Encouraging children to learn


In most instances, children come to school ready to learn but with different cultural, educational, and environmental experiences to draw from. It is the responsibility of the educational system to meet children where they are and encourage and support their development from that point. To promote learning for all children, educators must provide a school environment that acknowledges children’s diverse backgrounds, helps children transition comfortably into the next instructional level, and provides community supports when necessary. Such provisions support each child’s readiness to learn as well as each school’s readiness to educate young children.


The concept of school readiness has been defined and redefined over the years, resulting in differing viewpoints. Several theories of child development and learning have been used to explain the term. In fact, there appears to be two types of readiness: readiness to learn, which involves a level of development at which the child has the capacity to learn specific materials, and readiness for school, which involves a specific set of cognitive, linguistic, social, and motor skills that enables a child to assimilate the school’s curriculum (Kagan, 1990; Crnic & Lamberty, 1994; Lewit & Baker, 1995). Early studies fostered the belief that children should have certain skills–such as being able to count or recite the alphabet–or that they should be able to conform to a set of desired behaviors before they enter kindergarten. Current research in the fields of early childhood education, child psychology, and neuroscience is changing what many researchers, practitioners, and parents have come to understand about child development and the learning process, however. Instead of placing the burden of readiness on children, educators are being challenged to reconsider traditional beliefs about the school’s role in helping young children continue learning and succeed in the school culture (Southern Regional Education Board, 1994; Lamberty & Crnic, 1994, Katz, 1991). Recent studies on readiness, children, and schools indicate that there actually are two sides to the readiness issue: getting children ready for school and getting schools ready for children.

As part of the 1994 legislation Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the National Education Goals established a framework for improving education and helping schools support children’s learning. The first goal of the National Education Goals relates to school readiness: “By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.” With the passage of Goals 2000, U.S. lawmakers acknowledged that many young children enter school unprepared to learn optimally and that school readiness should be a priority for the nation. The objectives of Goal 1: Ready to Learn note the importance of children’s access to developmentally appropriate preschool programs; training and support for parents as their child’s first teacher; and adequate nutrition, physical activity, and health care for children so they arrive at school with healthy minds and bodies. Meeting these objectives helps children get ready for school.

The National Education Goals Panel recognizes that “strengthening achievement requires not only getting children ready for school, but also getting schools ready for the particular children they serve” (Shore, 1998, p. 3). By coordinating efforts with families and community resources to address the needs of young children, educators can improve children’s readiness for school (Kagan, 1994). Through school programs and strategies, educators can improve the school’s readiness to promote optimal learning for all children (Southern Regional Education Board, 1994). Schools also must acknowledge the many individual differences between children and establish appropriate expectations for all children entering kindergarten (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995). All children are born learning, and schools are charged with the responsibility to nurture each child’s learning potential and to provide opportunities for continued growth.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995) discusses the need for universal school readiness in the NAEYC Position Statement on School Readiness. This statement makes the point that school readiness should not be determined solely by the capabilities of the child:

“The traditional construct of readiness unduly places the burden of proof on the child. Until the inequities of life experiences are addressed, the use of readiness criteria for determining school entry or placement blames children for their lack of opportunity. Furthermore, many of the criteria now used to assess readiness are based on inappropriate expectations of children’s abilities and fail to recognize normal variation in the rate and nature of individual development and learning. NAEYC believes it is the responsibility of the schools to meet the needs of children as they enter school and to provide whatever services are needed in the least restrictive environment to help each child reach his or her fullest potential.” (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995)

Central to the issue of school readiness is the discussion about when children should start school. Crnic and Lamberty (1994) note:

“The predominant conclusion of recent scholars addressing the issue of school readiness is that the only fair and ethical criterion for school readiness is a legal chronological age. Although arbitrary, it applies to everyone equally and removes the sole burden for readiness from the child.”

Kagan (1990) points out that if the entry age is the same for all children and if individualized educational supports and services are provided, schools will have an equitable strategy that is sensitive to the differences between children. When children’s needs are met, they are more likely to be successful in school.

Educators, parents or caregivers, and community members need to be aware of the factors that affect children’s success in school. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995) states that the discussion of readiness must consider three critical factors:

“Addressing the inequities in early life experience so that all children have access to opportunities that promote school success.
Recognizing and supporting individual differences among children, including linguistic and cultural differences.
Establishing reasonable and appropriate expectations of children’s capabilities upon entry to school.”
Because of inequities in children’s experiences and differences in their backgrounds, schools and and communities must pay attention to the factors that influence how families support readiness and the transition to school (Kagan, 1990; National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995). Low maternal education, minority-language status, low family income, and family structure are important predictors of children’s developmental accomplishments and difficulties (Zill, Collins, West, & Hausken, 1995). Low family socioeconomic status can limit the experiences, resources, health care, and the quality of child care available to children. Untraditional family structures or situations–such as foster care, single-parent families, or families who are migrant workers–also have an impact on children’s early experiences. In addition, linguistic and cultural influences can affect a child’s assimilation of the school culture.

