Looking Before They Leap: How ESSA Can Help Students Transition

Michelle Horowitz
Topic: Outcomes

The Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) is proud to partner with New America on this blog series highlighting early learning opportunities and challenges under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The leap from pre-K to kindergarten can be both exciting and stressful, as children face new classrooms, new classmates, new rules, and new teachers. Moving from the familiar to the unknown can also intimidate parents learning new routines and meeting new families. Even teachers may feel anxious about what to expect from an incoming class of students with different learning styles, abilities, and home lives. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act recognizes these challenges and encourages schools to address them.

One part of ESSA, enacted in 2015, requires kindergarten transition plans for programs receiving federal Title I funding to improve academic outcomes of economically disadvantaged students. Transition plans should ensure children receive supports to succeed in a new environment with new expectations. Research supports this priority in ESSA, suggesting quality transition plans also help children by reducing stress, enhancing social-emotional skills, improving academic growth, and encouraging family involvement–all essential elements of a child’s well-being in school.

As more communities invest in high-quality pre-K, sustaining its benefits as children transition from early childhood programs to kindergarten continues to be a key focus. Research shows continuity between pre-K and kindergarten combined with family involvement is critical to effective transitions throughout a child’s education. Transition activities that promote continuity may include planned visits to kindergarten classrooms while enrolled in pre-K, kindergarten teachers visiting pre-K classrooms, orientations, parent/teacher meetings, sharing written records on children between pre-K and elementary school, and coordination between early childhood and kindergarten around curricula and teaching strategies.

Studies show transition activities for children and families may lead to academic gains in kindergarten. One study found the number of transition activities pre-K teachers implemented is positively associated with kindergarten teachers’ perceptions of children’s adjustment, particularly among children who experienced social and economic risks. Transition plans also provide families with more opportunities to become involved in their child’s education throughout the school year. Increased family involvement may lead to children demonstrating better social skills and higher academic performance beyond the kindergarten classroom.

Transition planning from early childhood programs to elementary schools is addressed in various sections of ESSA within Title I Part A. Title I funding flows from states to public school districts with high numbers or percentages of low-income families. ESSA requires states lay out in their plans how the local education agency will support services provided under Title I with early childhood programs, including plans for transition between these programs and elementary school. If at least 40 percent of students enrolled are considered low-income, a local education agency may choose to consolidate funds to become a school-wide program; such programs are required to adopt strategies for assisting pre-K children in the transition from early childhood education programs to local elementary school programs in section 1114 (7) (A) (V).

Some states submitted final ESSA plans in April and others will submit plans in September of this year. New Jersey and Illinois submitted plans describing how they will address transitions to kindergarten, which may be of interest to other states.

New Jersey’s State Plan emphasizes the state’s commitment to early childhood, and highlights the state’s status as a national leader in helping educators understand transition practices from birth through third grade and onward. The state plans to use Preschool Expansion Grant dollars to create “transition teams” that include community parent involvement specialists, administrators, families and teaching staff across grade levels to create plans based on local needs. Additionally, the state will develop and train districts in tiered models of support to improve student achievement through regular monitoring of student progress, data-based decision making, and implementation of a continuum of supports and interventions based on student performance.

Illinois’ State Plan recognizes the importance of a “whole child” approach to support a continuum of development in early childhood and beyond. The state not only encourages “within school” collaborations, but “between school” as well, so as to smooth out transitions between grades and buildings. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has made family and community engagement to support children’s learning their central focus in transitioning across grades. Additionally, the Illinois Early Learning Council, a public-private partnership with ISBE and other businesses and foundations, will expand and strengthen birth to age five services, including coordinating the transition for families when children enter elementary school.

As states continue to finalize their ESSA plans, they are turning their attention to developing guidance and resources for Local Education Agencies to apply for ESSA funds and implement strategies outlined in the plans. Below are a few examples of resources that may be useful for states and localities on effective transition practices:

Building Bridges Between Pre-K and Kindergarten
This blog from New America focuses on the importance of coordination and collaboration between early learning programs and local school districts.

Planning Transitions to Prevent Challenging Behavior
This report from NAEYC provides strategies for implementing effective transitions, using transitions to teach social skills, and planning processes for working with children who continue to have difficulty post-transitions.

Transition into Formal Schooling Toolkit
This toolkit developed by Pennsylvania Early Learning Keys to Quality includes several resources on managing transitions, including the relationship the school, community, and family has in promoting successful transitions.

Best Practices in Early Childhood Transition: A Guide for Families
The purpose of this guide, developed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is to help families with early learners plan ahead on how they can prepare their child for school.

Implementing ESSA enables both state and local educators to enhance early learning opportunities. ESSA recognizes the importance of effective transitions to ensure that all children begin school on the path to success. As states move forward, learning from each other will help guarantee the best outcomes for every child.

Michelle Horowitz is a Policy Research Assistant for NIEER and CEELO. Her research interests include early childhood policy and governance. Michelle earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in political science and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy from Rutgers University. 

 For further information on ESSA see CEELO’s ESSA webpage and New America’s Early and Elementary Education webpage.


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