UW–Madison’s Claessens co-author of new observational study examining how kids experience kindergarten

UW–Madison’s Amy Claessens is a co-author of a new paper published in the Educational Researcher that utilizes classroom observations in a large urban school district to better examine kindergarten and kids’ experiences.

Claessens is the Gulbrandsen Distinguished Chair in Early Education and an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies.

Amy Claessens

“An important finding from our work is that kindergartners in lower income schools experience more noninstructional time, less time being physically active, and have fewer choice activities,” says Claessens, who also is the associate director of the Center for Research on Early Childhood Education (CRECE). “We think this is important for practitioners and school leaders to know so that schools can think about how to best support all children.”

Adds Claessens: “Kindergarten is about more than math and literacy, and giving children opportunities to move and make choices is important for their positive development.”

The paper, “Kindergarten in a Large Urban District,” was published online Aug. 30 and is co-authored with: Mimi Engel, an associate professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder; Robin Jacob, an associate research professor at the University of Michigan; and Anna Erickson, a research associate at the University of Michigan.

The paper’s abstract explains how researchers collected data from 82 classrooms to examine how kindergartners spend their day in schools serving children from lower and higher income households. As previous research has found, these observations indicated that kindergartners spend most instructional time on reading and mathematics — with little time devoted to other subjects. On average, 2.5 hours are spent on noninstructional activities, such as transitions.

In addition, the researchers note that kindergartners in lower income schools spend more time on reading and mathematics and experience more noninstructional time. This then leaves substantially less time for the students in the lower income schools to be physically active. This time crunch also gives the students fewer opportunities to choose their own activities compared to their peers in higher income schools, the researchers write.

Kindergarten is the entry point to formal schooling for most young children in the United States and can shape a child’s expectations for, and attitudes toward, schooling. Past research has found that academic gains made during kindergarten are highly predictive of later outcomes.

Nonetheless, the researchers explain that there is relatively little empirical evidence documenting children’s experiences — with most of the research published on kindergarten in the past 15 years being based on the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten (ECLS-K), and ECLS-K:2011 cohorts. Kindergarten data for the more recent cohort are now more than 10 years old, and the study relies on a single teacher survey administered during the spring of kindergarten for information on instruction.

Claessens and her colleagues explain that, given the important role that kindergarten plays in the transition to formal learning, a more detailed examination of time use in kindergarten, using observational data, was warranted.

“Kindergarten controversies aren’t new,” says Claessens. “But what we often heard about the increased academics in kindergarten was typically based on teacher surveys and parent anecdotes. We thought it was important to be in classrooms to document how kids spend their time in kindergarten to expand our understanding of this important year of school.  Our observations are consistent with prior work; kindergartners spend substantial time on literacy and math and little time on other things.”

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