More now than ever before, there is a critical need to invest in high-quality early childhood and kindergarten programs that set students up for long-term success.

Kindergarten is an instrumental year for children

There is a large body of research examining pre-K programs for four-year-olds and their effects on children’s development as they move through kindergarten and into later elementary school. Some of these studies have found that the positive effects of pre-K on children’s academic and cognitive skills can dissipate fairly quickly, a phenomenon often described as “fadeout.” However, a more accurate description is “convergence,” because a closer examination shows that children who do not attend pre-K catch up to their peers during kindergarten and the early elementary school grades. Yet, few studies have fully explored how kindergarten contributes to these convergence effects.

We conducted research in partnership with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Department of Early Childhood before the pandemic, which found that kindergarten is a critical setting for supporting young children’s learning and development. Our team recently published two studies in Child Development examining associations between enrollment in the BPS prekindergarten program—a model that pairs two evidence-based curricula with teacher training and coaching, implemented in public school settings—and children’s academic and cognitive outcomes.

In the first study, conducted with nearly 5,000 applicants to the BPS prekindergarten program, we found that as much as 61 percent of the convergence in literacy skills between program enrollees and non-enrollees occurred in kindergarten when children were followed through third grade.

In the second study with a more recent cohort of students and richer data, we found that the benefits of the BPS prekindergarten program on children’s unconstrained skills were more likely to be sustained through the spring of kindergarten, compared to constrained skills. Unconstrained skills are broadband skills like vocabulary, problem solving, and critical thinking that are acquired gradually and can be difficult to measure. Alternatively, constrained skills—like letter naming and counting skills—are more finite and directly teachable. Both types of skills are critical for children’s success.

Yet, our findings suggest kindergarten teachers may put more focus on teaching constrained skills, like knowing the alphabet, reading high-frequency words, recognizing shapes, and counting from one to 20. This allows non-pre-K enrollees to catch up quickly on some skills, but means they may miss out on building core unconstrained skills. Our results point to the need for further investment in teaching and learning in kindergarten to support balanced instruction for constrained and unconstrained skills in these early years.

Kindergarten can be strengthened in five ways
  • Hire assistant teachers (paraprofessionals) for kindergarten classrooms.
  • Expand summer learning opportunities to rising kindergarteners.
  • Offer tutoring as early as kindergarten.
  • Implement coaching and training for teachers tied to evidence-based curricula.
  • Consider transitional kindergarten.

Read the full article about kindergarten by Meghan McCormick and Christina Weiland at MDRC.