Understanding Cross-Systems Transitions from Head Start to Kindergarten: A Review of the Knowledge Base and a Theory of Change

Publication Date: October 27, 2021
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  • Pages: 130
  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. What existing literature and knowledge is there that focuses on the transition from Head Start to kindergarten for children, their families, and their teachers?
  2. What does this literature say about how coordinated perspectives, policies, professional supports, and practices across Head Start and K-12 support the transition from Head Start to kindergarten?
  3. Based on the current knowledge base, how can a theory of change be conceptualized to help support successful transitions?

Transitions between two educational settings can bring about new experiences and expectations for children and their families. In the early care and education (ECE) context, when children transition from Head Start to kindergarten, they are confronted with different places, people, activities, and relationships. This transition also occurs between two distinct educational systems, with differing and often contradictory governance structures, philosophies, and accountability metrics.  To date, much of what is known about supporting children’s transition to kindergarten narrowly attends to practices provided by ECE programs and kindergarten teachers, with little attention to the organizational conditions that support or hinder those practices.

 To promote ongoing learning and build upon early successes fostered by Head Start, both ECE providers and K-12 local education agencies (LEAs) must consider each other’s roles and coordinate their efforts through alignment of transition goals, approaches, and practices. The current report summarizes a review of the literature, highlights key informant perspectives, and presents a theory of change for transition strategies and coordinated transition practices intended to support teachers, families, and children moving between systems. 


The purpose of this review is to identify, from the literature and key informant interviews, key contributors to more successful kindergarten transitions from Head Start by understanding the broader systems-level supports needed, including strategies:

  • within Head Start,
  • within elementary schools, and
  • coordinated across the two systems. 

Key Findings and Highlights

The literature includes studies about specific, concrete transition practices that teachers and/or program or school staff implement. However, we know much less about the broader supports in place for educators and families, such as policies and professional supports to align perspectives and identified roles throughout the transition process. We also know little about the mechanisms through which those strategies would support key short- and long-term outcomes for teachers, families, and children. Despite these emerging themes from key informants and a small body of existing literature, gaps remain about policy implementation and what facilitates and hinders that implementation in the area around Head Start (or any ECE program) to kindergarten transitions. 

The existing research and knowledge, while limited, led to the development of the HS2K theory of change, which provides a framework for understanding systems-level approaches that can lead to successful transitions from Head Start to kindergarten. The theory of change illustrates the two-sided nature of transitions in which there is a sending side (Head Start) and a receiving side (kindergarten). Both within and across the organizational systems, we posit that four main factors (the 4Ps) influence children’s transition experiences. The first three Ps—(1) Perspectives, (2) Policies, and (3) Professional supports—intersect to influence the quantity, quality, and coordination of the fourth P, (4) Practices. Head Start and kindergarten systems, as well as child development processes, are all influenced by external sociocultural, historical, and other contextual factors. The report discusses key findings organized by the 4Ps, including:

  • Perspectives: While preschool and kindergarten teachers have aligned perspectives on the role of parents in facilitating successful transitions, they differ on expectations for and perspectives on their own roles. When there are more misaligned perspectives across key actors in the transition process, children fare less well.
  • Policies: Overall, there is a lack of research examining how the implementation of policies is related to teacher-, family-, and child-level outcomes. However, theory suggests that policies that are aligned across systems——and have the support of strong leadership——are more likely to result in coordinated transition practices through improved cross-system communication.
  • Professional Supports: While research on alignment of professional supports is limited, shared professional development, opportunities for ECE teachers to observe kindergarten teachers, and transition summits attended by multiple stakeholders seem to foster aligned perspectives, connections across systems, and trust.
  • Practices: While the most common transition practices are at the classroom level, research shows coordinated efforts across Head Start and elementary schools result in better short-term initial school adjustment, long-term social and emotional development, and academic outcomes for children.


In order to conduct our literature review, we built upon existing compilations of research and identified peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, dissertations, and grey literature related to the four types of shared approaches (the 4Ps) articulated in the theory of change. Additionally, we conducted 45-60-minute interviews with seven key informants, including practitioners and federal staff.  The literature review and findings from the key informants supported the development and refinement of the TOC.


Ehrlich, S. B., Cook, K. D., Thomson, D., Kauerz, K., Barrows, M., Halle, T., Gordon, M., Soli, M., Schaper, A., Her, S., & Guerra, G. (2021). Understanding Children’s Transitions from Head Start to Kindergarten: A Literature Review and Theory of Change, OPRE Report # 2021-128, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Early care and education
Local education agency
National Center on Early Childhood Development Teaching and Learning
Office of Head Start
State education agencies
Theory of change