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RESEARCH BRIEF 4301 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 100, Washington, DC 20008

Phone 202-362-5580 Fax 202-362-5533 www.childtrends.org

School Readiness: Helping Communities


Get Children Ready for School and Schools
Ready for Children October 2001
Second Printing

any communities across the country have set for themselves the ambitious goal of

M enhancing school readiness. But what does school readiness mean, and how do commu-
nities know whether they have achieved it? Child Trends developed this Research Brief
and other tools to help communities invest wisely in school readiness initiatives. The brief begins
by summarizing recommendations from the National Education Goals Panel for defining and
assessing school readiness and then presents a framework for community investments based on
an "ecological" view of child development. In other words, this framework not only considers fac-
tors related to the child, but also to the child’s family, early childhood care and education,
schools, neighborhood, and the larger society. This Research Brief updates one that Child Trends
published in August 2000. It includes some new research findings, as well as new sections on two
additional factors that affect school readiness: emergent literacy and the media.

What is School Readiness? multi-faceted.3, 4 The NEGP and subsequent


research highlighted five dimensions of chil-
The bipartisan National Education Goals
dren’s school readiness in its report Reconsid-
Panel (NEGP) was established in July 1990 to
ering Children’s Early Development and Learn-
assess and report on state and national
ing: Toward Common Views and Vocabulary:
progress in meeting the eight National Educa-
tion Goals set for the nation. The first of  Physical well-being and motor devel-
these goals stated “by the year 2000, all chil- opment. This dimension covers such fac-
dren in America will start school ready to tors as health status, growth, and disabili-
learn.”1 In addressing this important goal, the ties; physical abilities, such as gross and
NEGP identified three components of school fine motor skills; and conditions before,
readiness: (1) readiness in the child; (2) at, and after birth, such as exposure to
schools’ readiness for children; and (3) family toxic substances.
and community supports and services that
 Social and emotional development.
contribute to children’s readiness.
Social development refers to children’s
ability to interact with others. A positive
Readiness in children. The NEGP went
adaptation to school requires such social
beyond the conventional wisdom that limited
skills as the ability to take turns and to
school readiness in children to “narrowly con-
cooperate. Emotional development
structed, academically-driven definitions of
includes such factors as children’s percep-
readiness.”2 Instead, based on the research
tions of themselves and their abilities to
on child development and early education, the
both understand the feelings of other peo-
Panel argued for a broader definition that
ple and to interpret and express their own
included physical, social, and emotional well-
feelings.
being, as well as cognitive readiness.2 Ongoing
research continues to confirm the need to  Approaches to learning. This dimen-
think about children’s readiness for school as sion refers to the inclination to use skills,
knowledge, and capacities. Key compo-  are committed to the success of every
nents include enthusiasm, curiosity, and child. They are sensitive to the needs of
persistence on tasks, as well as tempera- individual children, including the effects of
ment and cultural patterns and values. poverty, race, and disability.
 Language development. This dimension  are committed to the success of every
includes verbal language and emergent lit- teacher and every adult who interacts
eracy. Verbal language includes listening, with children during the school day.
speaking, and vocabulary. Emergent litera- They help teachers develop their skills.
cy includes print awareness (e.g., assigning  introduce or expand approaches that
sounds to letter combinations), story sense have been shown to raise achievement.
(e.g., understanding that stories have a For example, they provide appropriate
beginning, middle, and end) and the interventions to children who are falling
writing process (e.g., representing ideas behind, encourage parent involvement, and
through drawing, letter-like shapes, or monitor different teaching approaches.
letters).
 are learning organizations that alter
 Cognition and general knowledge. practices and programs if they do not
This aspect includes knowledge about benefit children.
properties of particular objects and knowl-
 serve children in communities. They
edge derived from looking across objects,
assure access to services and supports in
events, or people for similarities, differ-
the community.
ences, and associations. It also includes
knowledge about societal conventions, such  take responsibility for results. They use
as the assignment of particular letters to assessments to help teachers and parents
sounds, and knowledge about shapes, plan for individual students, and to meas-
spatial relations, and number concepts. ure accountability to the community.
