Improving Transition for Young Children from Early Education to Elementary School

The National P-3 Project and Center works to improve the education continuum children experience from birth (Preschool) through third grade. P-3 refers to aligning learning in early childhood education with primary elementary school approaches to improve transition and consistency for young children beyond the early childhood education setting.

The Center has been performing in-depth research reviews, developing pilot programs, and conducting ongoing research on the impact of these programs and systems in early childhood education and primary elementary school education settings. More than 35 local areas are implementing P-3 programs and related system changes to close the gaps in children’s opportunities and learning outcomes.

A growing body of research is focusing on the importance of streamlining and improving coordination in the transition from early education settings to the public school system.

Reducing Disparities in Academic Achievement

Research has demonstrated how high-quality early education initiatives can help address disparities in academic achievement. According to Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort, a 2009 Child Trends report, infants and toddlers in low-income families score lower on cognitive assessment and are less likely to be in excellent or very good health and are less likely to receive positive behavior ratings.

The more risk factors a child has, the wider the disparities across outcomes. Low-income families also are the least likely to be able to access high-quality early education programs and elementary schools, according to a 2018 Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) report, Making the Case, Making the Difference, Making the PAACT.

Additional research has shown while disparities in academic achievement grow over time, high quality early education and primary elementary education interventions can mitigate these gaps. Research has indicated that the most effective strategies to support children on a path to third-grade academic success include these critical factors:

  • high-quality education at all levels from early education through elementary and high school;
  • transition to kindergarten, including opportunities for teachers, incoming students, and families to meet and develop relationships;
  • shared professional development and data sharing among early childhood and early education, including transition planning and transition teams to help reduce stress for students and allow them to focus on academic and social growth;
  • full-day kindergarten and small class sizes to sustain the developmental gains started in high quality early education;
  • additional assessments, including developmentally appropriate kindergarten entrance assessments focusing on literacy, math, and social, emotional, and physical development; and
  • establishing a focus on third-grade reading proficiency throughout early education and early elementary.

Aligned P-3 programs and initiatives can improve the quality and coherence of children’s learning opportunities and help reduce achievement gaps over a longer period of time. Research indicates that preschool and early education programs reduce the achievement gaps in early school readiness. They don’t, however, have a long-term impact on the achievement gaps which widen over time, according to Child Trends.

An article titled, “The Power of P-3 School Reform,” published by the National Library of Medicine in 2019, points out that without continuing resources and supports into elementary school, these gaps continue to grow over time and contribute to disparities in achievement proficiency and school completion. To address these gaps, more comprehensive early and primary education strategies need to be developed.

According to the GEEARS report, programs that support children from birth to third grade in most places are disconnected and fragmented with a lack of alignment and coordination between early care and learning and the elementary school systems. This is particularly true for low-income children who are at the greatest risk. This includes a lack of data sharing and key information gaps among the birth to third-grade stakeholders, including providers, parents, school districts, funders, and community leaders.

Meaningful Changes in Child Outcomes Depends on Changes in Adults and  Systems

The National P-3 Center conducted an extensive research review on early education and learning impacts on children’s outcome through age 8 in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Atlanta. The Center pilot-tested the P-3 framework in 35 school districts and communities based on the concept that there needs to be more intentional focus on necessary changes in adults and in systems to see meaningful changes in child outcomes.

The National P-3 Center framework is made up of eight buckets. Each bucket influences every area, and all are interrelated. Communities may choose to focus on the areas that are most accessible and that they feel ready to impact. A core concept throughout the framework is a shared vision and language related to high-quality, developmentally based learning. However, changes in one area will impact changes in another.

Cross-Sector Work
Establish and support collaborative cross-organizational and cross-sector partnerships to address funding, governance, and integration between early childhood and public education.

Administration Effectiveness
Administrators demonstrate that P-3 is a priority to both internal and external stakeholders. Efficient P-3 financing includes coordinating multiple funding streams to maximize dollars and reduce inefficiencies, and to ensure the ability to maintain funding regardless of economic and political climate.

Teacher Effectiveness
Develop a highly trained teacher workforce through ongoing professional development, standards, and engagement, which includes developing professional collaboration among age and grade levels and establishing key norms and processes.

Instructional Tools
Meaningful, rigorous, and aligned standards are used to articulate what children are expected to know and be able to do. That includes developmentally appropriate curricula and resources for classrooms and consistent instructional tools throughout the educational spectrum. A focus on age-appropriate curricula and stimulating materials is aligned and consistent with developmental expectations and assessments.

