ERIC Identifier: ED389475
Publication Date: 1995-12-00
Author: Zill, Nicholas - And Others
Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
School Readiness and Children's Developmental Status. ERIC
Kindergarten is now a nearly universal experience for children in the United
States, with 98% of all children attending kindergarten prior to entering first
grade. However, the population of children that comes to kindergarten is
increasingly diverse. Growing numbers of children in the United States come from
different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds; family types; parent
education levels; income strata; and language backgrounds. The majority of
children come to kindergarten with some experience in center-based programs
(such as child care centers or preschools), but the percentage of children with
such experience and the quality of these experiences vary across the backgrounds
and other characteristics listed above.
Schools in the United States are expected to respond to this diversity in
children's backgrounds and educational needs by providing all children with
appropriate activities and instruction to ensure that each child begins his or
her schooling with a good start. Knowing the range of developmental
accomplishments and difficulties that children bring with them when they arrive
at kindergarten can help us understand the demands being placed on schools to
meet the needs of the entering children. Indeed, some of the difficulties
discussed here are not experienced as difficulties until children enter school.
Parents of a national sample of 4,423 children from 3 to 5 years of age who
had not yet started kindergarten were asked about specific accomplishments and
difficulties of their children. Parents, usually the mother, were asked to rate
how well their child demonstrated behaviors indicating emerging literacy and
numeracy skills, such as pretending to read stories or counting to 20, and
small-motor skills, such as buttoning clothes and holding a pencil properly.
Parents were also asked to rate the extent to which their child showed signs of
difficulties in physical activity or attention, such as restlessness and
inattention, speech difficulties, and less than optimal health. These data were
collected in early 1993 as part of a U.S. Department of Education study (Zill et
ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND DIFFICULTIES
THREE- TO FIVE-YEAR-OLDS.
The percentage of children displaying signs of emerging literacy and small-motor
skills increased with age within the 3- to 5-year-old population and within
months of age among 4-year-olds. For example, the percentage of preschoolers
reported as able to write their own name more than tripled between ages 3 and 4,
while the percentage recognizing most letters of the alphabet more than doubled.
Other accomplishments showed more moderate age differences. Developmental
difficulties showed much smaller changes across ages, and difficulties in some
developmental areas showed no change.
More girls than boys demonstrated each of the literacy and small-motor skills
covered in the survey, and more boys than girls exhibited signs of difficulties
with physical activity, attention, or speech. Though differences between boys
and girls were widespread, they were not large.
Hispanic preschoolers were reported to show fewer signs of emerging literacy
and more indication of difficulties with physical activity or attention, and to
be in less good general health than White or Black children. Controlling for
related risk factors, such as a mother with limited education and minority
language status, reduced these ethnic differences but did not eliminate them.
Black preschoolers showed fewer signs of emerging literacy and were more likely
to be reported as in less than good health than White preschoolers. Differences
between races were wholly accounted for by related risk factors, such as low
maternal education, poverty, and single parenthood.
FOUR-YEAR-OLDS. A majority of the 4-year-olds in the study displayed each of
the small-motor skills and signs of emerging literacy asked about in the survey.
The proportion of children displaying each of these behaviors varied greatly
across specific accomplishments, however. More than 9 out of 10 were able to
button their own clothes and hold a pencil properly, and more than 8 out of 10
were able to identify the primary colors by name. Fewer, about 6 in 10, could
count to 20 or recognize most letters of the alphabet.
Much smaller proportions of preschoolers exhibited any developmental
difficulties, although a substantial minority displayed signs of difficulties
with physical activity or attention. At age 4, nearly 3 in 10 were reported to
be very restless and fidgety and nearly 1 in 4 to have short attention spans.
Nearly 1 in 8 was reported by their parents to be in less than very good health.
About 1 in 13 were reported to stutter, stammer, or speak in a way that is not
understandable to a stranger.