To help equalize the differences in children’s backgrounds, schools can work with community resources to meet the needs of children before they come to school. Katz (1992) notes, “The community, working with local preschools, adult education programs, children’s librarians, and other similar agency and resource people, can help by providing experiences for preschoolers that help them make sense of their everyday worlds” (p. 4). Prior to approaching community agencies, schools should put together a team consisting of parents or caregivers, teachers, administrators, and interested individuals. This team can design a plan that illustrates the fit of community agencies in the school’s efforts to address readiness issues. Collaboration, the prerequisite for school readiness and success, is necessary when schools reach out to work with families and the community. Collaboration among multiple stakeholders works best when strategies that build consensus are used and when channels of communication are open at all times.

Restructuring schools to support school-linked services is another way to meet the needs of children and families. Children who come to school healthy, with a variety of experiences to draw on and a strong support system in place, have a greater likelihood of succeeding in school. Schools can serve as a hub for the delivery of services by working with pediatricians and social service agencies to provide health care, parenting classes, and other resources. School administrators can take the lead in this approach through interactions with community groups and agencies that provide services for children.

Screening for school entry is one way to determine what supports or services a child might need. The measure being used should be one that has been norm-referenced on a population of children that includes children in the school. If a screening tool is used, educators must remember that screening should be used to identify children needing help–not to exclude children from programs for which they are eligible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (1995) cautions against such inappropriate use of school readiness tests. Rescreening at designated intervals also is important because young children change and grow so much in the early years (Hills, 1987). (Refer to the Critical Issue “Assessing Young Children’s Progress Appropriately.”)

Activities that connect schools with families and community groups can help parents seek out resources and know where to go for help when they need it. Supporting families’ efforts to raise their children is important to ensure that children enter school ready to learn (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995).

Besides working with families and the community to meet children’s needs before they enter kindergarten, educators can develop specific programs and strategies that promote the school’s readiness to ensure optimal learning for all children. The Ready Schools Resource Group, a committee convened by the National Education Goals Panel, has published the results of their research on the essential attributes of a “ready school” (Shore, 1998). That report, Ready Schools, identifies ten keys to ready schools. The keys recommend policies and strategies that schools can use to create learning environments for young children from preschool to Grade 3. Continuity and transition among home, early-care programs, and elementary schools are critical, as is a commitment by the school to ensure the success of every child through individualized programs as well as qualified teachers and staff who interact with the child. Approaches to help children explore and make sense of their world, especially approaches known to raise achievement, also are important. Other characteristics of ready schools are strong leadership as well as a willingness to take responsibility for results and to alter practices and programs if they do not benefit children.

Although the concept of continuity for young children makes sense, schools often do not take action to ease the transition of young children into kindergarten. Most American schools do not have a transition program in place (Shore, 1998). According to a national study, nearly half of U.S. elementary schools have no program for school visitation by parents or families of incoming kindergartners; only one in five of the nation’s school districts uses a wide range of transition activities (Love, Logue, Trudeau, & Thayer, 1992). Such transition programs would be valuable throughout a child’s early elementary experience.

The move from home, day care, or preschool to kindergarten or elementary school can be intimidating to even the most secure and confident children. They are leaving a familiar environment and being asked to spend time in a new place with virtual strangers. They are unsure of what to expect. Families often feel the same apprehension as they bring their young children to school. Children who are not native speakers of English or who come from low-income or minority families also may have to bridge a cultural gap (Shore, 1998). When there is a difference between the culture of the home and the culture of the school, teachers must be careful not to misread children’s aptitudes, abilities, or intentions (Delpit, 1995).

To make the transition experience less traumatic and more beneficial to everyone, schools can adopt practices that support continuity. Such practices emphasize the importance of making connections between the school and the children’s families and building on the development that has occurred in the home. “The influence of the family upon the child remains fundamental throughout these early years. It is important to link subsequent steps in children’s education to their earlier experiences and to involve the parents in these activities,” notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1987). Through careful planning of continuity, schools can reap the benefits of facilitating transition for children, parents or caregivers, and teachers.

