A recent nationwide survey of kindergarten teachers has revealed that a significant number of children are facing difficulties adjusting to their new environment. The survey, which is considered the most comprehensive study on children’s initial experience with formal schooling, also found that many schools are not doing enough to help children transition smoothly into kindergarten. Researchers from the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina shared these findings at a recent educational research conference. The study is based on responses from approximately 3,600 kindergarten teachers who participated in a survey during the 1993-94 school year.
The researchers emphasize the importance of a positive first experience in kindergarten and 1st grade, as studies have shown that children who have a positive start tend to perform better throughout their academic careers. According to the surveyed teachers, almost half of the incoming kindergarten students face difficulties adjusting. Of these, 16 percent found the transition to be "difficult", while 32 percent experienced some problems. Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia, suggests that these difficulties may be due to a mismatch between the kindergarten classroom environment and the backgrounds of the children.
One of the main challenges for kindergartners is following directions, with over half of the surveyed teachers reporting that more than 50 percent of their students struggle with this skill. Additionally, many teachers noted that their students lacked academic skills or came from disorganized home environments. These problems were particularly prevalent in inner-city schools, schools with a high number of underprivileged students, and schools with large minority populations.
Currently, schools’ efforts to facilitate the adjustment period are limited to communication with parents through discussions, letters, or open houses. These activities typically take place after the school year has started. Only a few teachers reported taking pre-kindergarten steps, such as collaborating with preschools or visiting students’ homes, to help children adjust to school. Furthermore, teachers tend to focus more on group activities rather than individual approaches. Diane M. Early, a postdoctoral student involved in the survey analysis, suggests that the practices that would be most useful are also the most challenging to implement.
According to the surveyed teachers, one of the obstacles to more comprehensive transition efforts is the late provision of class lists by schools. On average, teachers receive these rosters only 15 days before the school year begins. Teachers also mention a lack of time and concerns about visiting students’ homes located in dangerous neighborhoods.
Individualized transition efforts are more common in private schools and public schools in suburban or affluent areas, where children face fewer adjustment problems. In contrast, teachers in urban schools or schools with higher numbers of underprivileged or minority students are more likely to focus on group activities and delay transition efforts until the start of the school year.
This survey is part of a larger research program by the NCEDL that investigates children’s transitions into formal schooling. The researchers are currently tracking 300 students in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Virginia to observe how they cope with their first experiences in school. Daniel J. Walsh, an education professor at the University of Illinois, applauds the survey as the most extensive data set on children’s school transition to date, calling it definitive.