Learning Environments
Learning environments are welcoming and reflect the community of children and their families, home communities, cultures, and languages—and they provide extensive opportunities for teacher and student engagement, as well as student led activities. Collaborative teaching teams, small classroom sizes, low child-teacher ratios, and both teacher-directed and child-initiated learning are also vital.

Data-Driven Improvement
Data from child assessments are used to identify achievement gaps and drive instructional improvement. That requires that we share data, develop key metrics and developmentally appropriate assessments, and develop evaluation strategies to ensure that activities and structures are regularly implemented and assessed.

Engaged Families
Partners in this work understand the significance of putting into effect strategies that involve families, teachers administrators, and all staff in schools and throughout the system.

Continuity and Pathways
Effective P-3 governance that ensures seamless programs and services multiple agencies requires intentional strategies and structures for coordinating programs, governance, and funding. Children’s access to high-quality learning opportunities is expanded and extended across age and grade levels, especially for children who have been historically marginalized.

Key Supports and Recommendations for P-3 Initiatives and Programs

The two key case studies in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Atlanta also provided recommendations for P-3 programs.

GEEARS developed a comprehensive case study in Atlanta examining steps that the city had undertaken to provide a thriving environment for young children. Twenty-four community leaders from the public and private sectors convened to develop solutions for improving outcomes for children and families by focusing on improving early childhood education and school readiness. This collaborative group met throughout 2018 to review data, current practices, and early childhood and elementary education research to develop a strategic plan and report of recommendations.

Foundations for Child Development in Maryland prepared a case study of the work in Montgomery County Public Schools, which experienced significant improvements in third-grade reading achievement gaps while experiencing increases in the percent of English language learners. The case study reviews how this improvement in third-grade reading was linked to significant work in early care and education and in increasing coordination between early education and the schools within this large urban county.

Key supports and recommendations from the National P-3 Center and these case studies include:

  • implementing as many P-3 components as possible to increase the impact of learning experiences for young children;
  • creating quality enhancement funds to improve existing early childhood education and to expand high-quality options to ensure that low-income children have access to high-quality programs;
  • developing consistency across educational levels:
    • aligning standards, assessments, and professional development for principals and staff to promote continuity and integration across the continuum;
    • establishing strong communication and coordination in data sharing, transition plans, teacher communication, curricula, and assessments between the early childhood community and the school system;
    • creating a formal structure for early childhood education engagement in the public school system by engaging early childhood representation on community school boards and with key stakeholders;
    • developing an Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute to improve communication between elementary school leaders and early childhood providers; and
    • expanding transition programs for rising pre-K students and kindergartners who need additional time and transition support;
  • improving teacher education:
    • providing ongoing professional development for teachers at all levels that emphasizes the importance of collaboration, transitions, and continuity and is available both in-person and online;
    • improving teacher education and encouraging positive teacher-child relationships, engaged instruction, small class size, and examination of school climate; and
    • balancing support for teachers with accountability to ensure effective and consistent implementation;
  • engaging families and communities:
    • providing community-level education about the importance of early childhood education and the continuity between early childhood education, elementary, and later education; and
    • expanding learning spaces in libraries and other public gathering spots across the city to ensure that young children and caregivers have access to developmentally appropriate early learning experiences and interactions that are critical to brain development; and
  • establishing robust data reporting and use for monitoring and improvement:
    • establishing clear and compelling area (district-wide) goals that map to early learning and early elementary schools and ensure that there is alignment between early childhood education programs and K-12 strategies;
    • examining and monitoring key classroom components and requirements across all education levels;
    • building expectation for innovative methods and monitoring for continuous improvement; and
    • developing outcomes and a research agenda to inform policy and practice and build an accountability system for early childhood investments.

Key components of the P-3 framework include effective instruction, instructional coherence, meaningful learning opportunities across early childhood education and K-12, and developmental continuity across the learning environments so that children feel they are in consistent, safe, and predictable environments and can focus on learning. Research has shown this framework to be an effective approach to increasing school success and closing achievement gaps.

Learn more:

GEEARS Report: Making the Case, Making the Difference, Making the PAACT (Promise All Atlanta children Thrive) (2018).

Initiatives from Preschool to Third Grade: A Policymaker’s Guide, from Education Commission of the States

P-3 Approaches (updated 2019) National P3 Center, Kristie Kauerz, and Julie Coffman

Lessons from Pre-k-3rd from Montgomery County Public Schools, Publication for Foundation for Child Development, G. Marietta


Reg Griffin
DECAL Communications Director

Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is responsible for meeting the child care and early education needs of Georgia’s children and their families. It administers the nationally recognized Georgia’s Pre-K Program, licenses child care centers