Early Childhood

Many Children Struggling To Adjust to Kindergarten

By Debra Viadero — April 22, 1998 3 min read
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Despite the importance of making a child’s first experience with kindergarten a positive one, a high proportion of children are having difficulty adjusting to that new environment, a nationwide survey of kindergarten teachers has revealed.

The survey, described as the most comprehensive to date on the subject of children’s first steps into the world of formal schooling, also found that many schools are making only limited efforts to ease the transition to kindergarten.

Researchers from the National Center for Early Development and Learning, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, released their findings here last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. The study is based on responses from nearly 3,600 kindergarten teachers to a survey questionnaire mailed to them during the 1993-94 school year.

The researchers said the findings are important because other studies have shown that children who have positive experiences in kindergarten and 1st grade tend to fare better throughout their school careers than those who have problems in those crucial early years.

The teachers surveyed by the North Carolina research team reported that nearly half of incoming kindergarten pupils are having problems adjusting. The transition was “difficult” for 16 percent of the children, and 32 percent were having some problems making the transition, the survey found.

‘We think this reflects something of a poor fit between the kindergarten classroom environment and the prekindergarten or outside kinds of environments that children are coming from,” said Robert C. Pianta, a University of Virginia education professor who co-directed the survey.

Transition Activities

One of the biggest problems for kindergartners is following directions. More than half the teachers surveyed reported that more than 50 percent of their students had struggled with that basic skill. Large percentages of teachers also said their pupils came to school without needed academic skills or came from “disorganized home environments.”

Teachers in inner-city schools, schools with high concentrations of poor students, and schools with large minority populations found those kinds of problems particularly prevalent.

Researchers don’t yet know for sure what steps schools should take to smooth the adjustment period. But schools’ efforts in that direction now are largely limited to talking with kindergarten parents, sending a letter home, or holding an open house. Those activities generally take place after the start of the school year.

Very few teachers said they did anything to help children adjust to school before the start of kindergarten, such as conferring with children’s preschools or making visits to their homes. And teachers are far more likely to engage in group activities than efforts directed at individual students.

“Those practices that we might theorize are going to be most useful are also going to be most difficult,” said Diane M. Early, a postdoctoral student who analyzed those data.

Part of the problem, most teachers surveyed said, was that schools didn’t provide them with class lists early enough. Teachers receive those rosters an average of 15 days before the school year starts, the study found.

Teachers also cited as impediments to more intensive transition efforts a lack of time and a reluctance to visit the homes of students who live in dangerous neighborhoods.

‘Definitive’ Study

Individualized transition efforts are more common in schools where children have fewer adjustment problems: private schools and public schools in suburban or more affluent areas. Teachers in urban schools, or schools with higher proportions of poor or minority students, are more likely to engage in group transition activities and to wait until the school year begins.

The survey is part of a larger program of research by the NCEDL on the transitions that children make early in their schooling. Researchers are following 300 students, in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Virginia, to get a firsthand look at how they cope with their first formal schooling experiences.

Daniel J. Walsh, a University of Illinois education professor who commented on the study, said it represents the most comprehensive survey yet of kindergarten teachers on children’s transition to school.

“This is really the definitive data set,” he said.

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