Understanding Children’s Transitions from Head Start to Kindergarten, 2019 – 2022

Project Overview

The purpose of this project is to better understand how to improve children’s transitions from Head Start programs to elementary schools. Central to this project is a systems approach that recognizes that effective transitions require intentional engagement from both the sending programs (Head Start) and the receiving programs (elementary schools). This approach also recognizes that transition strategies and practices must be implemented at multiple levels – among classroom teachers in Head Start and kindergarten, families and teachers, elementary school principals and Head Start directors, Head Start grantees and school districts, and state and federal agencies. Specifically, the project aims to explore the definition of “successful transitions” by addressing the following research questions:

  1. What strategies and practices are Head Start programs implementing to support children as they transition from Head Start to kindergarten? What is the content, quality, and quantity of these strategies and practices? How are they experienced by children, families, teachers, and other direct service providers?
  2. What strategies and practices are elementary schools implementing to support children as they transition from Head Start to kindergarten? What is the content, quality, and quantity of these strategies and practices? How are they experienced by children, families, teachers, and other direct service providers?
  3. What characterizes relationships among Head Start programs, elementary schools, and other community partners that support children’s successful transitions from Head Start to kindergarten? What are the specific facilitators of, and barriers to, successful transitions?
  4. What are the key short- and long-term outcomes of transition strategies and practices for children, families, Head Start teachers, and kindergarten teachers? What are the key contextual factors and mechanisms that result in these key outcomes?

The project includes several key tasks:

  • Review of the knowledge base regarding kindergarten transitions, including a literature review and qualitative interviews with key informants, that will catalogue current transition strategies, operationalize “successful” strategies, and situate those strategies in various community and organizational contexts
  • Development of a theory of change for kindergarten transitions that takes into account important contexts within Head Start and elementary schools, and assesses whether current strategies align to the theory of change in promoting positive outcomes for children, families, and Head Start and kindergarten teachers
  • Scan of existing measures and data sources to determine alignment with the theory of change and identify any gaps or limitations in measurement that could inform development of new measures
  • Implementation of a comparative multi-case study describing approaches to supporting transitions from Head Start to kindergarten.

Additionally, the project will include secondary analyses of a large-scale national dataset that examine kindergarten transition practices in both Head Start and elementary schools, and the experiences of Head Start children and families as they transition between these two complex systems. Stakeholders and experts will be engaged and consulted at critical junctures throughout the project. Depending on findings from the foundational work of the project, optional services components, if elected, may include development of design options for a descriptive study of the national landscape related to transition practices within Head Start programs, development of new measures of transition practices, and/or additional analyses of secondary data to address research questions of interest.

The resulting insights from these key tasks will identify promising kindergarten transition strategies and inform changes to practices, professional supports, and policy in Head Start, other early care and education settings, and elementary schools. Findings will be shared through publicly disseminated reports, briefs, and presentations aimed at different target audiences including policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and the general public.

OPRE has contracted NORC, with subcontracts to Child Trends and the National P-3 Center, to conduct the project.

The points of contact are Kathleen Dwyer, Nina Philipsen Hetzner, and Emily Ross.