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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

The Early and Elementary Years / Supporting Early School Success

Children go through dramatic changes, inside and out, in the first few years of school.

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Do you recall your first years as a teacher? For some, these memories are vivid and filled with pain and triumph. For others, they are fuzzy and best left alone.
Entering the teaching profession is challenging for everyone—but the first years are tougher for some than for others. Those who have had high-quality preparation, are familiar with the culture of the school and students, and enjoy supportive friends and family typically find the transition less difficult. Even so, all new teachers need ongoing, multifaceted support to adjust to their new role.
Children in the early years of school face similar challenges, but without the sophisticated coping skills that most adults possess. Kindergartners are thrust into new roles and responsibilities, often in unfamiliar settings with unfamiliar people. Although some children are better prepared than others, all need extensive support. Consider the following case study.

Matt's Story

Matt was an active, bright child who attended a high-quality child care and preschool program for several years before entering kindergarten. According to his preschool teachers, he was well-known for his curiosity and intelligent questions.
Matt was also known for his occasional aggressive outbursts. After he was moved to the class of a teacher with whom he had a positive relationship, his behavior improved. Teachers continued to be concerned, though, about his occasional aggression, high activity level, and lack of stable friendships with other children.
Matt's preschool teachers communicated almost daily with his mother and occasionally with his father at pick-up time. At one point, the program director obtained outside assistance from a psychologist, who observed Matt in the classroom and talked with his parents. The psychologist referred the family to ongoing counseling services to help Matt's parents cope with their own stresses as well as Matt's challenging behavior. His parents and teachers attempted to help Matt develop better control over his behavior by using more consistent routines and practices at home and school.
During his last year in preschool, Matt benefited from a variety of transition activities. On several occasions, his preschool class visited the public school, where he met his prospective kindergarten teachers. The school arranged for the preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers to meet one evening to discuss the individual preschoolers who would be entering kindergarten soon and make preparations for the transition. On the basis of this information, the school matched Matt with a kindergarten teacher who had established a playful learning environment and felt prepared to deal with potential behavioral difficulties.
After beginning kindergarten, Matt attended an after-school program back at his preschool. The second week of kindergarten, Matt's favorite preschool teacher surprised him and the other former preschoolers by coming into the classroom at the end of the school day to say hello and walk with them to the after-school program.
These transition strategies helped Matt adjust to his new school. Throughout the kindergarten year, he liked school and showed obvious signs of positive adjustment. His teachers and parents had no doubt that he would shine academically.

A Developmental Perspective on Readiness

Children's adjustment in the first years of school often forecasts their later achievement. Why do some children adapt to school more smoothly than others? To answer this question, developmental scientists often begin by looking at dramatic changes, both inside and out, that children typically undergo during the early school years. A developmental perspective helps us understand the need to make schools ready for children, rather than make children ready for schools (Stipek, 2002).
During this time, children are making a major transition from early childhood to middle childhood ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. This developmental5 to 7 shift is widely recognized, and adults across time and cultures have responded by treating 7- and 8-year-old children differently than they did when these children were younger, often by trusting them to assume more responsibility for their learning and behavior (Sameroff & Haith, 1996).
From the ages of about 5 to 7, children make remarkable strides in their abilities to regulate their behavior and emotions, reflect on and direct their thought processes, recognize and use strategies to recall information, consider the perspectives of others, and reason logically. All these capacities affect their school learning and adjustment. Researchers suggest that these developments are caused partly by biological changes, such as reorganization of the brain's frontal lobes, and partly by monumental changes in external demands and experiences. Some declare that virtually "everything changes" for children during the early years of school (Ladd, 1996).
As a developmental/educational psychologist and former early educator, I have been involved in a number of community efforts to promote school readiness and foster children's adjustment to school. The following recommendations are based on research as well as my own experiences working with children, parents, and teachers.

Build Multiple Supports

Schools can use a number of transitional activities to help children and parents adjust to new school settings. These activities include visits by preschool teachers and children to kindergarten classes (as in Matt's case); orientation sessions for preschool children and their parents; and individual meetings between teachers and parents. In general, studies indicate that more is better, especially for children who are socially and economically at risk (LoCasale-Crouch, Mashburn, Downer, & Pianta, 2008). Activities that directly involve children tend to be more effective in helping them adjust to new school environments.
One uncommon transition activity also appears to be especially fruitful— discussions between preschool and kindergarten teachers about the curriculum or about specific students. The Children and Families Commission, for which I am a consultant and advisor, recently created opportunities for some teachers to engage in discussions across school settings in San Luis Obispo County in California, particularly in areas with high concentrations of children from low-income households. Although at first some teachers were understandably reluctant to attend another meeting, most noted afterward that these discussions were worthwhile and helped them prepare activities and learning environments that would make entering kindergartners feel comfortable. For example, some teachers shared children's favorite stories and songs the first weeks of school.
Some schools offer pre-kindergarten camps in which children participate in a kindergarten-like program for two or three weeks the summer before they begin school. These camps (sometimes geared to children with little or no preschool experience or to English language learners) enable children and families to become familiar with typical kindergarten activities. School administrators can take advantage of contacts with families during these weeks to acquaint them with school policies as well as community services and resources they might find helpful.
Kindergarten teachers appreciate these informal opportunities for children and families to try out their new roles and connect to school. Teachers can then spend more time during the first few weeks of the regular school year engaging students in positive activities rather than responding to tears and behavior problems.