FAMILY RISK FACTORS AND 4-YEAR-OLDS
Sociodemographic risk factors that have been found to be associated with
problems in learning after children start school are also correlated with the
accomplishments and difficulties children bring with them when they arrive at
kindergarten. Five family risk factors were examined:
* mother has less than a high school education;
family is below the official poverty line;
mother speaks a language other than English as her primary language;
mother was unmarried at the time of the child's birth; and
only one parent is present in the home.
Half of today's preschoolers are affected by at least one of these risk
factors, and 15% are affected by three or more of them.
The risk factors are found to be associated with fewer accomplishments and
more difficulties in children, even after other child and family characteristics
are taken into account. The relative importance of individual risk factors
varies across developmental domains. Nevertheless, low maternal education and
minority language status are most consistently associated with fewer signs of
emerging literacy and a greater number of difficulties in preschoolers.
Attending Head Start, prekindergarten, or other center-based preschool
programs was linked to higher emerging literacy scores in 4-year-olds. This
correlation remained statistically significant when other child and family
characteristics were taken into account. This benefit of preschool attendance
accrued to children from both high-risk and low-risk family backgrounds. On the
other hand, preschool attendance was found not to be associated with fewer
behavioral or speech difficulties or with better health status in preschoolers.
The results of the study point to a need for
innovative approaches in providing early education services for children from
low-socioeconomic circumstances. As previous studies have shown, existing
preschool programs have beneficial effects in the area of emerging literacy and
numeracy. But they do not appear to be ameliorating the behavioral, speech, and
health difficulties of preschoolers.
The survey results also emphasize the value of a multifaceted concept of
educational risk. Five different risk factors were employed in the present
study. All were found to have some relationship to preschoolers' accomplishments
and difficulties, although the pattern of relationships varied across
developmental domains. Many observers believe that low family income is the key
factor behind educational failure, but the results of this research do not
support this view. When compared to low family income, the risk factors of low
maternal education, minority language status, and family structure were often as
good or better predictors of the child's developmental accomplishments and
By showing the considerable variation that exists in the accomplishments and
difficulties of children about to start school, the study highlights the
challenges that kindergarten teachers face in meeting the needs of children who
are not only demographically but also developmentally diverse. Teachers must
maintain the interest and promote the growth of children who have already
demonstrated signs of early literacy and numeracy while simultaneously
encouraging the development of these behaviors in children who have not yet
acquired them. Similarly, they must meet the needs of children with difficulties
while reserving sufficient attention and effort for those with few or no
difficulties. Although there has always been variation in the characteristics of
children entering kindergarten, the commitment to meeting the educational and
developmental needs of all children in an increasingly diverse society presents
great challenges to teachers, schools, and communities.
Adapted from: Zill, Nicholas, Mary Collins, Jerry West, and Elvie Germino
Hausken. (1995). Approaching Kindergarten: A Look at Preschoolers in the United
States. YOUNG CHILDREN 51(1, Nov): 35-38. PS 524 215. Adapted with permission of
YOUNG CHILDREN and the authors.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hofferth, Sandra L, Jerry West, Robin Henke, and Phillip Kaufman. (1994).
ACCESS TO EARLY CHILDHOOD PROGRAMS FOR CHILDREN AT RISK. Washington, DC:
National Center for Education Statistics. ED 370 715.
West, Jerry, Elvie Germino Hauskin, and Mary Collins. (1993). PROFILE OF PRESCHOOL CHILDREN'S CHILD CARE AND EARLY PROGRAM PARTICIPATION. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. ED 355 046.
West, Jerry, Elvie Germino Hauskin, and Mary Collins. (1993). READINESS FOR
KINDERGARTEN: PARENT AND TEACHER BELIEFS. Washington, DC: National Center for
Education Statistics. ED 363 249.
Zill, Nicholas, Mary Collins, Jerry West, and Elvie Germino Hausken. (1995).
APPROACHING KINDERGARTEN: A LOOK AT PRESCHOOLERS IN THE UNITED STATES. NATIONAL HOUSEHOLD EDUCATION SURVEY. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. PS 023 767.