Preparing Young Children for School

Preschool teacher helping children learn colors and shapes at a classroom table

This practice guide, developed in conjunction with an expert panel, distills contemporary early childhood and preschool education research into seven practical recommendations. The guidance will help to prepare young children to benefit from the learning opportunities they will encounter in school.

Recent research has identified practices that have the potential to prepare young children to benefit from the learning opportunities they will encounter in school.

In collaboration with expert panelists, the What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC) distilled that research into practical recommendations for preschool educators to use to help prepare children for school. The Preparing Young Children for School Practice Guide details seven evidence-based practices designed to be used by teachers; center and program directors; district or state personnel involved in adopting curricula for preschool programs; and parents and caregivers.

The recommendations in this guide include the following:

1. Regularly provide intentional, engaging instruction and practice focused on social-emotional skills.

Level of Evidence: Tier 1, Strong

Developing social-emotional skills is critical for school readiness for all children. For example, when children enter kindergarten, they will be expected to ask for help, take turns, be kind, and interact with others in a positive way. Instruction in social-emotional skills will help children learn how to share, cooperate, and maintain positive relationships with friends; identify and regulate emotions; and deal with problematic social situations.By focusing on social-emotional skills in preschool, children will be better prepared for the kindergarten setting which has higher expectations and more formal curriculum.

Learn more about this recommendation 

2. Strengthen children’s executive function skills using specific games and activities.

Level of Evidence: Tier 2, Moderate

Executive function skills include paying attention, following directions, thinking flexibly, and exhibiting self-control and self-regulation. Developing executive function skills prepares children for challenges they will face when solving problems, remembering instructions, and learning in school. These skills can also help children manage interpersonal conflicts and other emotional situations. For example, when children can think flexibly and shift their attention to consider different aspects of a social situation, they are better able to solve the problem they are facing.

Learn more about this recommendation 

3. Provide intentional instruction to build children’s understanding of mathematical ideas and skills.

Level of Evidence: Tier 1, Strong

From an early age, children's natural curiosity may help them develop some informal intuitions about mathematics. However, children also benefit from more intentional activities and conversations designed to help them actively make sense of mathematics and develop a deeper understanding of mathematical ideas and skills. Children who develop these deeper understandings in preschool are better prepared to learn from the more formal mathematics instruction that they will encounter in kindergarten and beyond. The panel recommends intentionally planning lessons that will help children develop understandings beyond the basic mathematical skills (e.g., counting, naming shapes, and creating patterns). This means planning a specific time nearly every day to focus on more formal mathematical skills in numeracy, geometry, measurement, and patterning.

Learn more about this recommendation 

4. Engage children in conversations about mathematical ideas and support them in using mathematical language

Level of Evidence: Tier 2, Moderate

Young children encounter many situations throughout the day that involve mathematics — while they play games, enjoy snack time, or learn to share. Teachers can help children notice and talk about the mathematics around them. Children can learn to talk about mathematical ideas and skills like adding and subtracting, how shapes have features like sides and angles, or whether the class has too many or just enough granola bars for everyone at snack time. 

Learn more about this recommendation 

5. Intentionally plan activities to build children’s vocabulary and language.

Level of Evidence: Tier 1, Strong

The vocabulary children develop when they are 3, 4, and 5 years old plays a pivotal role in their later language and reading development, and subsequent academic success. Learning new words and their meanings helps children understand new information they come across, which helps them learn more words. In this way, vocabulary development is cumulative. The key to vocabulary development in preschool is repeated exposure and opportunities to use new words in a variety of contexts and conversations around themes interesting to children. The panel recommends providing children with many opportunities to hear and use vocabulary words over time, such as through shared book reading, activities and games, and engagement in conversations. The steps in this recommendation outline how to choose words, introduce new vocabulary, and reinforce and encourage use of the new vocabulary throughout the day.

Learn more about this recommendation 

6. Build children’s knowledge of letters and sounds.

Level of Evidence: Tier 1, Strong

Exploring and identifying the sounds of language is important for developing literacy. Awareness of the sounds of language, also referred to as phonological awareness, is essential for helping children begin to understand that words are made of sounds, and that when blended, those sounds make words. Children’s early knowledge of letters and sounds will help children learn how to read words and may contribute to their development of other literacy skills, like spelling. Most state standards specify that children need to know some letter names and sounds, and be able to recognize sounds at the beginning and end of words and words that rhyme, before entering kindergarten. Preschool teachers can help children begin to understand the often-complex relationship between sounds and letters. Teachers can help children learn to listen for sounds and connect them to the letters they see. With practice and repetition, children will be able to recognize many letters and identify some of the sounds those letters make.

Learn more about this recommendation 

7. Use shared book reading to develop children’s language, knowledge of print features, and knowledge of the world.

Level of Evidence: Tier 1, Strong

Shared book reading involves the teacher reading a book and encouraging children to be actively engaged in responding to the book as it is read. These interactions around books can be used to build knowledge about the social and natural world and to teach many components of literacy, such as vocabulary, print features including letters, and phonological awareness. The panel recommends reading books to children multiple times a day, using either the same book or different books and doing at least one shared book reading a day. This recommendation focuses on how to use shared book reading time to teach literacy concepts effectively. The first two steps detail how to prepare for reading. The last three steps provide more guidance on how to carry out the reading with young children. 

Learn more about this recommendation 

Burchinal, M., Krowka, S., Newman-Gonchar, R., Jayanthi, M., Gersten, R., Wavell, S., Lyskawa, J., Haymond, K., Bierman, K., Gonzalez, J. E., McClelland, M. M., Nelson, K., Pentimonti, J., Purpura, D. J., Sachs, J., Sarama, J., Schlesinger-Devlin, E., Washington, J., & Rosen, E. (2022). Preparing Young Children for School (WWC 2022009). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://whatworks.ed.gov/.
 

Reprints

You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.

Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
"There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away" — Emily Dickinson