3 ways to support early learners impacted by the COVID-19 “kindergarten bubble”

One of the many ways schools are being transformed by COVID-19 is a change in public school enrollment, which is likely to have important consequences in classrooms across the nation, particularly for the youngest learners. According to recent research, US districts reported a substantial drop in the number of students enrolled in kindergarten in 2020–2021, a shift that suggests a “kindergarten bubble” in the coming school year as these students enter school.

Because the academic and nonacademic skills students develop in their preschool and early elementary school years are foundational to important longer-term outcomes, understanding these changes and finding ways to effectively support our youngest students’ learning is critical.

What to expect

District, school, and classroom leaders should expect the following patterns this fall:

  • Greater age differences in kindergarten (and some first-grade) classrooms. During the pandemic, many families postponed their young children’s school entry because of concerns about the challenges and demands of online or hybrid instruction for young learners and worries about their health and safety in schools. As a result, more students will enter kindergarten later or will enter the school system at first grade, creating larger and more split-age classes for both kindergarten and first-grade cohorts. In addition, many more students will be unfamiliar with in-person classroom routines.
  • Wider skill disparities upon entry. COVID-19 school disruptions have widened typical variances in learning experiences. Students who have had fewer early learning opportunities are also likely to have had greater pandemic-related unfinished learning, while students who have had support and access to opportunity at home may have learned even more than they would have in school. The combination of these two possibilities is likely to exacerbate inequity that already looms large in schools across the country.
  • Summer learning opportunities will be important for early learners. More students will enter formal schooling without typical pre-K preparation. Increasingly, systems are exploring how to use the summer months more effectively to address unfinished learning and better equip first-time school attenders.
  • Data is key to driving evidence-based decision-making and understanding long-term implications. There remain many important questions to be answered about kindergarten entry age and its short- and long-term implications, including how age affects development and social-emotional well-being. Longitudinal academic and nonacademic data will play a crucial role in helping educators and families understand ways to best meet the needs of young students.

What you can do

As you begin to consider how the “kindergarten bubble” may affect your school or district, here are three things you can do:

  1. Foster a sense of belonging and purpose for students. At this critical time of transition, it is important to cultivate strong relationships with and among students; create a culture of learning; and model and practice classroom routines.
  2. Collect and use a variety of data. Use data available from a variety of assessments to determine which students may have unfinished or advanced learning needs so that you can differentiate your lessons to scaffold for access to or extension beyond grade-level expectations. To learn more about how to understand where students are in their learning, read “The zone of proximal development (ZPD): The power of just right.”
  3. Leverage individual conferences and small groups. One-on-one conferences with students to discuss goals and challenges, along with small flexible groups for instruction and practice, can help address students’ diverse needs and foster collaborative learning.

Learn more

For more NWEA research about early learners during COVID-19, read “Preparing early learners: Considerations for supporting the kindergarten class of 2021.”

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