Making School Transitions: Pre-primary to Primary at TNCS

Editor’s Note: For the 2014–2015 school year, TNCS modified the kindergarten program to better accommodate the growing student body. While the primary program still comprises a 3-year cycle, kindergarteners now move up to the elementary floor for a mixed-age K/1st classroom instead of kindergarten taking place within the primary classroom. This adaptation has proven a marvelous success and provides another very important transition mark for students as they broach their elementary years. The gist of the post below, therefore, still very much applies.

A recent stressor has been added to the list of 21st-century parenting tribulations: how to ensure that children are ready for kindergarten. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when that question wouldn’t even make sense to parents—Ready? For kindergarten? (Here’s a crayon; there’s a piece of paper. Go!) But with kindergarten morphing from extended preschool more and more into what resembles grade school around the mid-90s, educators observed a huge disconnect between what they were expecting of children and what those children were actually able to deliver in terms of concrete skills, independence, and maturity. We began to see a frighteningly pressurized climate in which parents competed to produce the most knowledgeable 5-year-old on the block. As if to heighten this pressure, studies found that the achievement gap that emerges in elementary school has its origins in the pre-school and kindergarten years, and the A-B-C/1-2-3 scramble accordingly intensified.

Successful transitions, however, are more than simply a function of individual children and their skills. More recent studies from the U.S. Department of Education demonstrate that “Children’s transitions are most strongly influenced by their home environment, the preschool program they attend, and the continuity between preschool and kindergarten.” This is not news to many of us, but it echoes a primary theme at The New Century School that bears exploring from a new perspective: continuity. TNCS academic programs come close to obviating the notion of hard and fast changes, such as preschool to kindergarten, by their very design. Maria Montessori knew that kids need, above all else, to feel secure for optimal development; therefore, the Montessori primary classroom encompasses ages 3–5/6 to soften those hard edges and eliminate the inherently false notion that “last year I was a little-kid; this year I’m a big-kid” that is the foundation of the preschool to kindergarten problem. Kindergarten at TNCS happens within the primary classroom, where the child has already been flourishing for 2 years. New skills are introduced when the child is ready for them, not when the calendar arbitrarily dictates. That holds true for all ages at TNCS, no matter what program, pre-primary, primary, or elementary. It’s a founding principle.

As mentioned, this post is meant to take a slightly different perspective, because even though the advance to kindergarten is made as smooth as possible, TNCS students do face transitions and changes, as all students do. The important difference is in the thoughtful, child-appropriate way these transitions are undertaken. Last month, TNCS held a Pre-primary Information Night focusing on The Next Step—transitioning out of the pre-primary program into the primary program. This is a big move for tiny kids and one that inspires dread, doubt, or sheer terror in many parents. In diapers in May but using the bathroom by late August? Able to don outdoor clothing independently? Able to articulate daily needs? Those are one of so many hurdles jumped for lots of kids, towering obstacles for others. No matter where your child falls along that continuum, the overriding message that emerged from Head of School Alicia Danyali’s presentation was that the child will be supported and nurtured along the way.

These bins hold students' indoor shoes and any paper work they accumulate throughout the week.

These bins hold students’ indoor shoes and any paper work they accumulate throughout the week.

Preparation for the primary program begins in the pre-primary program. Potty-training, for example, is initiated here as well as teaching how to put on jackets and outdoor shoes. Kids are also encouraged to be responsible for their own belongings by replacing jackets and shoes on labeled hooks or in cubbies. The immersion-style pre-primary program is where many students are first exposed to a second language. It’s also where they first get their chubby little hands on some of the Montessori materials that utterly fascinate and delight them. All of these are important introductions to primary classroom life. Kids enter the primary program already familiar with most aspects of it. The Montessori-trained teacher leading the primary classroom is there to gently guide and facilitate their process of becoming more independent.

A younger student gets some pointed help from his older classmate.

A younger student gets some pointed help from his older classmate.