 have strong leadership. They are led by
Readiness of schools. The NEGP urged a individuals who have a clear agenda, the
close examination of “the readiness and capaci- authority to make decisions, and the
ty of the nation’s schools to receive young resources to follow through on goals, visi-
children.”2 To aid this examination, the Panel bility, and accessibility.
proposed ten characteristics of “ready schools”
– schools that are prepared to support the Family and community supports for
learning and development of young children. children’s readiness. The NEGP identified
As stated in the Panel’s report, Ready Schools, three high-priority objectives that reflect
such schools: important early supports for school readiness.5
As stated in the Panel’s Special Early
 smooth the transition between home
Childhood Report:
and school. For example, they show sensi-
tivity to cultural differences and reach out  All children should have access to high-
to parents and children to prepare children quality and developmentally appropriate
for entering school. preschool programs that help prepare them
for school.
 strive for continuity between early
care and education programs and ele-  Every parent in the United States will be a
mentary schools. child’s first teacher and devote time each
day to helping his or her preschool child
 help children learn and make sense of
learn. To accomplish this, parents should
their complex and exciting world. For
have access to the training and support
example, they utilize high-quality instruc-
they need.
tion and appropriate pacing, and demon-
strate an understanding that learning  Children should receive the nutrition, phys-
occurs in the context of relationships. ical activity, and health care they need to
arrive at school with healthy minds and to identify learning problems in a particular
bodies and to maintain mental alertness. child. Assessments should also be age-and lin-
To this end, the number of low-birthweight guistically-appropriate, and ideally should be
babies should be significantly reduced based on multiple sources of information (for
through enhanced prenatal care. example, obtaining parent and teacher inform-
ants as well as direct assessments of the child,
How Should School where possible). Educators should also recog-
Readiness Be Measured? nize that assessment results for individual chil-
Testing is a commonplace feature of American dren might not be reliable until children are in
education. Used properly, tests and other third grade or older.
assessment tools can help educators design and
deliver the appropriate services for individual A Framework for Community
children and can facilitate communitywide or Investments in School Readiness
statewide tracking of children’s status at An extensive body of research on child develop-
kindergarten entry and later on. But tests and ment helps identify the factors that influence
other assessment tools can also be misused.6 children’s readiness for school, beginning with
For example, they may result in labeling young those closest to the child and moving outward
children prematurely or inaccurately. They to encompass the family, early care and educa-
may also lead communities to focus just on the tion, schools, the neighborhood, and beyond
child’s skills and overlook factors such as the that, the media. This ecological view of child
readiness of schools and the availability of com- development provides a useful framework for
munity supports. understanding where and how communities
can intervene to support and promote healthy
Purposes of Assessment. Recognizing that child development in general and school readi-
tests and other assessment tools have both ness in particular.
strengths and limitations, the NEGP identified
four specific purposes for assessing the readi- There are many programs across the country
ness of young children. As stated in the Panel’s that may well be effective in promoting school
report, Principles and Recommendations for readiness. In this brief, we limit our examples
Early Childhood Assessments,7 the four purpos- to several programs that have been evaluated
es are: rigorously or for which longitudinal data (with
adequate consideration of background charac-
 to identify what individual children already
teristics) are available.
know and what they need more help with;
 to identify children who may need health Child Health. Children’s early physical and
or other special services (to determine mental health are important determinants of
whether follow-up testing is needed, not for their later readiness for school and school suc-
diagnosis); cess. Below we review findings on several
important aspects of children’s health.
 to monitor trends and evaluate programs
and services in order to inform aggregate  Health in the early years affects multi-
decisions; and ple dimensions of children’s readiness for
 to assess academic achievement to hold school. For example, low-birthweight,
individual students, teachers, and schools preterm infants are especially at risk for
accountable for desired learning outcomes. poor health and developmental outcomes.
One effective intervention with infants in
The Appropriate Uses of Assessment improving outcomes for these children is
Tools. The Panel noted in particular that the Infant Health and Development Pro-
assessments should be used only for their gram (IHDP). It includes pediatric moni-
intended purposes. Assessments designed to toring, referral and follow-ups, home visits,
track achievement at the school district or com- participation in high-quality early educa-
munity level need to differ from the tests used tion, and support group meetings for par-
ents. Children participating in IHDP had Family Factors. Research consistently shows
gains in receptive language, cognitive the importance of the family environment in
development, visual-motor skills, and spa- shaping children’s early development.
tial skills at 36 months. 8 Strengthening families is another approach
 Immunizations. Immunizations protect communities can take to enhance children’s
children from vaccine-preventable diseases readiness for school.
that can cause school absences and limit
 Family Economic Risk. Poverty is
children’s ability to achieve in school.
related to child outcomes in many ways.
Health providers, communities, and gov-
Compared to more affluent children, poor
ernment agencies have tried to boost
children have worse nutrition and more
immunization rates by monitoring cover-
physical health problems on average, as
age rates and by providing child-specific
well as lower average scores on measures
prompts through reminder/recall systems
of cognitive development (such as verbal
or registry programs. Governmental pur-
ability, reading readiness, and problem
chase programs, such as Vaccines for Chil-
solving). 15, 16 Poverty is also associated
dren, have also improved access to free or
with an increase in emotional and behav-
reduced-cost vaccines for some disadvan-
ioral problems.17 Government and private
taged populations. Efforts are now under
organizations have experimented with a
way to include recommended vaccines in
broad range of approaches to lift families
all basic health care plans and to require
out of poverty or to address its negative
private insurers to assess the immuniza-
consequences. One set of approaches seeks
tion status of their enrollees.9, 10
to raise family incomes through employ-
 Nutrition. Poor nutrition affects chil- ment, income supplements, or a combina-
dren’s physical and intellectual develop- tion of the two. Another set of approaches
ment and may therefore hinder early seeks to address problems associated with
school success. 11 Programs such as the poverty through quality early child care,
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program improved health care and nutrition, and
for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) parenting education and family support.
and Food Stamps have been effective Some experimental interventions for low-
in increasing the nutritional intake of income families (including the New Hope
children.12 Project and the Minnesota Family Invest-
 Unintentional Injury. Unintentional ment Program) have provided wage sup-
injuries (such as car crashes, bicycle acci- plements or earnings disregards to
dents, or fires) can result in long-term increase family income and have seen
deficits in cognitive, behavioral, and motor some positive effects on children’s cogni-
functioning. Parent education, accompa- tive and school outcomes.18, 19
nied by additional supports such as child  Family Structure. Research suggests
safety features in automobiles, is an effec- that wanted children who are raised by
tive way to reduce injuries.13 Community- both of their biological parents in a low-
wide or school-based education campaigns, conflict family have more optimal out-
reinforced by local legislation, may also be comes in the early years of school. 20, 21
effective in preventing unintentional Children who live with only one parent
injury. may benefit from the active involvement of
 Childhood Emotional and Behavioral their other parent, as long as that contact
Problems. Children whose mothers are is positive, although the research in this
depressed or have other mental health area is limited and mixed. Financial sup-
problems are themselves at greater risk of port from non-resident parents has been
behavioral and emotional problems. 14 found to promote children’s school
Addressing parents’ psychological prob- success.22, 23 Since non-resident fathers’
lems may have benefits for children. involvement tends to decrease over time, it
may be worth exploring ways to keep men group size, the education and training of care-
involved when children are young (in givers, and the compensation of caregivers.34
terms of spending time, having a positive
relationship with their children, and pro- School Transitional Practices. A smooth
viding financial support) at this critical transition into kindergarten and formal
point in their children’s development. schooling can help set young children on a
course for academic achievement and success.
 The Home Environment. Several differ- For many five-year-olds, the transition from
ent components of the home environment preschool or home to kindergarten can be
can affect child outcomes. For example, stressful. Children face new expectations for
the way parents and children interact and independence and responsibility, as well as
the physical environment have been found goals that are more formal than those in pre-
to be related to children’s cognitive, social, school or home settings. They also must learn
and emotional development.26, 27 Results to interact with teachers in ways that center
across multiple studies seem to suggest on academic progress and must negotiate
that programs that focus on parenting more formalized routines. They often face
practices and parent-child interactions larger class sizes (or a group learning setting
can be effective, although the particular for the first time) as well.35
program model and its implementation
are important.25, 28 Despite the fact that kindergarten entry is a
critical period in children’s lives, many schools
Early Childhood Care and Education.
lack specific guidelines to facilitate this transi-
Quality early childhood care and education
tion; nor is there extensive research on best
programs can enhance cognitive, emotional,
practices in this area. The broader literature
and social development, especially among low-
on child development and early childhood edu-
income preschoolers.29 Participation in such
cation offers some general guidance for transi-
programs can lead to gains in cognitive test
tion practices that may be promising:
scores, better kindergarten achievement,
lower rates of grade retention and special edu-  contact between kindergartens and
cation placement, and higher rates of high preschools so that kindergarten teachers
school graduation. 30 Several studies have can plan for individual students and so
demonstrated the effectiveness of quality that children know what to expect during
early childhood education programs, particu- the transition;36
larly for children in poverty. These include the  contact between schools and homes,
High/Scope Perry Preschool Project31 and the before and after entry into school, so that
Carolina Abecedarian Project.32 When com- parents can be actively involved in their
munity-based child care is of higher quality, children’s education;37, 38 and
this also has implications for children’s aca-  connections between schools and commu-
demic achievement in the early years of ele- nity resources so that children can receive
mentary school.33 services they need as soon as possible.

Children benefit from environments that not Emergent Literacy. Emergent literacy
only provide basic care, but that also promote refers to the earliest signs of interest in and
the development of cognitive, language, social, ability to read and write. Emergent literacy
and emotional skills, as well as health. Higher skills at kindergarten entry are a good predic-
quality care settings, in addition to having tor of children’s reading abilities throughout
better health and safety practices, are also their educational careers. Exposure to litera-
more likely to have caregivers who offer care cy activities early in life, both at home and in
that is more stimulating and supportive. early childhood care and education programs,
Structural features of care that facilitate such is essential to the development of these
interactions include better staff-child ratios, skills.39
 Family Settings. Children who live in enter school. Young children’s behavioral and
homes where reading and writing are com- physical outcomes also appear to be influenced by
mon and valued tend to experience more suc- the level of unemployment in neighborhoods,
cess with reading as they begin school.40 Chil- beyond family characteristics.49
dren also benefit when they have access to
These findings suggest that interventions focused
books and when their parents read to them.41
on aiding low-income families to relocate to more
Low-income households often face challenges,
affluent neighborhoods might improve children’s
financial and otherwise, in exposing their
chances of school success. In the Moving to
children to books and reading. A number of
Opportunity demonstration project sponsored by
approaches have been taken to address this
the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
situation. One promising family-based inter-
Development, findings from the Baltimore site
vention is to provide free children’s books to
indicate that families given housing vouchers
low-income families through such programs
restricted to low poverty areas tend to move to
as Reach Out and Read. 42 Several other
suburbs or low poverty urban areas, and in doing
interventions have been tried, with varying
so, increase their children’s educational opportu-
degrees of success, including home visitation
nities.50 The alternative strategy of investing in
programs, such as the Home Instruction Pro-
new businesses and industry in areas with high
gram for Preschool Youngsters,43 and family
unemployment, or providing job-training and/or
literacy programs, such as Even Start. 44
job-placement assistance for unemployed individ-
Research suggests that the effectiveness of
uals, should also be evaluated for its implications
such programs depends on such factors as the
for children.
extent of families’ participation.
 Early Childhood Care and Education Beyond the Community: Media Effects.
Settings. Access to books and printed mate- Most studies of the effects of media on children
rial and being read to one-on-one or in small have focused on television, due in part to the rela-
groups in early childhood care programs also tive newness of other types of media (e.g., video
help prepare preschoolers to become read- games and the Internet). Research indicates that
ers. 45 Research on interventions in early educational programs such as Sesame Street can
childhood care and education settings sug- contribute to young children’s letter and number
gests that a combined approach of book read- recognition, vocabulary, and positive attitudes
ing in which children are highly engaged, towards school, whereas cartoons and adult pro-
along with some phonological training (for grams do not.51 Programs designed to improve
example, teaching children to detect rhymes the way children treat and regard others and to
and categorize sounds), is effective in improv- instill moral values, such as Mr. Rogers’ Neigh-
ing emergent literacy skills.46 Teaching chil- borhood, when combined with related, reinforcing
dren to recognize the sounds of letters has activities, have the potential to increase
also been shown to help children learn to preschoolers’ positive social behavior.52 Research
read.45 also finds that watching violent programs can
contribute to children’s aggressiveness. It is also
Community/Neighborhood Factors. Neigh-
associated with a decrease in fantasy play among
borhood poverty is associated with less favorable
preschoolers.53
child and youth outcomes, including school readi-
ness and long-term academic attainment. 47 In Parental behavior can be an important determin-
contrast, residing in a neighborhood with less ing factor in how much and what young children
than 10 percent poverty appears to predict more watch on television. Parents and other adults can
favorable scores on tests of cognitive abilities, monitor the type and amount of television that
beyond the influence of family characteristics.48 young children watch and, by doing so, help shape
Having relatively more affluent neighbors children’s viewing habits and preferences. 54
appears to become more important as children Adults also can mediate the effects of television
on children’s social, creative, and aggressive For more information on the National Education
behaviors by discussing and interpreting the Goals Panel, visit its Web site: www.negp.gov.
behavior of characters on the shows children Child Trends gratefully acknowledges the John D.
watch.55 and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for sup-
port of its Research Brief series, the David and
Implications for
Lucile Packard Foundation for support of this brief,
Community Action and the Knight Foundation for support of our
As communities begin to initiate new or aug- research on school readiness.
ment existing school readiness efforts, deci-
Editors: Carol Emig, Amber Moore,
sion makers, funders, and other community
Harriet J. Scarupa
leaders can combine knowledge of their partic-
ular community’s needs, resources, and priori-
ties with information available from research.
One important resource is the work carried
Endnotes
out by the National Education Goals Panel, 1The National Education Goals Panel (1997). Getting a good start
building on child development and early edu- in school. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.
2 Kagan, S. L., Moore, E., & Bradekamp, S. (1995). Reconsidering
cation research. The NEGP’s work on defin- children's early development and learning: Toward common views
ing the components of school readiness and and vocabulary. Washington, DC: National Education Goals
Panel, Goal 1 Technical Planning Group.
the uses and misuses of readiness assessments 3 Huffman, L. C., Mehlinger, S. L., & Kerivan, A. S. (2000). Risk
(and more recent research building on this factors for academic and behavioral problems at the beginning of
school. In A good beginning: Sending America’s children to school
work) is essential background information for with the social and emotional competence they need to succeed
(monograph). Bethesda, MD: The Child Mental Health
any local initiative. The research base also Foundations and Agencies Network.
provides a structure for thinking about where 4 Love, J. M., Aber, J. L., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1994, October).
Strategies for assessing community progress toward achieving the
to target community initiatives to strengthen first national educational goal (MPR Reference No. 8113-110).
Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
children’s school readiness (the child, family, 5The National Education Goals Panel (1997). Special early child-
school, and/or neighborhood). Finally, hood report 1997. Washington, DC: National Education Goals
Panel.
research provides examples of effective initia- 6 Shepard, L. A., Taylor, G. A., & Kagan, S. L. (1996). Trends in
tives that helped shape positive early school early childhood assessment policies and practices. Unpublished
manuscript.
outcomes, as well as promising directions for 7 The National Education Goals Panel (1998). Principles and
further initiatives. Building on a research recommendations for early childhood assessments. Washington,
DC: National Education Goals Panel.
base of what works, communities will be able 8 McCormick, M. C., McCarton, C., Tonascia, J., & Brooks-Gunn,
to put their resources to use more effectively J. (1993). Early educational intervention for very low birth weight
infants: Results from the Infant Health and Development
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9Institute of Medicine. (2000). Calling the shots. Washington,
This Research Brief is based on the executive sum- DC: National Academy Press.
mary of a longer Child Trends’ report, Back- 10 Briss, P.A., Zaza, S., & Pappaioanou, M. (2000). Reviews of
evidence regarding interventions to improve vaccination coverage
ground for Community-Level Work on School in children, adolescents, and adults. American Journal of
Preventive Medicine, 18(1S), 97-140.
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