The Quality TK Experience
The term “a gift of time” is frequently used to describe transitional kindergarten and it tells us something important about the power of the grade. Families and educators attest to the tremendous impact the gift of the transitional kindergarten year has on children’s school readiness. A growing body of evidence from TK classrooms across California over the last several years suggests that there are common themes that make this gift of time successful. Designed specifically for the unique needs of our youngest kindergarteners, successful TK includes integrated, differentiated and culturally responsive instruction, and includes strong family engagement.
TK Instruction is Integrated
In the early years, children learn through hands-on experience and benefit from many opportunities for practice. They strive to make connections between all the new ideas and information they are learning. The most successful teachers make a deliberate effort to reinforce connections by explicitly relating topics and incorporating rich themes into their lesson plans. Throughout each day, TK teachers integrate math, language and literacy development, social emotional skills and English language development.
For example, teachers plan lessons that allow young children to:
- absorb new vocabulary while they explore math concepts;
- practice turn taking and cooperation while they persist through a sorting activity;
- rhyme and learn alliteration in songs and chants involving science; and
- learn new academic English through meaningful play, explicit instruction and contextualized, personalized learning.
TK Instruction is Individualized and Differentiated
In a successful TK classroom, teachers continually use observation and formative assessment to determine children’s progress along the continuum of skill development, and tailor their instruction to help every child flourish. They use small group, pairs and individual activities to personalize their classroom program and build on whole-group experiences. To maximize learning for English language learners, TK teachers skillfully employ English language development instructional strategies. Additionally, this differentiated approach to instruction facilitates the successful inclusion of children with special needs in the TK classroom.
A vibrant TK classroom is busy with activities and conversations, and filled with the excitement of small groups composed of children building similar skills together. The TK teacher purposefully designs the classroom to include accessible learning centers that cultivate curiosity and reflect the beauty, strength and capacity of all children. The teacher also thoughtfully constructs activities so that each child is challenged at the right level to build success, persist through difficulty with little frustration and get to the next level of skill.
For example, a successful TK teacher might ask all children to find pebbles on the playground. At the same time:
- In carefully composed small groups, he/she supports one group of children to sort by color while another group adds and estimates.
- Meanwhile, she is helping build vocabulary, comprehension and foster cooperation.
- In one group she might ask for children’s opinions about how to estimate with open-ended questions, and in another she may ask children to share and describe pebbles.
The TK teacher skillfully integrates children’s play into daily learning activities to support healthy cognitive, physical, social and emotional development.
“Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.” – The American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007
TK Involves Family
Children are more successful when teachers develop a two-way relationship with parents and guardians and support family connection with the school. This helps teachers to understand children’s home life and culture, communicate children’s progress and classroom experiences, share themes and encourage extension activities at home. These relationships can help:
- support volunteerism and family participation;
- represent the children’s family and cultures in the class; and
- recognize families as a resource in understanding children’s strengths and needs.
Teachers understand that “young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development,” according to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Positive early relationships between the teacher, child and family are vital to the foundation of healthy development and greatly influence a child’s ability to achieve success later in life.
Families are key to young children’s comprehension of their feelings, thoughts and expectations of others, as well as the importance of cooperation and sharing. However, some children may be in families and communities in crisis and experiencing trauma. Teachers who are sensitive to difficult circumstances can provide a calm, safe, predictable atmosphere where children can relax and be ready to learn.
Because the developing social emotional centers of the brain are directly influenced by children’s living and learning environments1 it is critical for TK programs to develop partnerships with families and communities that foster on-going, caring and goal-oriented relationships.
TK Classrooms are Culturally and Linguistically Responsive
Successful TK classrooms support English Language Learners (ELLs) and are culturally and linguistically responsive to children from many cultures. Students thrive when teachers create a rich environment and support meaningful relationships that honor culture, ability and home language.
Teachers should recognize TK students who speak a language in addition to English and/or who are learning English are contributing positively to their own development and enriching the TK experience for other students. It is important for teachers to understand that ELL children demonstrate their knowledge in the language they are most comfortable in, and might not have developed sufficient English language skills to feel confident to respond or fully participate.
Creating opportunities for children to participate through a variety of modes will help ensure knowledge remains accessible and the curriculum is responsive to all learners.2 Children’s responses should be valued and respected, regardless of the language they use when responding.
Teachers should work collaboratively with parents to develop specific plans and strategies that value and support the ongoing acquisition of skills and knowledge in English and the child’s home language. TK teachers can enhance this practice through systematic support of their student’s use of home language to learn English. The successful teacher will build strong relationships with and between children and provide positive learning experiences that maximize their success, build on their strengths and assets, and minimize the challenges and frustration some may experience during this time. Additionally, when children are provided with multiple opportunities to express opinions and describe their lives, each child feels valued for her/his unique contributions to the classroom community.
1 National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2009). Young children develop in an environment of relationships. Center on the Developing Child. Harvard University. Working paper 1. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/activities/council/
2 Gay, G. (2003). Becoming multicultural educators. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Tabors, P. O. (2008). One child, two languages: a guide for early childhood educators of children learning English as a second language (2nd ed.).Baltimore, Md.: Paul H. Brookes Pub.Co. Valdes, G. (2001). Learning and Not Learning English: Latino Students in American Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.