Transitions to School: What Helps Children Succeed? — Essentials For Success In Preschool And Beyond

A child who repeats the first grade is more likely than any others to drop out of school. The most effective way to prevent this is to intervene early, and to ensure that the child is ready and able to cope with the transition into elementary school. We also have to be sure that the school is ready for the children as that run through the school doors for the first time. The setting needs to be prepared to meet the developmental needs of children who come there to learn.

I have thought about and worked on this problem from several angles: in research on the development of minority children and youth; in collaborating with community school districts in New York City to implement the State's new Universal Prekindergarten initiative; and in evaluating Even Start and other early intervention programs for young children and their families (such as Even Start). These varying perspectives on what keeps children from succeeding, and what increases their chances of succeeding, have convinced me that high quality early childhood programs are the single most important tool that we can offer to families and communities who want their young people to be literate, competent and well-adjusted. I am even more strongly convinced that early intervention is vital for minority group children. This is because minority group children are over-represented among those who drop out of school, whose levels of achievement are lower, and whose rates of referral to special education classes with behavior problems is higher than those for white children.

Our motivation to prevent having disproportionate numbers of minority children referred for expensive special services should increase dramatically as their numbers increase over the next few decades. One estimate has it that by 2003, the number of elementary school-age children will increase by 2%. But white children will actually decrease by 3% while Black children increase by 3%. At the same time, the number of Latino children will rise by 15% and they will become the largest minority group in elementary schools. Projections through 2020 continue these trends.

My work has convinced me that there are three significant factors that must be part of effective high-quality programs, both at the preschool level and beyond. Involving parents, integrating the teaching of social and academic skills, and creating continuity between preschool and elementary experiences and among settings that a child negotiates on a daily basis - these three are key in preventing that first grade failure and launching a successful academic career. They are key to realizing our national expectation that all children can and should reach high educational standards. Let me say just a bit more about these three keys to educational excellence.

I'm sure that many of you know that there are not enough good early childhood classrooms to serve all children in need. In fact, the demand for high quality, publicly funded programs is almost twice as great as the supply. That cost is an obstacle is highlighted by the fact that when publicly funded programs are available, the number of children from low- and high-income families who attend is about the same. Among those most in need are children of working poor families, who are left out because they are poor, but not poor enough to qualify for placement in subsidized programs. The irony then is that many at risk children are among those least likely to have access to these programs. Despite the fact that they have been shown to benefit most from high quality early childhood programs because they increase their readiness for schooling.

Three Keys to Quality Education in the Early Years

School/Family Partnerships

In preschool and elementary school, and even beyond, one of the essentials for creating effective learning environments is a strong partnership between the schools and families. Parents need to be involved in their child's education in order for their child to succeed. Why? Because if parents show that they care about schooling, children are more likely to value it themselves. Some parents help in classrooms, some are on school boards, some help by monitoring homework closely and giving their child learning experiences at home such as trips to the library. We don't know yet which activities matter the most, and why; we don't fully understand why some parents can be mobilized to become involved and others are more resistant (though I am working on finding answers to these questions at this very moment). But we do know that some kind of involvement makes a big difference for children. And we have very encouraging evidence that when schools design strong, multi-faceted parent outreach and involvement activities, low-income parents do become highly involved in their children's education, with benefits to both math and reading achievement.

We also know that some parents very much want to be involved, but just don't have the time and the energy after working long hours to make ends meet. Wouldn't it be wonderful if parents could get just 2 hours a month to spend in their child's classroom? A flexible employer might allow them to make it up by cutting a few minutes from lunchtime. Just a few minutes off of each lunch period in a month would allow Mom or Dad to take a son or daughter to school a morning a month and stay for a while to see first hand what the child's school life is like and talk to teachers informally. The cost is negligible but the benefits would be enormous.

