Full and half-day kindergarten

The majority of five-year-olds in the United States today are more accustomed to being away from home much of the day, more aware of the world around them, and more likely to spend much of the day with peers than were children of previous generations (Herman 1984). These factors, plus the demonstrated ability of children to cope with a longer day away from home, have created a demand in many communities for full-day kindergarten programs.

This Digest examines how changing family patterns have affected the full-day/half-day kindergarten issue, discusses why schools are currently considering alternative scheduling, and describes the advantages and disadvantages of each type of program.

Changes In Family Patterns

Among the changes that make full-day kindergarten attractive to many families are the following:

  • An increase in the number of working parents. The number of mothers of children under six who work outside the home increased 34 percent from 1970 to 1980 (Evans and Marken 1983). In 1984, 48 percent of children under six had mothers in the labor force (The National Commission on Working Women 1985)
  • An increase in the number of children with preschool or day care experience. Since the mid-1970s most children have had some kind of preschool experience in Head Start, day care, private preschools, or in early childhood programs in the public schools. These experiences have provided children’s first encounters with daily organized instructional and social activities before kindergarten (Herman 1984)
  • An increase in the influence of television and family mobility. These two factors have produced 5-year-olds who seem more knowledgeable about their world and are apparently more ready for a full-day school experience than the children of previous generations
  • Renewed interest in academic preparation for later school success. Even when both do not work outside the home, parents are interested in the contribution of early childhood programs (including full-day kindergarten) to later school success.

Schools and Full-Day Kindergarten

School systems are interested in alternative scheduling partly for the reasons listed above and partly for reasons related to finances and school space availability. Among the reasons considered:

  • State school funding formulas. Some states provide more state aid for all-day students, although seldom enough to completely pay the extra costs of full-day kindergarten programs. Other states allow only half-day state aid. Funding formulas would have to change in order for these schools to benefit financially from all-day kindergarten
  • Busing and other transportation costs. Eliminating the need for noon bus trips and crossing guards saves the school system money
  • Availability of classroom space and teachers. As school enrollment declines, many districts have the extra classroom space and enough qualified teachers to offer full-day kindergarten

In addition, school districts are interested in responding to parents’ requests for full-day kindergarten. In New York City, for example, parents offered this option were overwhelmingly in favor of the plan, initially creating waiting lists of thousands of children (“Woes Plague New York’s All-Day Kindergartens” 1983).

Advantages of Full-Day Programs

Herman (1984) believes full-day programs provide a relaxed, unhurried school day with more time for a variety of experiences, for screening and assessment opportunities, and for quality interaction between adults and students.

While the long-term effects of full-day kindergarten are inconclusive, Stinard’s review of 10 research studies indicates that students taking part in full-day programs demonstrate strong academic advantages as much as a year later (1982). Stinard found that full-day students performed as well or better than half-day students in every study with no significant adverse effects.

A recent longitudinal study of full-day kindergarten in the Evansville-Vanderberg, Ohio, School District indicates that fourth graders maintained the academic advantage gained during full-day kindergarten (Humphrey 1983).

School districts that have planned a developmentally appropriate, non-academic curriculum with well-paced activities have reported few problems with full-day scheduling (Evans 1984; Stinard l982).

Disadvantages of Full-Day Programs

Critics point out that full-day programs are expensive because they require additional teaching staff and aides to maintain an acceptable child-adult ratio. These costs may or may not be offset by transportation savings and, in some cases, additional state aid.

Other requirements of full-day kindergarten, including the use of more classroom space, may be difficult to satisfy in districts where kindergarten or primary grade enrollment is increasing and school buildings have been sold.

In addition to citing added expense and space requirements as problems, opponents argue that full-day programs may become too academic, concentrating on basic skills before children are ready. In addition, they are concerned that one half-day of an all-day program may become merely child care.

Advantages of Half-Day Programs

Many educators still prefer half-day, everyday kindergarten. They argue that a half-day program can provide high quality educational and social experience for young children while orienting them adequately to school.

Specifically, half-day programs are viewed as providing continuity and systematic experience with less probability of stress than full-day programs. Proponents of the half-day approach believe that, given the 5-year-old’s attention span, level of interest, and home ties, a half day offers ample time in school and allows more time for the young child to play and interact with adults and other children in less-structured home or child care settings (Finkelstein 1983).

