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Experts Tackle Transition to Kindergarten

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Charlottesville, Va.

In 1989, the nation's governors and President Bush met in this hilly college town to discuss the future of American education. Out of that summit came six (later expanded to eight) national goals, the first of which is that by 2000, every child will start school ready to learn.

Almost nine years later, policymakers and experts on child development who gathered here for a recent conference spent more time trying to avoid the terms "readiness" and "ready to learn" than they did trying to define them.

Craig Ramey

"Goal one is a silly statement. It's a political statement," said Craig Ramey, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama and one of several speakers at the 2 1/2-day research conference, held Feb. 18-20. "Whoever wrote it didn't know anything about child development."

But Mr. Ramey's comment didn't discourage the group members from completing their assignment: to summarize what is known about children's transition into kindergarten, to make policy recommendations, and to identify questions that need further research.

Nicholas Zill

The group of about 50, including researchers, teachers, and parents, was brought together by the National Center for Early Development and Learning, a federally funded research center based at the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center in Chapel Hill. Helping coordinate the event locally was the University of Virgina's Curry school of education. The group's work--a series of articles--will be published in a book later this year.

A few participants argued that even if the first goal is ambiguous, at least it has focused attention at the federal and state levels on the healthy development of young children.

"Before, the [U.S.] Department of Education didn't pay attention to early childhood," said Nicholas Zill, the director of child and family studies at Westat, a Rockville, Md., research center.

Borrowing a phrase popular with teachers, speakers called the current emphasis on early learning a "teachable moment" and said that researchers should be more focused about their recommendations.

They also urged researchers not to let the high cost of good programs or a lack of solid information on brain development keep them from spreading their message to policymakers.

Relatively little research has been done on the topic of children's transition into kindergarten and the early grades, even though it might be the most important transition children ever encounter, said Doris Entwistle, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Barbara Bowman, the president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, located in Chicago, said that she is gradually becoming more convinced that the transition between kindergarten and 1st grade is more risky for children--because of the start of formal reading instruction--than the one into kindergarten.

But whenever it takes place, transition can create stress for children and their parents, particularly those who are poor, the experts agree. A rocky introduction to school can sap children's self-confidence and leave them feeling that school is an unfriendly place, said Don Bailey, the director of the Frank Porter Graham Center.

Because children entering school come from such a wide variety of backgrounds--preschools, child-care centers, and home--determining the skills and knowledge they need for school is a challenging task.

Members of the group generally agreed there should be specific goals for youngsters entering kindergarten.

But several participants also said that standards for young children should encompass a range of abilities and recognize that not all children will accomplish them at the same pace.

A few other themes also emerged from the conference:

  • A host of transition activities are used in schools--orientation programs, home visits to new kindergartners, buddy programs with older students--but little is known about what works best for different children.
  • As difficult as transition can be for children, it creates even more anxiety for those who frequently move and change schools, regardless of their age. Several speakers said that when students move, they should at least be allowed to finish out the year in the school they are attending, as long as it's within a reasonable distance.
  • Much can be learned about transition from children with disabilities, who usually begin attending public school programs at age 3. Most of these children also make transitions during the school day, from special education classrooms to regular classrooms, and from public schools to private service providers. "It's hard to be part of a class when you're only there two or three hours a day," said Mark Wolery, a senior investigator at UNC-Chapel Hill's Graham Center.
  • Transitions for children are also transitions for parents. School-linked services, such as health and welfare, have the potential to draw more families into schools, but they often don't "fit comfortably into the school setting," said Susan P. Limber, the assistant director of the Institute for Families in Society, based at the University of South Carolina-Columbia.

After two full days of work, the conference participants offered several conclusions and made a number of recommendations. They include:

  • Kindergarten should run for the full school day in order to minimize transitions for young children during the day. Full-day programs also allow teachers to get better acquainted with pupils and parents.
  • Kindergarten classes should be limited to 15 pupils.
  • Policies and programs should be universal, not just for a subgroup of children. But resources should be increased in areas with greater needs, such as low-income neighborhoods.
  • College loans should be forgiven for teachers who work in high-poverty areas. Such a policy would keep them from having to work a second job to pay off loans and give them more time to work with children and families, the conference-goers argue. Ms. Bowman said, for example, that several teachers she knows of in the Chicago area work second jobs after school to pay off their loans.
  • Professional development for teachers, administrators, and other school employees should include more information about the issue of transition.

--LINDA JACOBSON

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