our future: The evidence base on preschool education. Washington, DC: Society for Research in Child Development; 2013; https://www.fcd-us.org/the-evidence-base-on-preschool/. Accessed July 18, 2017.
- Estrada P, Arsenio WF, Hess RD, Holloway SD. Affective quality of the mother-child relationship: Longitudinal consequences for children’s school-relevant cognitive functioning. Developmental Psychology 1987;23(2):210-215.
- Comer JP, Haynes NM. Parent involvement in schools: An ecological approach. The Elementary School Journal 1991;91(3):271-277.
- Ramey CT, Campbell FA. Poverty, early childhood education, and academic competence: The Abecedarian experiment. In: Huston AC, ed. Children in poverty: Child development and public policy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1991:190-221.
- Pianta RC, Harbers K. Observing mother and child behavior in a problem solving situation at school entry: Relations with academic achievement. Journal of School Psychology 1996;34(3):307-322.
- Connell CM, Prinz RJ. The impact of childcare and parent-child interactions on school readiness and social skills development for low-income African American children. Journal of School Psychology 2002;40(2):177-193.
- Bradley RH, Caldwell BM, Rock SL. Home environment and school performance: A ten year follow up and examination of three models of environmental action. Child Development 1988;59(4):852-867.
- Belsky J, MacKinnon C. Transition to School: Developmental Trajectories and School Experiences. Early Education and Development 1994;5(2):106-119.
- Galindo C, Sheldon SB. School and home connections and children's kindergarten achievement gains: The mediating role of family involvement. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2012;27(1):90-103.
- Raver CC. Emotions Matter: Making the case for the role of young children’s emotional development for early school readiness. SRCD Social Policy Report 2002;16(3):3-18.
How to cite this article:
Rimm-Kaufman S. School Transition and School Readiness: An Outcome of Early Childhood Development. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/school-readiness/according-experts/school-transition-and-school-readiness-outcome-early-childhood. Updated July 2017. Accessed October 22, 2021.