Kindergarten readiness, from the neighborhood up

All children need early opportunities to develop cognitive, social and emotional skills. Well before a child gets to kindergarten, those opportunities and early experiences shape his or her brain architecture. Positive interactions with caring adults help to build a strong foundation, so that children can go to school ready to learn and thrive. At the same time, prolonged and serious stress, from sources like family tension over a job loss or high levels of neighborhood violence, can damage brain architecture—the foundation for a young child’s development. We want to create environments for children that help them start kindergarten with a solid cognitive and social foundation, continue to be successful in school and eventually give back to their communities.

What does it mean for a kindergartener to be “ready”? A new backpack, a lunch bag and a box of crayons? Not exactly. School readiness is more than knowing the alphabet or writing your name. It does involve language and literacy, but also it’s also about a child’s physical development, ability to interact with peers and teachers, and emotional readiness for school. As a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom, I saw how children “ready for school” could write letters, but also how they were able to take turns in a learning station, follow directions during a read-aloud and put on their own coats when it was time to go home.

Across the country, people are talking about kindergarten readiness assessments, with a growing interest in data about the extent to which children are coming to kindergarten with a solid foundation. About half of states have some kind of assessment and recent Race to the Top grants gave handsome rewards to states developing them. D.C. is poised to jump on board, with a kindergarten entry assessment in the works and a plan to roll it out by the fall of 2013.

The assessment would cover physical and motor development, scientific thinking, language arts and mathematical concepts. Though it would describe students as “below basic," "basic," "proficient" or "advanced” (just like the DC CAS), it’s not a paper-and-pencil test. One positive aspect of this kind of assessment is that it would help the community, teachers and parents know more about how children are doing at this stage. Right now, we have little citywide data about young children’s learning. On the other hand, we also need to make sure the assessments help move children forward without labeling or limiting them.

With our KIDS COUNT work, it’s clear that we love data at DC Action, especially in an area like early learning, but we also think that data collection is only one part of a broader effort. We encourage community efforts to build those strong foundations before children reach kindergarten. Research shows that investing in early learning is one of the most effective foundations,  but neighborhood interventions also matter. The environments that children live in and the interactions they have in their communities are critical to their school readiness.