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What's it like for kids transitioning from preschool to kindergarten, and why does having an answer matter?
What's it like for kids transitioning from preschool to kindergarten, and why does having an answer matter?

Every year, thousands of young Oregonians from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to attend preschool through publically-funded programs like Head Start and Oregon Prekindergarten. Children participating in these programs demonstrate gains in school readiness across measures including language, literacy, and math skills, as well as cognitive, social, and emotional development and arrive in kindergarten better prepared than their peers who did not attend preschool, according to the 2017 Oregon Preschool Legislative Report.

Though it’s clear preschool enhances kindergarten readiness, evidence of positive long-term effects is mixed, with some recent studies suggesting gains made in preschool settings are short-lived and may not last beyond the first year of school. According to Dr. Andrew Mashburn, a developmental psychologist and expert in children’s school readiness at Portland State University, recent research on the longitudinal effectiveness of preschool present challenges for advocates of early childhood education.

“We know pre-K and Head Start benefit kids entering kindergarten,” Mashburn said. “We don’t want to see those benefits fade away after a few months or a year. Ideally, the positive impacts of preschool would carry over throughout life. But when we encounter a growing body of research indicating that those benefits are only temporary, we need to understand why the effects may fade out over time and what we can do to maintain, or even prolong them.”

One factor that may contribute to diminishing benefits of preschool over time is a lack of alignment between programs like Head Start and public schools. Redundancies in curriculums, a lack of information exchange, and policy discrepancies could all contribute to a misaligned early childhood education experience, resulting in a loss of gains for children who attend preschool. With the goal of providing better support to Oregon’s young learners, communities, foundations, and school districts, including Portland Public Schools, are coming together to open a dialogue around deepening the ties between preschool and kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Mashburn, who has a long history of collaboration with Portland Public Schools, is one of many engaged in the process of bringing stakeholders together to identify strategies that support the needs of children and families as they make the big leap from preschool to kindergarten.

In support of Portland Public’s efforts to align education experiences from preschool through third-grade, Mashburn is working with co-investigator and fellow PSU psychology department faculty member, Dr. Karlyn Adams-Wiggins. Adams-Wiggins is a developmental psychologist and expert in academic achievement motivation and adolescent development. Together the researchers are following roughly 400 kids as they make the transition from preschool to kindergarten.

“We’re now working with Head Start centers throughout the city to get a snapshot of the experiences kids have in preschool, and in the fall, we’ll be gathering the same information from the kindergarten classrooms the children transition into,” Mashburn said. “That will help us identify the discontinuities in kids’ experiences in Head Start classrooms and kindergarten classrooms within the district. We can then bring that information to everyone involved and say, ‘this is what we see in these classrooms,’ and ‘this is where there’s an opportunity for closer alignment between the systems.’”

By observing classrooms and surveying teachers, Adams-Wiggins and Mashburn will develop descriptions of factors involved in classroom experiences such as levels of academic focus, class structure, quality of teacher/student interactions, and emotional support in preschool and kindergarten settings. Identifying overlaps and discontinuities in student experiences will highlight opportunities to better align preschool through third-grade classrooms that could improve the transition experience. In addition to classroom experiences, the research team is interested in investigating sociocultural factors outside of school that may affect a child’s transition. To identify some of the challenges students might face and the cultural assets they and their families might draw upon that support early childhood learning, Mashburn and Adams-Wiggins also plan on interviewing parents of some of the children they’re following to gain a better understanding of their experiences and stories.

Portland Public Schools Kindergarten Transition“We’re interested in learning more about the role of students’ cultural backgrounds in relation to the transition from preschool to kindergarten,” Adams-Wiggins said. “One of the benefits of this study is that we can identify some of the strengths that Portland students are bringing into the classroom in terms of familial and cultural assets. So, it’s not just about what’s happening in the classroom; it’s about what’s happening at home and in the community. Collecting that data will help us as we start thinking about the variety of strategies we might develop to support the needs of children, and students of color, in particular.”

An improved understanding of the discontinuities students transitioning from preschool to kindergarten experience as they enter the public-school system could help educators and advocates of early childhood education improve systems of support for children. So, too, could identifying barriers and challenges children and families face, and recognizing cultural resources that support the transition process. Mashburn and Adams-Wiggins are providing Portland Public Schools and other partners working to align preschool through third-grade classrooms the information they need to develop strategies that support access to quality, consistent early childhood learning experiences. Over time, aligning systems to reduce redundancy in curriculums, provide supplementary instruction, and bringing policies in line could result in students experiencing fewer road bumps as they make the challenging transition from preschool to kindergarten, and that might help the state’s youngest learners retain some of the beneficial gains made during their preschool experiences.

By Shaun McGillis
Images ©Portland Public Schools