Unlike older students, kindergartners often start the school year as cute little blank slates to their teachers.
In many cases, those teachers have no more to go on when assigning children to classes than the limited information they were able to glean from kindergarten-orientation sessions. That lack of deeper knowledge about their new pupils can lead to classroom imbalances in terms of readiness and social skills that are hard to fix as the school year progresses.
But at a handful of elementary schools in suburban Washington, kindergarten teams have developed a way to address the issue, borrowing a technique more commonly seen in middle and high schools.
Instead of assigning kindergarten pupils to permanent classrooms at the beginning of the year, some schools in Montgomery County, Md., set up a system that initially rotates children through all the kindergarten classrooms.
By the end of the first week of school, teachers say they have enough information to make class assignments based on more than obvious traits, such as gender and race. During the kindergarten “switcheroo,” the child-friendly name the schools have given the process, teachers see which children are reserved, as opposed to those raising their hands at each question; which ones get along well with one other, compared with friction-filled groupings; and which pupils are more independent, as opposed to those needing more adult support.
Those intangible elements are routinely considered when it comes to making class assignments in other elementary grades, because the children’s skills and personalities are better known.
Kindergarten is the only grade where teachers don’t already have that deep knowledge of most of their charges, say the teachers who have invested time in this process.
“The first day of kindergarten is probably the hardest day for any teacher in any grade, and we do it five times,” said Heidi Grant, a kindergarten teacher at Fallsmead Elementary School here. “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it worked.”
Creating a thriving classroom community is particularly important for kindergartners, who are building the foundation for future learning, said Kristen Johnson, the senior director for early-childhood-program accreditation for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Johnson said she could not address the “switcheroo” concept specifically because she was not familiar with it.
But the reasons teachers have stated for using it—taking time at the beginning the year to lay the groundwork for intentional community building—matches what teachers should be making a priority for young children, Johnson said.
“Learning for young children really comes in the form of relationships,” Johnson said. “It’s important for children at that age to have that positive experience where they feel safe and secure and can share and can learn.”
In Montgomery County, the kindergarten-rotation concept started at Fallsmead Elementary, now in its fifth year of the process. Other teachers and administrators in the 156,000-student district heard about the idea from Fallsmead, and a handful have implemented similar programs in their own schools.
Members of the Fallsmead kindergarten team say they were given the seeds of the idea from a former principal at the school.
The orientation process didn’t provide enough time to get to know pupils, they said. Generally, elementary schools in the county have a kindergarten orientation in the spring, where children are brought in groups of eight to 10 and given some brief assessments while their parents fill out enrollment forms.
But not all of a school’s kindergartners attend orientation; many register later or just can’t make those dates. Plus, some children are too shy to do much in that atmosphere, said Grant, the kindergarten teacher at Fallsmead.
And the orientation, even for the youngsters who attend, can’t always capture the sometimes-dramatic changes that occur during the handful of months before school starts.
“In six months, you can be a different child educationally,” said Roni Silverstein, the principal at Fallsmead.
But the rotation process involves more than just moving the children around from class to class.
The schools that have adopted the process generally use a very scripted routine at the beginning of the year. All pupils, for example, will start the day in the cafeteria, divided into groups that they will stay with during the first week. All of them learn that they’re supposed to enter the classroom and sit on a rug. Pupils will learn the same process for hanging up their backpacks, stashing their lunchboxes, and handing in their work folders.
Also, each grouping of children spends the beginning of each day with the same “homeroom” kindergarten teacher, and paraprofessionals and other school staff members are assigned to each group and transfer with them wherever they go.
Those elements are intended to introduce some stability and familiarity for the children, the teachers say.
The kindergarten rotation was not an instant hit with all parents, Silverstein said.
“Parents were convinced this was going to psychologically harm their children,” she said. And the school does take into account if there are young children who seem very reluctant to separate from a teacher.
But most children adjust to the program because they don’t know that kindergarten is supposed to be any different. They end up knowing all the teachers and many more of their peers than they might otherwise, Silverstein said.
Rebekah Jacobs, the president of the Fallsmead PTA, has two children who went through the kindergarten rotation. “What they explained is that this is an opportunity to think about kids in the best way. To me, it sounded like a really smart way of doing things,” Jacobs said. “Is it possibly a little confusing? Yes. But for the long-term benefit, I think it’s great.”
The idea is starting to spread to other schools in the county; representatives from dozens of schools visited Fallsmead earlier this year to find out how the rotation works.
Beall Elementary, also in Montgomery County, has been conducting its own “switcheroo” for three years after learning about the process from Fallsmead.
“Honestly, I don’t think everyone bought into it initially,” said Elliot Alter, the principal at Beall. Some teachers were concerned that they would lose an emotional connection with their pupils. And they were also concerned that the process would cut into instructional time.
“I don’t think we’re losing a week of instruction,” Alter said. “It’s giving us back hours that we might have been regrouping kids for reading, for example.” Under the old process of class creation, children might not have that many academic peers in the classroom, requiring shifting groups of children around for instruction.
Other than a few tears, the process seems deceptively smooth.
But it takes a lot of planning, said Allison Nelson, a kindergarten teacher at Beall.
“We have literally designed flip charts with times at the top for exactly what we should be doing at exactly the same time on the same day,” she said. “We have spent so much time on this, but we’ve seen the true benefits.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2016 edition of Education Week as For New Kindergartners, a Whirlwind Introduction