Should kindergarten be mandatory? Should it be a full day, just like 1st grade, or is a half day more appropriate for children just entering school?
These are questions that education leaders continue to grapple with across the country.
Only 13 states and the District of Columbia require full-day kindergarten. That’s according to an analysis released last year by the Education Commission of the States.
But that analysis found that full-day kindergarten remains pretty popular with families. In 35 states, 70-89 percent of students attend full-day programs.
A team of researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto has been looking into this issue. The researchers followed about 600 students in Ontario from kindergarten to 2nd grade and found that full-day kindergarten students outperformed their peers who had attended half-day kindergarten.
It’s important to note that kindergarten in Ontario is different than kindergarten in the U.S. In 2010, the province began offering two years of kindergarten. Students can start at the age of 4, and this is called junior kindergarten. The next year, the students advance to what’s called senior kindergarten. The program is play-based, and each class is led by a teacher and an early-childhood educator.
The researchers began their study during the 2010-11 school year when full-day kindergarten began. Another group joined the study in 2012-13. The full-day kindergarten program was rolled out in phases over five years, so for a while some children were in full-day kindergarten and some in half-day kindergarten. Some of the children began full-day kindergarten when they were in junior kindergarten and some when they were in senior kindergarten depending on when their school adopted the program.
The researchers studied 328 students who attended full-day kindergarten and 263 who attended half-day kindergarten. The children were followed from kindergarten to 2nd grade. Each year researchers measured the students’ language arts skills as well as their knowledge about numbers. The students’ self-regulation was also measured, and they were interviewed about their feelings toward school. The study is set to continue until the children reach 6th grade.
I recently talked via email to the study’s lead researcher, Janette Pelletier, a University of Toronto applied psychology and human development professor. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation:
I understand that you have found significant learning gains for children who took full-day kindergarten versus those who took half-day kindergarten. Can you give me a sense of how far ahead these children were?
On the direct measures gathered each year, full-day kindergarten children were ahead in reading, number knowledge, writing, and in self-regulation. We also found that full-day children were more likely to achieve provincial expectations in reading and in mathematics although it was statistically significant for reading and only marginally significant for mathematics.
Can you tell me more about what you found in terms of executive function?
Yes, executive function skills such as working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control (important for paying attention and following directions, for resisting temptation to grab toys, etc.) were significantly greater for full-day kindergarten children than for half-day kindergarten children every year. We called this “self-regulation.”
Is this simply a matter of time, as in the more time you spend in school the more you learn?
One argument that has been made in the research literature is that more time in school is related to higher performance. Thus, full-day kindergarten children who have more time in school should do better. However, it is important to consider context: This is a new play-based program co-taught by a registered early-childhood educator and a kindergarten teacher. Children remain with the same educator team for two years. There is a growing literature on the role of high-quality play in children’s motivation, engagement, and self-regulation. Thus, we need to consider the context, not simply the time spent in school.
Did any of your findings surprise you?
The self-regulation finding was surprising in its strength each year and over time. It leads us to ask why full-day kindergarten children would do so much better than half-day children who have similar demographic characteristics and come from similar neighbourhoods.
Did you find any significant demographic differences? Did, say, boys benefit more than girls or students from low-income families more than students from more privileged backgrounds?
We controlled for gender, mothers’ education and [English-learner] status. We found that full-day kindergarten children who spoke English as a first language scored significantly higher in vocabulary than half-day kindergarten children, while we did not see this same effect for English-language learners.
Based on your findings, would you say half-day kindergarten should be phased out in favor of full-day programs?
That has already happened in Ontario. Half-day kindergarten no longer exists. The results of this study to date provide some evidence for other provinces and territories in Canada that are considering moving to two-year full-day kindergarten.
Photo: Professor Janette Pelletier, left, sits with kindergarten students of the Jackman Institute of Child Study at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Courtesy University of Toronto
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.