Schools must find ways to connect with children and families before the beginning of the school year. Preschools can help in preparing children for transition from preschool to kindergarten by arranging visits to the new school and discussing upcoming changes. Elementary schools also can focus on ways that families can help children make the transition comfortably. Activities such as conducting home visits, helping parents or caregivers get involved in family literacy programs, and inviting children and families to the school before the start of the school year help connect the families to the schools and ease the transition. Such activities also can help ease the transition between instructional levels as the children move through elementary school.

Keeping parents or caregivers informed of class activities and explaining the curriculum will help them understand what their children are learning in school and give them clearer ideas of how to support the effort at home. Parents are more actively involved in their child’s education during the preschool years than any other time. Involving parents in the transition of their children from preschool to kindergarten is an important step in keeping them involved as their children grow older. When parents are treated as partners in this transition process, are able to participate in school activities, and can communicate openly with teachers, the transition is more likely to be a positive experience for the children. In addition, primary teachers who acknowledge and respect students’ home cultures are more successful in encouraging parents to participate in their child’s education (California Alliance for Elementary Education, 1996).

The emphasis on continuity remains important as the child progresses through school. Every move to the next instructional level is a transition for children. Communication between the child’s current teacher and the next-level teacher helps to identify each child’s strengths and needs as well as the best way to work with him or her (Southern Regional Education Board, 1994). This continuity also allows for a flow of knowledge and less of an interruption in the children’s learning.

Maintaining ongoing communication between preschool and kindergarten staff is another way to promote continuity. “Elementary schools can help to ease the transition to kindergarten,” notes Shore (1998), “by forging links with the community, feeder preschools, local Head Start programs, and all of the other settings where their kindergartners have spent their days, and by drawing on the best practices of the early childhood centers” (p. 8). Contact between the current teacher and the previous caregiver or teacher can provide continuity for children and families, help in developing programs for individual students, and align the curriculum across programs.

Even a relatively small amount of time spent finding out what children worked on prior to entering school produces benefits (Shore, 1998). The effort of the elementary school to contact and work with the early childhood program is more successful when there is support at the building and district administrative levels. Because preschool teachers and caregivers may have children who will attend several different elementary schools and primary teachers may have children coming from a number of feeder programs, developing a community transition program or network is helpful in this effort (U.S. Department of Human Services, 1987).

Another important part of transition is found in research that suggests that today’s kindergartens are becoming overly focused on academic goals (Shepard, 1994); this trend can make transition from preschool to kindergarten even more difficult for students (Love, Logue, Trudeau, & Thayer, 1992; Eggertson, 1987). Katz (1996) states that when young children experience formal instruction that is too intense and abstract, they may learn the skills with some difficulty but may not develop the disposition to use that knowledge. The best early childhood classrooms are structured to provide a full range of curriculum and experiences for all children. In such classrooms, the teacher considers the developmental level of each child when planning instruction. A developmentally appropriate curriculum provides for the child’s physical, emotional, social, linguistic, aesthetic, and cognitive growth; it builds upon what children know and fosters the acquisition of new skills (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1996).

Early childhood teachers can ready their classrooms for young children’s learning. “Teachers of young children can create child-centered environments capable of accommodating each child’s individual learning level. To do so may involve changes in attitude and behavior for some and a keener awareness of children’s different developmental paces for others,” notes the Southern Early Childhood Association (1993). Developmentally appropriate practices are important throughout the primary years. In early childhood classes that promote such practices, children participate in active learning experiences and learn through hands-on activities. The teacher ensures a balance between teacher-directed and child-directed activities using varied instructional techniques. Children spend time learning through curricular units, learning centers, an integrated curriculum, and the project approach in addition to class activities. A text transcript is available.

Schools also need to be ready to respond to the wide range of cultural and linguistic experiences children bring to school; this readiness can be accomplished through a modified curriculum that includes spontaneous dramatic play, arts and crafts, and small group work (Southern Early Childhood Association, 1993). Teaching with a multicultural perspective encourages children to appreciate and understand other cultures as well as their own (Gomez, 1991). By modeling positive behavior and setting the tone for class interaction, early childhood teachers can help children who are in the process of acquiring and strengthening social skills within the school setting (Katz & McClellan, 1991).

Staff development is an important way to ensure that educators are using developmentally appropriate practices to promote the school readiness of all children. Educators must have an understanding of the children in their classrooms as well as the type of curriculum and expectations that are appropriate.

