Kindergarten Transitions Are Never Easy. But the Pandemic Has Made Them Harder.

In an ordinary year, a child’s entrance into kindergarten is a major milestone for students and their families. The transition can be filled with trepidation, anticipation, eagerness and uncertainty. Some kids enter more prepared than others, with more support and more exposure to formal educational settings. Other children will have experienced nothing like it before.

“Even under the best of circumstances,” says Dan Wuori, senior director of early learning at the Hunt Institute and a former kindergarten teacher, “the transition to kindergarten can be challenging for many children and families.”

This year—in the throes of a pandemic—those challenges are compounded for students and parents, but also for teachers and school leaders.

Many districts saw significant drops in kindergarten enrollment this year—an average 16 percent decrease, according to NPR—as some families chose homeschooling or opted to hold their child back a year. Meanwhile, children who might otherwise be enrolled in preschool are sitting out of early childhood programming.

These factors may make for a uniquely challenging situation this fall, as children enroll in kindergarten in “potentially record numbers,” Wuori predicts. Problematically, many of those children may lack the school readiness that their older peers were afforded in kindergarten, due to the pandemic’s impact on social interactions, structured learning experiences, and consistent, high-quality instruction.

During a recent virtual event, the Hunt Institute, an education nonprofit affiliated with Duke University, led a conversation around the difficulties and opportunities that families and educators face as they look to transition a new class of children into kindergarten after more than a year of the pandemic. What follows are some of the highlights of that discussion.

Then and Now

Before the pandemic, Friends of Children of Mississippi, a nonprofit Head Start provider that oversees early childhood programming in 20 counties, would take rising kindergarteners to their new public schools for an in-person visit. The kids would get a tour of the school, go into kindergarten classrooms, meet teachers and mingle with other kindergarteners, all of which helped to set expectations and dispel nerves.

With the pandemic, that wasn’t an option, says Cathy Gaston, executive director of Friends of Children. Instead, her staff chose to replicate the experience virtually. Incoming kindergarteners saw inside classrooms, the cafeteria, computer rooms and schools buses—all through video. Teachers joined the call to share stories about what kindergarten would be like. And kindergarteners that would be attending the same school got to meet online.

Those elements of the transition are important, says Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education at New America. But she notes that the kindergarten transition is not a “single point in time” limited to meet-and-greets and readiness packets and family orientations.

“Those are the helpful, discrete, one-time transition activities,” she says. “Equally important are ongoing alignment and relationship-building activities that are more time- and more resource-intensive.”

Under normal circumstances, children will enter kindergarten classrooms with different learning needs and at different levels. That will be even more pronounced this fall, as many children won’t have seen the inside of a classroom in over a year or have socialized with other children.

Some kindergarteners won’t have been to preschool as planned. Some first graders will have skipped kindergarten. Even the fact of being back for face-to-face learning may be an adjustment for many kids.

“Educators need to be equipped and prepared to address children’s different learning needs, developmental needs,” Bornfreund says. “Classrooms will need to look differently and feel differently.”

Communication and Continuity

Key to success will be aligning with families and child care providers about where each child is developmentally and what they need. “When [kindergarten] can be more connected and aligned to children’s previous early childhood experiences, that’s just all the better and [more] helpful to create a smoother transition,” Bornfreund says.

Alignment between preschools and elementary schools was a challenge for transitioning kindergarteners well before the pandemic. In many places, there is limited data-sharing, relationship-building, and synergy between curriculum and instruction.

Gaston’s Friends of Children intentionally tries to partner with local school districts in all 20 counties. They try to open up communication and check in regularly about what the public schools expect from kindergarteners, what the incoming kindergarteners have already covered in Head Start and which students need extra attention and support services. Friends of Children encourages individualized planning for each child, not just children with disabilities.

In Delaware, Sharon Pepukyi, associate superintendent of Appoquinimink School District, says she’s heard from many families who want to hold their kids back a year, worried that pandemic closures and delays have left their children behind.

Yet Pepukyi feels that most children would be better off staying with their peers. She references a children’s book, “Leo the Late Bloomer,” about a tiger cub who is slow to learn to read and write and talk but eventually catches up.

“This year,” she says, “we’re all Leo the Late Bloomer. We’re all in it together. I try to highlight the fact that while they think their student has lost time or needs extra time, we’re all making sure we’re having purposeful planning and intentionality when putting lessons together, knowing that all students have had hybrid learning models and remote learning.”

Realistic Expectations

One of the challenges educators will likely face, given that many children have missed out on learning experiences or have not been learning in optimal conditions, is setting realistic expectations for where students are developmentally, academically and social-emotionally when they enter kindergarten.

“Sitting for extended periods, sharing, waiting their turn, walking in a line—those things are going to have to be remodeled and retaught,” Bornfreund explains. “Those expectations need to be in place to give space and time for that from the beginning and for building community in the school and strong relationships in the classroom.”

All three panelists underscore the importance of communication between child care providers and school staff, and the continuity of experiences from early childhood to kindergarten, where possible.

Both Gaston and Pepukyi have led professional development for educators specifically tailored to grief, trauma and self-care since the onset of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen stress, depression, people losing their jobs, losing loved ones, helping children to deal with death,” Gaston says. “We’re really looking at that. We have planned professional development days … once a month to reinforce with our teachers, to make sure they understand and are sensitive to what our families have gone through. Our teachers have lost loved ones, too.”

Gaston’s staff learned not only how trauma might impact their students, but also how it is affecting them. Pepukyi, meanwhile, has conducted many surveys with staff to learn what they need and how they are doing. “We try to offer a menu of options for professional development,” she says, “versus one-size-fits-all.”

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