Transitional Kindergarten: The Gift of Time

A brief overview of a new class that can be beneficial for young learners.

By Kelly Weymouth

Teacher and students during circle time

What is Transitional Kindergarten?

Transitional Kindergarten, or TK, is a new program for young learners that many states, including California, are adopting. For children that are not five years old by September 1st, it is the first of a two-year kindergarten program aimed at helping smooth the transition from preschool to elementary school. In California, Senate Bill 1381 was passed requiring students entering a traditional kindergarten class to be five years old by September 1st (the previous cut-off date was December 1st). Many children with fall birthdays had completed a preschool program, but were not ready for an academically rigorous kindergarten curriculum. As a result, Transitional Kindergarten was created. Many school districts are beginning to offer a TK class to children who will turn five between September 2nd and December 2nd, and other children whose parents feel they may not be ready for a traditional kindergarten class. Children who enter Transitional Kindergarten spend the following year in a traditional kindergarten class, completing a two-year program. For children who are five years old prior to September 1st, parents and school staff can choose between a one-year traditional kindergarten class, or the two-year TK program depending on the student’s needs.

How is it different than traditional kindergarten?

Transitional Kindergarten is intended to be a blend of preschool and Kindergarten. Thus, it uses both the California Preschool Learning Foundations and the Common Core Standards for Kindergarten as its starting point. While traditional kindergarten classrooms are primarily focused on cognitive development, Transitional Kindergarten is focused on the whole child (cognitive, emotional, social and physical development). A TK classroom generally has minimal direct instruction or teacher-directed lessons. Instead, it incorporates centers and cooperative learning techniques.

Why do we need it?

While age may not be the only factor in determining the academic success of children throughout their educational careers, it is an important one. Senator Joe Simitian, author of California Senate Bill 1381 said, “Few four year olds are ready for Kindergarten.” With the rising costs of private preschool and fewer state preschools, children are coming to kindergarten unprepared and are consequently struggling through all grades. By introducing a TK program, children will have a more solid foundation before continuing on in their education. 

School districts that have been piloting the program for a few years are reporting that children who have attended the two-year TK program are at the top of their class academically in first and second grade. Many schools also show higher standardized test scores for those who attended TK, as opposed to one year of traditional kindergarten. Teachers in grades K-3 are also noticing a difference in the social and emotional maturity of their classes.

What does it look like in the classroom?

A Transitional Kindergarten classroom looks vastly different from school district to school district. However, here are some features found in most TK classes:

  • Since it is part of a two-year program, some kindergarten standards are taught and introduced in TK, including letter names and sounds.
  • A section of class time is set aside for structured, cooperative play to reinforce social skills.
  • There is a heavy focus on oral language fluency skills.
  • Language and reading development time is done in learning centers instead of through direct-instruction lessons.
  • Children spend class time working on both fine and gross motor skills.
  • Number sense and basic geometry are the main areas of study in mathematics.

As school districts continue to pilot and adopt Transitional Kindergarten programs, a clearer and more cohesive picture of what is best for young learners will emerge. In the meantime, parents, policy-makers, educators, and administrators view TK as the gift of time; giving children a slower and smoother transition to grade school.

Beneficial Resources:

Object Vocabulary and Language Development

Since oral language development is a key component of a TK classroom, this is a great resource for introducing common vocabulary. Lessons like this are especially important and helpful for English Language Learners, which often make up a sizeable proportion of a TK classroom.

Math throughout the Day

Mathematics in TK is not about workbooks or pencil and paper assessments. Instead, incorporating number sense and counting skills into group times and transition times, will allow young learners to frequently practice these foundational skills.

Hunter’s Best Friend at School

As mentioned above, a big focus in TK is on social development. Forming a positive relationship with peers is a skill that children will need throughout their educational career. This is an idea to help children learn to form friendships and give compliments to one another.