Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Ready for school? It’s a personal question for children and families, and a policy question for educators and elected officials. Here in Massachusetts, there is no statewide definition or measure of “kindergarten readiness”, but in recent years local communities — including Somerville and New Bedford — have been grappling with this issue.

Now researchers from Harvard are offering advice and examples that can help communities think about defining and achieving school readiness.

In its March issue, the FINE Newsletter (the Family Involvement Network of Educators) shines a spotlight on how children make the transition to school.

“Although the first day of kindergarten is still a few months off, the time to start thinking about transition is now,” the newsletter says, adding, “a smooth transition to school makes a difference for student outcomes… Research shows that children from homes with increased social and economic risk benefit the most from transition activities; yet these are the children least likely to receive them.” 

The newsletter — which is published by the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education — explores the evidence on supporting school transitions; and it profiles “programs in high-risk districts that are working to address inequalities.”

What the Research Says 

An HFRP brief called, “Four Important Things to Know About the Transition to School,” sums up research findings, explaining:

“We, at Harvard Family Research Project, define transition as a process—not just a one-time event—that begins during children’s preschool years and continues into and through 3rd grade. Keep in mind that transition is also a time when children begin to take part in an increasing number of learning settings, both in and out of school.”

The four important, research-based things to know are:

• “Transition is a matter of equity. Studies have shown that upon kindergarten entry, children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds begin school with higher average achievement scores in comparison with children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

• “A smooth transition to school makes a difference for children’s outcomes.” Making new friends and understanding “the rules and academic expectations of the classroom—can increase the likelihood of children’s positive social, emotional, and academic outcomes in years to come.”

• “Families play an important role in the transition to school.” For example, “children might leave a preschool, family child care provider, or the home to participate in a kindergarten classroom, and maybe an afterschool program or new community classes, too. The one constant across the transition is the family, and for this reason, families have an important responsibility in providing children with stability, comfort, and a sense of what to expect.”

• “It’s all about relationships – among families, early childhood programs, schools, and communities.” These relationships, “come to be even more essential than they might be during other stages of children’s development. In elementary schools, contact with families typically becomes less individual, more regulated, and increasingly driven by the school. Because of this, families’ connections to the school often undergo a shift, and family engagement can begin to fade.”

A Solution in Silicon Valley

Famous for its high-tech industry, Silicon Valley is also home to a dynamic school transition program: the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Center for Early Learning. The center’s work is “to develop ready children, ready families, ready schools, and ready communities. ”

The center’s Bridges to Success program “is a five-year initiative designed to ensure success by third grade for all children in Silicon Valley’s San Mateo County, but more specifically within seven communities in its highest-risk school districts,” according to the HFRP newsletter. Those communities are: Redwood City, Ravenswood (East Menlo Park and East Palo Alto), Cabrillo Unified, La Honda-Pescadero Unified, Daly City, South San Francisco, and Pacifica.

The program’s strategies include: pre-K-to-3 alignment, a summer program, developmental screening, parent engagement efforts, a kindergarten handbook, and informing the public about transition-related topics.

Making an “Iridescent” Transition

Iridescent is a national nonprofit with a global reach that “engages underserved children and families in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) project-based learning.” The organization “helps parents learn how to support their preschool-through-fifth-grade children in STEM-related activities at home and in the community,” HFRP explains.

“Iridescent’s mission is to train professional engineers to develop and teach open-ended projects to children and parents, who can then explore these ideas at home and in the community.” This work is “guided by the family learning approach to informal science,” which “emphasizes that students learn best when they can explore hands-on, real-world problems with adults and peers in different settings.”

Iridescent has trained 2,500 engineers and scientists, and it has served 28,000 children ages Pre-K–12 in the Unites States and abroad.

“The next step for Iridescent is to increase its retention of children and families across program years and for communities to continue learning beyond Iridescent’s support.”

Starting at Home 

Working with migrant families in Milbridge, Maine, “Comienza en Casa | It Starts at Home is a project of the nonprofit group Mano en Mano | Hand in Hand.” The program helps migrant parents support their children’s transition to school by providing parents with “early learning activities they can do at home with real-world materials or on an iPad supplied by the program. Monthly meetings at the elementary school and home visits are also part of the offerings,” HFRP says.

In addition, Comienza en Casa works with the local library to run orientation sessions for parents. And with “the help of an AmeriCorps volunteer, we also offered several bilingual story hour.” Comienza also provides parents with a digital resource page, help finding affordable housing, and educational scholarships.

The program has served “approximately 30 children and family members” since its inception in 2012.

Getting Ready for Next Fall

“Do you know someone who was born in 2010?” the HFRP newsletter asks.

“If so, kindergarten is around the corner. Later this summer, as it comes to pass every year, millions of children will crowd around doors at their local elementary schools—many smiling, some crying—ready to begin their first day of kindergarten.”

Communities can help by ensuring that these children have the powerful support they need to make this transition successfully.