Kindergarten Project aims to increase student success during critical first years of school

Imagine a shy kindergarten student without any prior schooling experience coming into a classroom for the first time. Experiences that first year can be incredibly important, as they shape the stage for future educational expectations and outcomes.

“Kindergarten could very well set up the way that students perceive school from that point on,” said Jodi Swanson, assistant research professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “A large proportion of children don’t experience any pre-schooling. They go from no schooling whatsoever to academic rigor.” 

The Kindergarten Project at Arizona State University is a comprehensive research endeavor that explores the critical role that early school experiences play in students’ lives. According to the project’s website, the goals are to integrate classroom-level research with the voices of educators, families and communities, to collaborate with legislators and teacher-training programs and to enact policy changes that support teachers in the classroom and the long-term success of students.

“We expect there’s something different about kindergarten, something that makes it unique from preschool or elementary school that has to do with locking kids in to loving learning early – or not – based on their experiences in that first formal classroom,” Swanson said.

The Kindergarten Project researches students’ early years of education by considering a variety of factors, such as teachers’ professional training and life experiences, and how learning is influenced by classroom processes such as classmates’ social skills and ability to self-regulate behavior. The project is also an outreach effort that will examine teacher needs and connect them through an online community.

Three interconnected research initiatives comprise The Kindergarten Project:

The Transition To Teaching (T3) initiative follows teachers from their undergraduate experiences in early education through their student-teaching work with a mentor teacher, to first years in their own classrooms. Approximately 530 participants receiving teacher training through the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU are current participants in the ongoing study that reports not only on teachers’ classroom experiences, but on their own lives and how influences such as temperament, stress, social support and depression affect them in the classroom.

Researchers plan to follow the teachers through their fifth year of teaching, allowing them to highlight characteristics and circumstances of highly effective teachers.

“Identifying characteristics and real-life influences that can explain why teachers vary in effectiveness is important for understanding how to help children succeed academically,” Swanson said. 

Preliminary research data from T3 indicate that teachers who report high levels of daily hassles in home, work, money or health report lower levels of coping, which predicts a lower sense of teaching efficacy (how well they perceive their own classroom success).

In addition, T3 encompasses a new diary project. Initial participants are 11 first-year teachers, who reflect on issues such as relationships with parents, sources of support at school, and high and low points of teaching for the week, across their first year in the classroom. Researchers have plans to introduce other means of measuring key variables, including physiological measures of stress and classroom happenings in real-time.

The Classroom Competence Composition (C3) initiative is based on the hypothesis that classroom configurations (e.g., collective personality characteristics, academic preparedness, behavior) influence teacher practice and children’s early learning experiences. Expanding on existing classroom research, C3 focuses on processes and mechanisms such as teacher-student and peer interactions that are harder to measure, but meaningful to a child’s experience. Researchers will examine how the composition of a class influences instructional, social and managerial interactions as well as children’s developmental and academic outcomes.

“We are moving beyond the demographic composition of the classroom and capturing the social, emotional, behavioral and personality characteristics of kindergarten students,” said Tashia Abry, assistant research professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. “Examples include children’s social skills, self-regulation, temperament and how much they like school. Data from multiple sources, including teachers, parents, students, classroom observations and school records will help paint the picture of the ways in which composition relates to teacher and child outcomes.”  

Pilot data will be collected this spring from up to 15 classrooms from sources including videotaped observations, direct assessments with children, standardized achievement tests, and teacher and family surveys. Researchers plan on tracking how teachers respond and adapt to various classroom compositions across multiple years. Findings may show if there is a “tipping point” in which some classrooms don’t realize their potential because the particular makeup of students tilts the classroom in a particular direction.

“Tipping points are likely different for different types of teachers. That’s why we’re collecting the breadth of data that we are, so we can draw conclusions based on multiple facets of teacher and child characteristics,” Abry said. “Maybe the composition of the class leads a teacher to spend a lot of time on classroom management instead of instructional activities, resulting in less learning time. We hope our findings will be a resource for schools, informing ways that classrooms can be configured to optimize success.”

The Starting School Successfully (S3) initiative aims to provide evidence-based resources – partly informed by T3 and C3 – to a wide array of kindergarten stakeholders: kindergarten teachers, school administrators, students, families and policymakers.

“The field of education is currently in a huge transition. Right now you find a lot of teachers looking for strategies and parents looking for answers to help kindergarten students succeed,” said Mary Anne Duggan, assistant research professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

Researchers are conducting an Arizona kindergarten teachers’ needs assessment, called the “Voices of Arizona Kindergarten Teachers,” to discover what teachers would benefit from in training, professional development and improving the classroom environment. Connecting people who care about kindergarten through Facebook is another facet of the project. Anyone with an interest in kindergarten can join the S3 listserv by emailing to learn about research and other news from The Kindergarten Project.

“We’re really trying to build a community of people who care about kindergarten," Duggan said. "Many kindergartens used to be half-day, and children’s social and emotional development during the transition to formal schooling was an important part of the curriculum. Now kindergarten is a full-day operation and the academic expectations are much higher for the children. Kindergarten is almost like the ‘new first grade.’

“The eventual goal is to publish a book for teachers on how to help children start school well and offer a workshop for teachers.”

Feedback thus far from teachers has been positive.

“We’ve heard, ‘I’m so glad someone is going to hear my voice. It goes back to who I am as a teacher,’” Swanson said. “Sometimes they feel like a number.”

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