Early Childhood

Kindergarten Study Taking Long View

By Linda Jacobson — February 23, 2000 6 min read
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The nation’s kindergartners come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, but most are healthy, get along well with their classmates, seem eager to learn, and can perform simple reading and math tasks, according to the first findings from a long-term federal study.

But the report, released last week by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, also shows some significant differences in children who are just beginning their school journeys, as well as in the perceptions of their parents and teachers.

“Kindergarten is a critical period in children’s early school careers—this experience sets children on a path that influences their subsequent learning and school achievement,’' the report says.

A sample consisting of 22,000 children who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class 1998-99, will follow pupils through the 5th grade and is expected to provide a wealth of information for years to come.

For More Information

Read results of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, and details about the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort, sponsored primarily by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

“We’re going to get an incredibly good look at kids’ skills and what the educational pipeline is dealing with at the front end,” said Robert C. Pianta, a University of Virginia education professor who has studied children’s transition into kindergarten. He added that the study also would help educators “deploy resources” to the children who need help the most.

The baseline report provides a snapshot of the skills the children had when they entered school. Sixty-six percent of them recognized the letters of the alphabet. Twenty-nine percent knew the beginning sounds of words, and 17 percent understood the ending sounds, the study found.

In mathematics, nearly all the children—94 percent—recognized numbers and shapes, and could count to 10.

Children Differ

Differences emerged in the children’s knowledge, however, based on whether they are older or younger members of the cohort being studied. In reading, math, and general knowledge, children who were born in 1992 outperformed those who were born in September through December of 1993.

Children’s performance in those areas also increased with their mothers’ educational levels. But there were exceptions. Some children whose mothers had less than a high school education scored at the highest level, and some whose mothers had bachelor’s degrees or higher scored at the lowest level.

The kindergartners were also more likely to score at the highest level if they came from two-parent families.

In general, parents and teachers reported that the children made friends, joined others in play, and accepted their peers’ ideas.

But that area is one in which parents and teachers differed. According to parents, about 33 percent of the kindergartners argued with others often to very often, and fewer than 20 percent fought with others and became angry easily. Teachers said that only about 10 percent of the youngsters acted out in those ways.

Parents and teachers also had somewhat different viewpoints on the children’s approaches to learning. Parents reported that about 75 percent of the kindergartners stuck with the tasks they were doing, about 92 percent were eager to learn, and about 85 percent showed creativity.

But teachers gave their students more conservative ratings when asked similar questions, saying that two-thirds to three-quarters of the kindergartners persisted at tasks, showed eagerness to learn, and were able to pay attention.

The authors of the report note that those differences are an issue that could get more attention in future reports.

And while the initial findings focus on children who were entering kindergarten for the first time in fall 1998—about 95 percent of the sample—the researchers also plan in the future to look at those who were repeating kindergarten then.

Most Children Healthy

Most parents rated their children’s health as excellent or very good. But the study also found that some children were at risk for being overweight—specifically, those whose mothers had less than a bachelor’s degree and those whose primary language was not English.

Only 6 percent of the kindergartners were having vision problems, and only 3 percent were having difficulties with hearing, according to their parents.

Close to 20 percent were reported by parents as being a lot more active than other children their age, and that was more often the case with boys than girls.

Children considered at risk for problems in school—meaning they came from single-mother homes, their mothers had low educational levels, or they had received public assistance—were also reported to be a lot more active than children who did not have those risk factors. African-American children were also said by parents to be much more active than white, Asian-American, and Hispanic children.

Black children were more likely than any other racial and ethnic group to score in the high group in gross motor skills. They were also being rated by their teachers as demonstrating more problem behaviors, such as arguing and fighting.

“Together, these findings present an interesting picture that warrants consideration,” the report says.

Reading at Home

The report notes that having books, audiotapes, and other materials designed for children in the home can improve youngsters’ chances of being successful in school.

Most parents, the study found, said they had at least 25 children’s books at home, and nearly half the parents reported reading or singing songs to their children every day.

But an interesting pattern appeared in that area. Mothers who had lower levels of education, were single, or received welfare payments were found to be less likely to read to their children, as were black parents. But children whose families fit that description were more likely to be sung to every day than those who came from two-parent homes and were not on welfare. Black parents were also more likely to sing to their children than white, Hispanic, and Asian-American parents were.

The researchers also asked about child-care arrangements, and found that the year before the youngsters started kindergarten, four out of five had been cared for regularly by someone other than their parents.

Sixty-nine percent of the youngsters who had been in child care had attended a center-based program, 24 percent had received care from a relative in a private home, and 15 percent had received care from someone unrelated to them in a private home.

Children whose mothers had higher levels of education were more likely to have been in a center, while children from homes where English was not the primary language were less likely to have been in center-based care.

Once kindergarten began, child care continued for many of the children. About 50 percent were in some type of before- and/or after-school care. Such care was most often provided by a relative, followed by centers, and finally by someone not related to the youngsters.

Future Directions

While the report provides information on children’s performance based on child and family characteristics, such as the child’s sex, age at school entry, race, and ethnicity, future reports will take different perspectives as well.

For example, researchers may analyze data to see if performance is affected by whether the children attended preschool, whether they attended a full- or half- day kindergarten, or whether they attend a private or public school.

Besides the kindergarten study, education researchers throughout the country are eager to see results from a second federal longitudinal study—this one involving newborns—that will begin this year. The NCES is also to conduct the study of newborns.

Together, the two studies are expected to provide valuable insight into the years leading up to school and the early grades.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as Kindergarten Study Taking Long View

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