Disadvantages of Half-Day Programs

Disadvantages of half-day programs include disrupting children midday to move them from one program to another and inconveniencing parents who must arrange transportation if busing is not provided by the school. Even if provided, schools may find the extra trip expensive. In addition, the half-day kindergartner may have little opportunity to benefit from activities such as assemblies or field trips.


The length of the school day is only one dimension of the kindergarten experience. Other important issues include the nature of the kindergarten curriculum and the quality of teaching. In general, research suggests that, as long as the curriculum is developmentally appropriate and intellectually stimulating, either full- or half-day scheduling can provide an adequate introduction to school.


Parent information

Increases in the number of single-parent and dual-employment households and the fact that most children spend a large part of the day away from home signal significant changes in American family life compared to a generation ago. These changes in American society and in education over the last 20 years have contributed to the popularity of all-day, every-day kindergarten programs in many communities. Studies show that parents favor a full-day program that reduces the number of transitions kindergartners experience in a typical day. Research also suggests that many children benefit academically and socially during the primary years from participation in full-day, compared to half-day, kindergarten programs. This brochure discusses the trend in full-day kindergarten and provides an overview of full-day versus half-day programs.

Why Is There a Trend Toward Full-Day Kindergarten?

Families who find it difficult to schedule kindergarten and a child care program during the day are especially attracted to a full-day program. Full-day kindergarten is also popular with schools because it eliminates the need to provide buses and crossing guards at midday. In many areas, both public and private preschool programs offer full-day kindergarten. Still, some educators, policymakers, and parents prefer half-day, every-day kindergarten. They argue that a half-day program is less expensive and provides an adequate educational and social experience for young children while orienting them to school, especially if they have attended preschool. Many districts thus offer both half-day and full-day kindergarten programs when possible, but the trend is clearly in the direction of full-day kindergarten.

What Does the Research Show?

Research studies confirm that attendance in full-day kindergarten results in academic and social benefits for students, at least in the primary grades. Early studies seemed to offer little reliable evidence one way or the other because they used small samples or unique populations, failed to use rigorous standards, or concentrated almost exclusively on academic outcomes (as opposed to children’s attitudes toward school, for example).

Some researchers have found a broad range of effects, including a positive relationship between participation in full-day kindergarten and later school performance. After comparing similar half-day and full-day programs in a statewide longitudinal study, Cryan and others (1992) found that full-day kindergartners exhibited more independent learning, classroom involvement, productivity in work with peers, and reflectiveness than half-day kindergartners. They were also more likely to approach the teacher, and they expressed less withdrawal, anger, shyness, and blaming behavior than half-day kindergartners. In general, children in full-day programs exhibited more positive behaviors than did pupils in half-day or alternate-day programs. Similar results have been found in other studies as well.

What Makes a Full-Day Program Effective?

Full-day kindergarten allows children and teachers time to explore topics indepth, reduces the ratio of transition time to class time, provides for greater continuity of day-to-day activities, and provides an environment that favors a child-centered, developmentally appropriate approach.

Many experts feel that seat work, worksheets, and early instruction in reading or other academic subjects are largely inappropriate in kindergarten. By contrast, developmentally appropriate, child-centered all-day kindergarten programs:

  • Integrate new learning with past experiences through project work and through mixed-ability and mixed-age grouping in an unhurried setting.
  • Involve children in firsthand experience and informal interaction with objects, other children, and adults.
  • Emphasize language development and appropriate preliteracy experiences.
  • Work with parents to share information about their children, build an understanding of parent and teacher roles, emphasize reading to children in school and at home, and set the stage for later parent-teacher partnerships.
  • Offer a balance of small group, large group, and individual activities.
  • Assess students’ progress through close teacher observation and systematic collection and examination of students’ work, often using portfolios.
  • Develop children’s social skills, including conflict resolution strategies.


Observers of trends in kindergarten scheduling argue that changing the length of the kindergarten day is not as important as making sure that all kindergartners are provided with developmentally and individually appropriate learning environments, regardless of whether these programs are full day or half day.

Recent research supports the effectiveness of full-day kindergarten programs that are developmentally appropriate, indicating that they have academic and behavioral benefits for young children. In full-day programs, less hectic instruction geared to student needs and appropriate assessment of student progress contributes to the effectiveness of the program. While these can also be characteristics of high-quality half-day programs, many children seem to benefit academically and behaviorally from all-day kindergarten. Of course, the length of the school day is only one dimension of the kindergarten experience. Other important issues include the nature of the kindergarten curriculum and the quality of teaching. 

Article by: Dianne Rothenberg, Associate Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education