But parents' working isn't the only obstacle to a strong school/family partnership. Teachers need to learn how to work with parents, how to reach out to those from different cultural backgrounds, how to schedule and structure outreach opportunities for maximal effect. In our teacher-training program at New York University we actually teach a course on working with parents. According to one survey, we are among only 4% of educators who offer such a course. Only 37% of professors devote even one class period to family outreach. And when teachers themselves were asked, over 86% of them said that they need this kind of training. Public schools and schools of education need to be encouraged to partner in addressing these training needs.

Promoting academic and social-emotional competence

A second "essential" for educational excellence is integrating supports for children's academic and social-emotional competence. These dimensions of competence shouldn't compete with one another for "air time" in a school day. A child who is going to grow up and be elected to Congress one day clearly needs to function well in both of these areas. In fact, an over-emphasis on academic training, especially with very young children, may actually backfire and impede academic progress. For children of all ages, getting along with peers and being able to follow the rules of the classroom helps the child feel part of the school community and hence, more eager to be involved in school learning activities.

But attending to social/emotional development doesn't mean that academics are ignored. I'm working with implementing a preschool curriculum to teach young children how to resolve conflicts, handle daily frustrations, and increase their ability to manage social situations (She's got the ball that I want and she's bigger than I am, what shall I say to her to get me access to the ball without making her mad.). The point of the curriculum is social/emotional and behavioral competence. The means for achieving those are literacy activities such as role playing, puppet play and crafts activities - the very same activities that promote language and cognitive skills. But in order to blend this curriculum into the school day, teachers have to be trained. They will eventually be able to use issues that come up in any lesson, whether counting to 10 or learning the days of the week, to advance children's ability to keep control of their own emotions, and react competently when other kids don't. These sorts of lessons not only make it easier for children to succeed in school, but also help children succeed in the real world because theses skills help them to initiate and maintain friendships and to work well with others.

Continuity

The last critical factor for launching children onto the path of educational excellence is continuity. What we mean by continuity is creating smooth transitions from one level of schooling to the next, from preschool to kindergarten, for example. When transitions aren't managed well, children suffer. Problems may be academic, social/emotional or behavioral; many children have more than one adjustment difficulty. Children from minority groups are vastly over-represented among those who are labeled as "maladjusted."

Going from a preschool that has an unstructured classroom with several adults for a small group of children and few demands for things like sitting in a circle, lining up to go to lunch, or tracing the letters of the alphabet, to an equally excellent kindergarten classroom that differs on all of these dimensions, can cause culture shock for children and families alike. Parents are warmly welcomed in preschool and childcare settings. They often help to maintain or support the center, though admittedly many working parents do not have the freedom on the job needed to spend an hour helping out in the classroom. These settings are community based and more likely than public school to duplicate the child's home culture and values. The language is more likely to be the child's home language, the holidays celebrated will be familiar, and the attitudes toward child rearing will more likely be similar to those at home.

So moving to kindergarten means that the child has to deal with new rules and ways of operating and the parent can't help because they are similarly suffering from the culture clash. The homework assignments get tougher and tougher. Parents who didn't like school very much the first time around won't be eager to help their child with book reading contests. Others who work long hours to meet a minimal living standard might be interested in reading with their children but are literally too tired to keep their eyes open when they finally get home and sit down on the couch.

Programs themselves need to be better aligned so that children don't have to be re-socialized every time that enter a new school, or new grade level. Work in a Brooklyn school district on revising the curriculum to align with new standards led to new opportunities for collaboration among teachers, a renewed sense of commitment to the whole task of educating a the whole child, and to schools in which the learning of one grade leads smoothly into the offerings in the next. Current policies that encourage such alignment and related professional development for school staff should be monitored and vigorously reinforced.

Summary

Prevention is so much more efficient that paying the price for fixing lives that a marred by poor reading skills, ignorance about how to behave on a job interview, or a striking inability to control one's impulses. In bits and pieces, we have the knowledge to erase this grim outcome for thousands more children. These pieces have to be arranged though, by the concerted will to be committed to educational excellence and all that it takes to achieve that goal. We need educational leaders who will partner with knowledgeable researchers to create school, family, and community partnerships that are unceasing in their energetic pursuit of the deletion of disadvantage and the achievement of high standards by all.