How appropriate are our kindergartens?

Current concerns about kindergarten focus on two areas: the developmental appropriateness of the curriculum and teaching methods, and the increasing use of transitional kindergartens and retention.

Although there is no universally accepted theory of kindergarten teaching, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) does make specific recommendations for developmentally appropriate practices regarding curriculum, adult-child interactions, relationships between home and school and evaluation of children. These guidelines prescribe child-focused, language-rich classes where children learn through exploration and free play, and in which an integrated curriculum provides for their physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. The developmentally appropriate kindergarten practices outlined by the NAEYC are widely accepted by early childhood educators, yet they appear difficult to achieve in day-to-day classroom practice.

Use of retention

The use of traditional classes and retention are common. Research on transitional classes has demonstrated that children who are promoted despite having been identified as at-risk, score as well on achievement tests at the end of first grade as children who receive an extra “transitional” year. Yet, despite, this evidence, belief in the efficacy of transitional programs remains high.

The inappropriate use of readiness tests, and the use of segregated trasitional classes and retention, prompted Donna M. Bryant, Richard M. Clifford and Ellen S. Peisner, researchers at the Child Development Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to study educational practice in their state’s kindergartens.

Bryant et al. studied 103 randomly selected kindergartens in North Carolina. Each of the classrooms was observed for three hours. Kindergarten teachers and principals in these schools were surveyed to determine their knowledge of developmentally appropriate early-childhood education. Follow-up calls were made to 53 schools to determine the number of children not promoted to first grade.

Few kindergartens used developmentally appropriate practices

In each class, two observation measures were used to document the extent of developmentally appropriate practices. These observations revealed that twenty percent of the kindergartens studied were developmentally appropriate, while another twenty percent did not meet the criteria suggested by the NAEYC guidelines. The remaining sixty percent were judged to be significantly below standard. Bryant et al. found that too many kindergartens emphasized academics through large-group instruction, workbooks, ditto sheets, and other rote-learning exercises. They showed little emphasis on small-group or individualized instruction or hands-on, child-chosen activities. In many programs, the most serious deficits were in the areas of cultural awareness, toileting practices, free play and creative activities. Based on these results, Bryant et al. concluded that all areas of kindergarten context need to be improved to make them more suitable for the learning styles of this age group.

Follow-up calls revealed that in the kindergartens studied, almost 9% of kindergartners were not promoted to first grade. These researchers found this very disturbing in light of the lack of evidence supporting an extra year in kindergarten.

The best predictor of the quality of the kindergarten program was the principals’ and teachers’ knowledge of and belief in developmentally appropriate practices. However, the researchers were surprised to find no correlation between the quality of kindergartens and geographic location, school size, per-pupil expenditure or the level of teachers’ or principals’ education or experience. Kindergartens judged to be the best in meeting NAEYC guidelines were found in widely divergent schools. Bryant et al. recommend that teacher training focus on observing the way the NAEYC guidelines are translated into developmentaly appropriate practices in these kindergartens.

“Best Practices for Beginners: Developmental Appropriateness in Kindergarten” American Educational Research Journal Winter 1991 Volume 28, Number 4, pp. 783-803.

Published in ERN March/April 1992 Volume 5 Number 2

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