Educators, parents, families, and community members need to give careful consideration to the fit between a kindergarten program and the child. They can advocate for kindergarten classrooms that accommodate the diverse needs of young children, promote continuity, provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum that responds to children, and maintain a healthy school-family relationship. Schools, families, and community resources all have the potential to influence children’s readiness for school. By working together, they can address young children’s needs prior to school entry and build on the children’s unique strengths, experiences, and skills to nurture growth and success.


  • Educators, families, and the local community are aware of the factors that affect children’s ability to be successful in school. They intervene to ensure children will succeed.

  • Schools provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum that meets the diverse needs of children.

  • School districts use the legal age as the only requirement for school entrance. They discourage the practice of delaying kindergarten entrance and other extra-year programs for children.

  • School districts have systems that facilitate continuity between early childhood and primary education programs. Written agreements between preschools and elementary schools detail the responsibilities of each for continuity.

  • School personnel are aware of and collaborate with community resources (such as businesses and service providers) to meet the needs of all children entering kindergarten.

  • Parents and families are aware of available school and community resources and how to access such services.
    Teachers reach out to involve parents or caregivers in their children’s learning experiences and show them how to support their children’s learning at home.

  • Schools have a formal system of communication with families that is appropriate to the population they serve.

  • School districts provide professional development for kindergarten and elementary teachers and administrators to enhance their understanding of early childhood development, readiness, and educational methods appropriate for young children.


Administrators, teachers, parents or caregivers, and community members can take the following steps to ensure that the school promotes the readiness of all children:


  • Apply knowledge of child development to assessing young children’s progress appropriately.

  • Develop policies aimed at protecting children from inappropriate practices.

  • Set the stage for children’s successful transition from preschool to kindergarten by supporting and maintaining ongoing communication between preschool and kindergarten staff.

  • Promote collaboration between preschool and kindergarten teachers with a goal of providing program continuity through developmentally appropriate curricula for preschool and kindergarten children.

  • Compile a list of feeder programs (including family care homes, preschools, and day care programs that feed into the school). Talk with directors or caregivers about their programs and plan transition activities, such as a visit to the kindergarten or first grade.

  • Provide joint learning activities for early childhood teachers at all levels to build relationships that will ease transition and determine a common philosophy.

  • Understand current thinking about children’s developmental disabilities and the concept of school readiness.

  •  Acknowledge that such delays should not be used to deny children’s entrance into kindergarten.

  • Encourage kindergarten teachers to obtain certificates and experience in early childhood education.

  • Provide opportunities for teachers to participate in professional development to enhance their understanding of readiness and early childhood education

  • Collaborate with local agencies, libraries, literacy groups, health care providers, and early childhood programs to support parents or caregivers in efforts to improve or build their parenting skills and help their children become ready for school.

  • Establish a continuity planning group consisting of early childhood and primary grade teachers, families with young children (including families who represent the diverse needs of children in the community), community agencies, and businesses to develop a blueprint for a continuity system.

  • Develop strategies that go beyond transition to ensure continuity in early childhood services.

  • Ask community agencies to pool their resources and sponsor a forum for early childhood educators, kindergarten and primary teachers, and families with young children to talk about the ways to ensure continuity for young children within the community and district.

  • Before the school year begins, provide an orientation session for children and their families to visit the school and their classrooms. Such one-on-one visits make families feel welcome, give children an opportunity to become familiar with their school surroundings and teacher, and provide families an opportunity to ask questions. If families have limited English skills, have translators available to make families more comfortable.

  • Develop an orientation package for families that provides an explanation of the curriculum and contains all the forms and information they will need. Make sure that all information is available in the home language of the family.

  • Work with children’s parents or caregivers to identify ways that families can become involved in the school. (Refer to the Critical Issue “Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement.”)

  • Send a letter to children and parents or caregivers a few weeks before the start of the school year, explaining what to expect and welcoming them to the program.

  • Make information on school and community resources available and accessible to kindergarten teachers. Consider models for linking at-risk students to integrated services.


  • Ensure the use of developmentally appropriate practices in teaching young children.

  • Take time to prepare school classrooms for younger children to provide a variety of developmentally appropriate learning experiences. For example, classrooms can be arranged in learning centers to facilitate individual work, group play and activities, and hands-on learning.

  • Use a developmental approach to assessment of young children.

  • Evaluate the classroom and curriculum. Seek out resources that will address the diverse needs of young children.
    Support all children and families by valuing diversity in the classroom and the community.

  • Spend time with individual children in the classroom to become familiar with their strengths, areas of concern, and any special situations.