Set the Stage in the Classroom

Three strategies can help teachers ease students' transition in the early months of school: developing positive relationships with students, employing constructivist management practices, and creating rich learning environments.
Positive relationships give children a secure base for learning. Children can better attend to and engage in challenging learning activities when they are comfortable, less anxious, and confident that they have dependable, caring adults who are responsive to their needs and interests. Pianta (1999) provides some excellent suggestions for teachers to foster positive relationships with students. For example, he recommends banking time—instigating enjoyable activities with individuals or small groups of students on a regular basis— to ensure that all students can count on having positive interactions with teachers. I knew a 1st grade teacher who deliberately set aside five minutes or more every day to chat informally with students in her small reading groups before formal lessons. She talked with each student separately—often asking about activities and interests outside school. She also ate lunch with her students on Fridays.
Constructivist classroom management practices—in which teachers share responsibility with students to some extent—help children develop behavioral regulation skills. Examples include assigning students specific roles or jobs to carry out, involving them in creating rules for the classroom, and giving them some choice of activities (Stipek & Byler, 2004). Researchers have shown that effective management practices help children learn to regulate their own behavior (Rimm-Kaufman, Curby, Grimm, Nathanson, & Brock, 2009), which is especially important in the early months of school.
A rich learning environment also helps children develop essential competencies during the transition from early to middle childhood (Daniels & Clarkson, 2010). In particular, providing playful but serious learning activities—acting out stories, playing academic games, conducting "scientific" observations outdoors, and so on—engages students' thinking in ways that expand their capacities for school learning. Participation in rich activities also enhances students' attitudes toward school and reduces behavioral problems. It may be particularly important for students to experience stimulating classrooms early, as they begin to establish identities and expectations in their new roles as students.

Getting Ready … Again

The cognitive, social-emotional, and regulatory competencies children need for school success take time (years) and lots of experience and effort (on the part of children and their adult supporters) to develop. Thus, students in kindergarten and the primary grades are continually getting ready—and getting ready again—for school learning. Matt's experience as he moved from kindergarten to 1st grade illustrates this need.
Matt had been fortunate to have supportive teachers and parents who worked with him during the crucial transition to kindergarten. But when these supports deteriorated to some extent in 1st grade, so did his behavior and school learning. The 1st grade classroom presented a radically new environment for him. Students were expected to do much more seatwork on their own, and Matt's questions and desire to move about the classroom were less tolerated. Teachers began to see him as a "behavior problem," even though he was not aggressive. His 1st grade teacher requested a conference with his parents and was prepared to help. But her offer came at a bad time: Matt's father had just been laid off, and the family was considering moving to another area to find work. Matt's mother felt overwhelmed and discouraged ("I thought we got through this! We worked so hard!").
Matt needed to readjust—to get ready again. Teachers who are primed for these everyday challenges are in a better mind-set to respond appropriately with different approaches when needed. Unfortunately, Matt's 1st grade teacher embraced the old view of school readiness and expected him to adapt to existing classroom practices, not the other way around. She employed behavioral management strategies (rewards for "good" behavior) to help Matt stay in his seat and on-task, but made no effort to redesign the learning environment and activities to respond to his interests and allow for movement. Matt and the other children in the class would have benefited from hands-on activities tied to academic lessons throughout the day. Although Matt's behavior in the classroom improved, his parents reported that he was less enthusiastic about school.

Connections, Connections

Research on early learning and development emphasizes that an individual child's skills and abilities tell just part of the story of his or her early school success (Pianta, Cox, & Snow, 2007). Equally important is the learning environment and how the adults in the child's life work together to support his or her progress.
In the first few years of school, children continue to develop important competencies that have implications for their current and future learning and well-being. Teachers, parents, and other members of the community must collaborate to support children's adjustment during this crucial time of transition. Fortunately, many schools and communities are responding to this new view of school readiness in productive ways.

Daniels, D., & Clarkson, P. (2010). A developmental approach to educating young children. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press and American Psychological Association Division 15.

Ladd, G. (1996). Shifting ecologies during the 5 to 7 period: Predicting children's adjustment during the transition to grade school. In A. Sameroff & M. Haith (Eds.),The five to seven shift: The age of reason and responsibility (pp. 363–387). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LoCasale-Crouch, J., Mashburn, A., Downer, J., & Pianta, R. (2008). Pre-kindergarten teachers' use of transition practices and children's adjustment to kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 124–139.

Pianta, R. (1999). Enhancing relationships between children and teachers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pianta, R., Cox, M., & Snow, K. (2007).School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability. Baltimore: Brookes.

Rimm-Kaufman, S., Curby, T., Grimm, K., Nathanson, L., & Brock, L. (2009). The contribution of children's self-regulation and classroom quality to children's adaptive behaviors in the kindergarten classroom. Developmental Psychology, 45, 958–972.

Sameroff, A., & Haith, M. (Eds.). (1996).The five to seven shift: The age of reason and responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stipek, D. (2002). At what age should children enter kindergarten? A question for policy makers and parents. SRCD Social Policy Report, 16(2), 1–20.

Stipek, D., & Byler, P. (2004). The early childhood classroom observation measure. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 375–397.

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