If your child is too advanced for preschool but not quite ready for kindergarten — perhaps because of a fall birthday — transitional kindergarten may be a solution.
Pioneered in California, where the state has made transitional kindergarten universally available (although not required), it’s an idea that is gaining momentum nationwide, says Elizabeth DeWitt, a senior professional learning curriculum specialist at Learning Without Tears in Maryland.
“It gives kids the opportunity to grow their skills before going to kindergarten,” she says.
The curriculum and approach in transitional kindergarten — sometimes called a “Young Fives” program — bridges the gap between preschool and elementary school, providing an extra year to acquire kindergarten readiness.
“Transitional kindergarten currently serves children who do not need to meet the age requirement to begin kindergarten,” says Marie Gannon Russell, program chair of the Child Studies Department at Post University in Connecticut. “It also supports children who are age-eligible for kindergarten, but who may benefit from extra time and support for school readiness.”
The Case for Transitional Kindergarten
Because so much brain development happens before age 5, some education experts say that it makes sense to emphasize education during these formative years. But currently, children who don’t meet the age requirement, or are unprepared for kindergarten, must wait a full school year before entering the academic world, Russell says.
That can mean repeating a year of preschool and falling behind their peers, Dewitt says. Because kindergarten has become more academic, children who attend transitional kindergarten can also be better prepared to meet demands like learning to read more quickly, she says.
Sari Beth Goodman, a principal and educator for more than two decades who helped design a transitional kindergarten program in California, says children in this age group need more stimulation, academically and socially, than the typical preschool program offers.
“They are ready to be introduced to ’emergent’ reading, writing and math skills,” says Goodman, who is now a certified parent educator and founder of The Parental Edge in Los Angeles. “Emergent means the developmentally appropriate skills necessary before reading, writing and math can happen.”
Young children also need time, Goodman says. Once they are in kindergarten, the achievement race begins, and there is not always time made for discovery.
“When children are placed in appropriate educational settings, they more readily develop healthy, positive self-esteem and master important fundamental skills needed for success later in their academic journey,” Russell says.
Who Benefits From Transitional Kindergarten?
Due to cost and other factors, not all children go to preschool. Goodman says making transitional kindergarten widely available could enable children of all socioeconomic levels to attend, teaching children who haven’t experienced preschool what it means to be a student.
“They will have the opportunity to experience books, math and science and develop language and social and emotional skills,” Goodman says. “The gains will be seen in kindergarten and beyond because children who come ready to participate within the structure of school will know what their responsibilities are as students.”
Transitional kindergarten also provides an alternative for families who might otherwise choose to “redshirt,” or delay kindergarten to give their child an extra year of growth and development, says Goodman.
In California, some early childhood groups argued against expanding the transitional kindergarten program, saying investments are better made in supporting more child-care options for working parents.
“A child’s intellectual development from birth to age five is a continuum,” the nonprofit Child Care Law Center wrote in a blog post opposing the expansion. “It is a misconception that children three and under need ‘care’ and four- and five-year-olds are ‘ready to learn.’ Every child is different.”
On the other hand, a study by the American Institutes for Research in 2017 showed that California’s transitional kindergarten system had a positive impact on children. Transitional kindergarten “gives students an advantage at kindergarten entry on a range of literacy and mathematics skills,” the study said, adding that “students were also rated as more engaged by their teachers, compared to their peers.”
Goodman says that it can take several months for children who have not attended preschool to learn about the structure of school and how to handle transitions and the requirements for sitting and listening to a teacher. “Often these children need extra support,” she says.
Proponents of transitional kindergarten say it can ease these problems, allowing students to progress more quickly once they get to kindergarten.
Goodman says that solid transitional kindergarten programs have trained teachers; an ideal student-to-teacher ratio of 12:1; and a classroom with plenty of space because transitional kindergarten requires a materials-heavy classroom.
Russell says transitional kindergarten can help ensure that children from different backgrounds begin their academic journey with the same opportunities for success. While the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income families is a major part of the national conversation on education, the idea that those inequities can begin before a child sets foot into a kindergarten classroom may not be as well understood.
“High-income families generally have more options to provide their children with high-quality preschool programs, enriched home environments and extracurricular programs,” Russell says. “Low-income and disadvantaged families have limited resources available.”
Transitional kindergarten can help level the playing field at the onset of education by providing families with additional options, Russell says.
“It provides an opportunity to offer developmentally appropriate learning activities and implements curricula that support a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development,” Russell says.
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