  • In the absence of a formal continuity system, take the initiative and work with children’s families, Head Start teachers, and preschool teachers to create program continuity for young children. Follow tips for involving parents in the transition.
    Familiarize parents or caregivers with the school’s early childhood curriculum, the teaching style of the teachers, and the learning styles and habits of the children in the classroom.

  • Be aware of the needs of children and families who have limited English skills.

  • Provide families with information and strategies that parents and caregivers can use to create learning experiences for their children at home and in the community. (For example, refer to Summer Home Learning Recipes for Parents and Children in Grades K-3).

  • Before the new school year begins, visit the homes of incoming students to meet children and families and to ease the transition to school.

  • Before the new school year begins, invite children and their families to visit the classroom and meet school staff.
    At the beginning of the school year, make an effort to meet children and their families at the door. This greeting creates a welcoming environment and reaffirms the link between home and school.

  • At the end of the school year, begin talking with the children about the transition to the next instructional level. Discuss topics such as new activities, schedules, and taking the bus. Allow children to ask questions and voice concerns in a secure environment.

  • Participate in professional development on readiness and early childhood education.

Parents or Caregivers and Community Members:

  • Support the teaching staff by making sure that children arrive at school healthy, well rested, well disciplined, and on time.

  • Support the mission of the school by attending school activities, such as open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and extracurricular programs.

  • Seek out information to enhance understanding of how to nurture a healthy parent-child relationship.

  • Provide activities that help prepare children for school, such as those listed in Helping Your Child Get Ready for School.

  • Work with schools and social service agencies to promote readiness by removing impediments to integration of programs and services.

  • Collaborate to provide comprehensive school-linked strategies for children and families.


The different ways in which schools, teachers, and families view the concept of school readiness may hinder attempts at changing the current practices of assessment of school readiness. School administrators may need to take the lead in providing current information and developing new policies on readiness.

Most kindergarten teachers have been trained to assess children’s readiness for kindergarten, rather than the kindergarten classroom’s readiness for children. As a result, the concept of classrooms being appropriate and ready for all children may be foreign to them. These teachers may be hesitant towards any efforts by the administration to change the current practices in assessing children’s readiness. To promote teachers’ understanding and cooperation, school administrators can take the lead in providing teachers with professional development that will enable them to become familiar with all aspects of readiness.

Schools often do not provide opportunities for teacher collaboration. Successful approaches for transition require that teachers have time to collaborate with other teachers and align the curriculum between instructional levels. Such collaboration helps teachers prepare children for the next instructional level. School administrators can provide joint planning time for kindergarten teachers and their colleagues in the primary programs. When teachers are asked to implement new approaches to assessing readiness, support from the administration and clear guidelines for implementation are key to gaining their cooperation.

When schools implement new approaches that directly affect the children they serve, they often forget to involve parents or caregivers as an integral part of the implementation process. As a result, families may regard changes in school practices with suspicion. They may believe they were left out of the decision-making process because the school does not value their opinions. Families who are included in the implementation process are more more informed about school activities and more likely to support the school’s mission and practices.

When putting together a planning team to address readiness issues with the community, adequate time must be allowed for planning and collaborating. School representatives should have a carefully thought-out plan before beginning discussions with community agencies. When community agencies can see how their work fits in with that of the school, the plan may need to be altered accordingly.


Some parents and caregivers believe that educating children is the primary function of schools and teachers. Because teachers are trained and certified to teach, these families feel no need to involve themselves with the instructional tasks of the school. They also may think that schools are not set up to provide integrated services and should not be expected to address the diverse needs of the children they serve.

Some educators and others insist that the main function of kindergarten programs and teachers is to prepare young children for first grade. They say that 5-year-olds should enter kindergarten with certain cognitive skills (such as counting, reciting the alphabet, letter recognition, and simple word recognition), and a certain level of social and emotional maturity. They believe that the most effective way for kindergarten programs to assess young children’s readiness for school is to administer standardized tests designed to measure children’s cognitive skills and maturity. According to this viewpoint, decisions about young children’s school enrollment should be based on their performance on such tests.

Some families believe that a child who is older and has developed more skills will be more successful in kindergarten than other entering children. This belief often leads families to delay their child’s entrance into kindergarten or first grade. The work of Arnold Gesell (1940) and other maturationists supports practices such as delaying a child’s entrance into kindergarten if he or she is the youngest in the entering class, and keeping a child in kindergarten for an extra year or placing the child in a transition kindergarten program as opposed to allowing the child into first grade. These practices sometimes are employed by families and schools when they believe that a young child is developmentally immature or will benefit from being held back.

Article by: Jeanette Vo-Vu, Center for School and Community Development, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory