Kindergarten Is Not The New First Grade: Supporting Students In The Early Years

We have a pivotal role at a critical time in education.

For many years, early learning was a luxury—a fun thing for little learners. Now, more research is indicating what educators already knew: that early learning is the most important learning. 

Research-based strategies that are implemented well can reduce achievement gaps, gain positive family relationships, decrease truancy, increase engagement, and provide a healthy, successful start from cradle to career.  

For this reason, leading a classroom, leading a school, or leading within a district provide challenges and opportunities every day.  In the world of early learning, those days are broken up into minutes of intentional opportunities to educate and empower the future of a child.

But what if you are walking into a new school or a new grade level, and lack background experiences with this new setting? Every second we as adults play catch-up to the learning we needed to do earlier, we are losing time to impact the students in our class. 

Our students are changing, and the outcomes are more rigorous at a younger age, but our instructional practices are staying the same. We need to be the change. Getting it right from the beginning is critical for the future success of all students.

In Hacking Early Learning, Kindergarten school leader, early childhood education specialist, and Minnesota State Principal of the Year Jessica Cabeen provides strategies for teachers, principals, and district administrators for best practices in preschool through third grade, including connecting these strategies to all grade levels.

The research is clear: Quality early learning programs significantly impact the long-term educational opportunities for all students in America.

Historically, there has been a greater focus on third through 12th grades, rather than on pre-K–3. More recent research, legislation, and, well, common sense, have shifted that focus to the importance of quality preschool and kindergarten programs.

Research supports the work of closing the achievement gap before it starts in the K–12 world. Ensuring that school leadership is equipped with knowledge of pre-K–3 is a key factor in supporting high-quality early learning environments in schools.  

With principal licensure programs more geared toward the third- through 12th-grade setting, there is a need for practical advice from leaders living in the pre-K–3 world every day.

From decreasing retentions and referrals to special education to improved student achievement and graduation rates, the research is clear: Quality pre-K/K is no longer nice, but necessary for all students to have access to in the United States. Our job today is to take the research and apply it to our classrooms tomorrow.  

While kindergarten expectations are ramping up, the developed mentally appropriate learning environments are evaporating at a  rapid pace. This, paired with college programs licensing K–6 educators, with minimal time in the pre-K/K, is setting the stage for a  lack of hands-on experience for new teachers entering our schools. 

This puts schools in a position to continue to drill down instructional practices that work well in the upper grades, but have no place in pre-K through third grade.  

My personal connection to disrupting assumptions and elevating expectations in the early years occurred when I became a  principal at the school where my son would have his first school experience.

He lived in Ethiopia until he was five and a half years old, and while he entered the education system well below all defined bars, he continued to exceed academic and behavioral outcomes as he moved through the grades.

My mission for his success became a passion for finding ways for all to succeed, regardless of barriers or preconceived notions of abilities.  

Our students are changing, and the outcomes are more rigorous at a younger age, but our instructional practices are staying the same. We need to be the change. Getting it right from the beginning is critical for the future success of all students. Creating developmentally appropriate learning spaces and supporting instructional practices with teachers is the pathway to this success.


The more time you invest in understanding the connections from when children are born until they are college-bound, the better you can support all stakeholders. This support can look like enhancing student learning experiences by investing in quality play-based instructional time every day.

Supporting teachers might include embedding high-quality professional development that meets the developmental needs of working with early learners. Including parents as partners in their child’s first few years of school might look like including social media as a part of your school message, and as a way to show parents what you do each and every day.

Regardless of what you do to enhance your school, it has to start with a solid focus and mission.  Establishing a school mission or mantra is one thing. Finding ways to measure, monitor, and involve all stakeholders in the success of the school mantra is the deep work we need to focus on in schools today. 

Too many times, leaders uncomfortable with the early years defer to the individual judgment of early learning classroom teachers to do what they think is right. This increases the risk of students having inconsistent expectations and learning experiences between teachers and across grade levels.

While allowing teachers the ability and opportunity to share their vision for their students is terrific, a leader still needs to be driving the bus. When you work as a team to understand the needs of learners and create learning outcomes that will be consistent across all teachers,  you are able to build a consistent path toward success for all.

Once you have a deeper sense of the multiple facets of early learning and the connections to learning, it is time to start on the journey. Find time for your team to take that research into practical application in your school setting—it’s essential if you want to ensure that there are consistently high expectations and that those expectations are understood by all stakeholders.

Start simple: What is the one thing that you feel has to be tackled first?

If you have high suspension rates in the early grades, consider building a framework for consistent behavioral expectations building-wide,  with a lens of understanding the developmental needs of students who are entering school for the first time.

If you receive feedback from the intermediate and middle schools, saying that students enter with inconsistent academic vocabulary, work with your elementary teachers to establish essential outcomes and ways to monitor these through common formative assessments.  

A road map is essential to staying on course with these big intentions and dreams. Too often, educators revert back to practices that are comfortable, instead of risking new practices that might not work out perfectly the first, second, or third time.

But creating a framework with all stakeholders, implementing the practices,  and monitoring the success are essential in moving pre-K through third-grade research to application in your school.


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