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Questions & Answers: Robert Pianta Talks About Kindergarten Transition
Harvard Family Research Project
This article originally appeared in FINE Forum No. 4 (Spring 2002). Click here to read the full issue.
Transition is a key component of school readiness. Studying the continuity between early childcare programs and elementary schools can enhance understanding of academic, social, and emotional adjustment during a period that sets the tone and direction of a child's early school experiences.
Robert Pianta is a professor of Clinical and School Psychology at the University of Virginia. He is a principal investigator on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development and a senior investigator with the National Center for Early Development and Learning. He co-directs the center's research program on children's transition to kindergarten.
Q: Can you describe some of the research you've done on children's transition to kindergarten?
Robert Pianta: Our perspective on transition is one that tries to emphasize the assets that exist for children. There is no more important context than the family in a child's life, and how that family relates to the schooling experience is very important to a child's development. During periods of transition, relationships between school and home are more important than they might be under other circumstances. In our research, we try to document these relationships and understand the way they function. We have approached our research by valuing and validating what parents have to say about their transition experiences.
Q: What are some of your research findings?
Pianta: One of the things that we continually hit upon in our research is that in the early childhood years families feel welcome. They feel connected to the schooling enterprise. That shifts tremendously when they go to elementary school. We're starting to understand some of the mechanisms that occur in that shift. In elementary school there is a formalization of contact with families. Communication becomes restricted, constrained, and driven by the school. We must find a way to continue to value what families have to say and use this as a starting point in our efforts to connect schools to families.
Q: Based on your research, what messages would you want to give families so they feel affirmed in maintaining this connection with their child's school?
Pianta: We must stress that it's very much worth persisting in contacting the school and staying in touch as a child makes a transition. A family's sense of connection to the school is going to undergo a shift. What once felt welcoming and inviting might become more scheduled and less individual. Also, parents should know the school is an environment that is more likely to be in touch with them or invite them to be in contact after concerns have been raised, rather than before. Elementary schools approach things differently than early childhood programs. Teachers have many more kids to deal with in a given classroom and there are fewer professionals whose job it is to specifically focus on families. Parents' efforts to do things like take their child on a visit before schools starts are likely to help break down barriers and help them and the child feel more comfortable in the school.
Q: What are some of the other "breakthrough" ideas in early childhood education research that parents should know about in terms of getting kids ready for school?
Pianta: In terms of research on literacy, we know in a much more detailed way about the very specific skills that are important for children as they learn how to read. The way a parent calls attention to the children's skills, talks with them about their experiences, and makes sure the child enjoys reading is critical. These are the kinds of experiences that parents have control over that contribute to their success in school.
The other piece we are learning is that the kinds of experiences children get in an early childhood education program contribute to children's readiness for school; but relative to what happens at home, these programs are icing on the cake. Most of the hard work in getting children ready and having the skills to be successful in school resides in the experiences they have at home. I think for a long time we hoped we would see programs compensating for what happens at home, but there is not a lot of evidence of that.
Q: What is the best way to have this information communicated to parents so that they can internalize the information and adopt the practice?
Pianta: This is one of the great roles for early intervention programs. They must provide and sustain the kind of support and modeling needed to reduce stress for parents and provide clear strategies in their interactions and relationships with their children. They can't do it through pamphlets and books. It must happen through real opportunities to interact with providers. The role of the larger community goes hand in hand with this. The more a community recognizes how important what goes on in families is, and how much parents require support in their role, then the more resources get mobilized across the board to accomplish it.
Q: How does the research on kindergarten transition relate to those that occur from elementary to middle or middle to high school?
Pianta: There's a fair amount of information on the transition from elementary to middle school. One of the big differences is that children have a lot more responsibility for managing that transition in middle school to high school than they do in entering kindergarten. But the same issues prevail. That is, how do we manage to transmit information and relationships across these institutional barriers? That is the fundamental question in transition.
Q: How can teachers best be prepared to support the transition to kindergarten?
Pianta: Teachers in training must not just deal with children in classrooms, but they have to spend time with children and families. They have to get to know the family the child comes from through fairly structured experiences. One of the things we do in our early childhood and elementary school program here at UVA is to have students complete a semester practicum designed to provide a conceptual and theoretical framework about family development. Over the course of the semester they do interviews and other applied experiences with their target family. It is critical that teachers understand families and have a broader sense of child development before the kindergarten years.
Q: How can you best evaluate family involvement in transition programs and what are outcomes of successful transitions?
Pianta: One of the things that we've learned is that outcomes are not going to be so clearly tied to the way we traditionally think about child outcomes. I wouldn't necessarily think that children's scores would be higher, for example. First, I would look for a parent's sense of connectedness to the elementary school and the quality and quantity of that connectedness. That serves as a resource for the child as they go forward.
Second, I would expect to see lower rates of special education referrals. Many times the mechanism of routing children into special education is a default for not having a decent strategy for handling concerns when they come up. Finally, I would look for a shift in the tone of the formal contact between the teacher and the family. You would expect to see communication that is less formal, more positive in terms of social and emotional tone, problem-solving focused, and collaborative.
Kagan, S. L., & Neuman, M. J. (1998). Lessons from three decades of transition research. The Elementary School Journal, 98(4), 365–379.
Kraft-Sayre, M. E., & Pianta, R. C. (2000). Enhancing the transition to kindergarten: Linking children, families, & schools. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, National Center for Early Development & Learning.
Pianta, R. C., Cox, M. J., Taylor, L., & Early, D. (1999). Kindergarten teachers' practices related to the transition to school: Results of a national survey. The Elementary School Journal, 100(1). University of Chicago.
Pianta, R. C., & Cox, M. J. (Eds.). (1999). The transition to kindergarten. Baltimore: P.H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.
Pianta, R. C., & Kraft-Sayre, M. E. (May 1999) Parents' observations about their children's transitions to kindergarten. Young Children, 54(3).
Rimm-Kauffman, S., & Pianta, R. C. (2000). An ecological perspective on transition to kindergarten. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21, 491–511
Rimm-Kauffman, S. E., & Pianta, R. C. (1999). Patterns of family-school contact in preschool and kindergarten. School Psychology Review, 287, 426–438.