But here’s the best part. Remember that kindergartners have spent 2 previous years in the same classroom, where they have gained the confidence to spread their academic and social wings? Well, that 3-year-cycle works the other way, too. Kids enter the primary classroom not as strangers in a strange land but as little friends taken under the wings of their older friends. The 5-year-olds who were nurtured into thriving kindergartners become the mentors and role models of the 3- and 4-year-olds, and this is the beauty of the mixed-age classroom. It makes for a much gentler way to start preschool. Does the span of ages present special challenges for the teacher? Rather the opposite; this model is all many Montessori teachers have ever known and is what they were trained in. “Seeing older kids helping their younger peers is my favorite part of the Montessori classroom,” says experienced Montessori teacher Angela Lazarony, who represented primary teachers at the Information Night.

Because of the primary 3-year cycle, which is an extended commitment, matching each child with the right classroom is a well-thought-out procedure in which school administration, the child’s pre-primary teacher, the primary teachers, and parents collaborate. Just as each child has a unique personality, so too each of the four primary classrooms has its own distinct “flavor.” (In addition to Ms. Lazarony, Mrs. Lawson, Mr. Warren, and Ms. Reynolds are the other primary teachers.) The teachers weighing in are trained observers who know their students well and probably have the keenest acuity to judge where each student will best thrive. A good fit between child and classroom ensures harmony and will enhance the child’s development. Other factors also influence the placement decision, such as making sure an even distribution of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds is achieved across classrooms, which is an integral component of the Montessori classroom.

Another primary classroom operating harmoniously.

Another primary classroom operating harmoniously.

Morning worktime is productive, harmonious, and orderly!

Morning worktime is productive, harmonious, and orderly!

Once there, what does the brand-new primary student’s day look like? Much of it will be very familiar to the child. Although the lead teacher speaks English, an assistant teacher in the classroom will be speaking only in his or her native Chinese or Spanish, so the child is still getting some immersion in that language. The other language will now be introduced in a slightly more formalized way three times weekly, when an assistant teacher from another primary classroom rotates in for this purpose. Thus, all primary students get both Mandarin and Spanish instruction. The day also begins in a way the child is already accustomed to, with “circle time” to greet each other, get oriented (calendar, weather, etc.), sing a song, and generally settle in to the schoolday. From there, the child gets free time with the Montessori materials, what they call “doing a work.” The idea is that each child will gravitate naturally to the manipulative that most interests him or her at that given moment, thereby cultivating a skill appropriate for his or her current stage of development. But what if my child gets stuck in a rut with a particular work, never trying anything new even when he or she has mastered the old work? many parents wonder. Says Ms. Lazarony, “we’re watching them to see where they’re going, but we’re leading them where we think they should go.” Amidst free time, teachers observe, guide, and circulate among small groups to give specific lessons in new works or skills.

Other familiar aspects are art, music, and movement instruction. Primary students met the amazing and gifted “specials” teachers Ms. Raccuglia (art) and Mr. Warren (music) as pre-primary students. Their activities in The Lingo Leap are supervised by an assistant teacher or sometimes by parent volunteers, which the kids love. By the way, volunteering is the ideal way for parents to be part of their child’s schoolday and another means to help him or her feel secure in the new classroom. Napping and playground time are also still in the mix.

The differences between the pre-primary and primary programs really lie in the degree of instruction taking place by the teacher and in the extent to which the student can explore. Because the primary program is self-paced, the student can reach well beyond conventional expectations for his or her age. Likewise, the child who needs more time absorbing the surroundings is supported and affirmed.

Big kids, little kids---we're all one big happy family!

Big kids, little kids—we’re all one big happy family!

Readiness is an important consideration in another way here. Not all 3-year-olds are ready to transition to the primary program, and this is something the parent should reflect on very carefully. The child not only has to demonstrate readiness in terms of being potty-trained and able to dress independently, but also should have the social competence to handle more than one age group and the maturity to participate in a group learning environment. The parent’s feelings are also important: Is this what you want for your child right now? Maybe you aren’t sure. Many parents opt for a half day in the primary program, which many preschools don’t even offer. (Note that kindergartners are state-mandated to be in school for a full day.)

The takeaway is clear: Children should get the space to develop at their own paces, but when they show willingness to expand, TNCS is going to make sure the transition is pleasant by supporting them in the way that will best serve them. Back to the study finding that continuity is critical to successfully making scholastic transitions, TNCS goes it a step or two beyond, adding nurturance and support to that continuity already very much in place at each scholastic level. No scramble here!

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