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Perspectives on the transition from preschool to kindergarten for children with disabilities and their families.

Transitions are a part of life: some represent milestones in our development; others pass nearly unnoticed. Transitions in the lives of young children may be defined by most families simply as the celebrated passage of a birthday or the recording of their child's first steps. For other families, the passage of milestones and birthdays also may mark the transition into or between service programs for their child. Birthdays may serve as prompts that it is time for another professional evaluation of their child's developmental progress, as dates for determining eligibility for special education services, as deadlines for choosing new service programs or providers, and as reminders that their child is developing differently from other children in their family or neighborhood.

This article addresses the effect of early childhood transitions on children, families, and service providers. The focus is on the transition from preschool to elementary school for children indentified as having disabilities. Several factors encourage a focus on this specific milestone or transition.

First, the 1991-92 school year represents the first year in which preschool special education services will be mandated by every state and territory in the Union for all children ages 3 through 5, who have identified disabilities or who meet their state's criteria for being developmentally delayed (Part B, Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments, 1986). Nearly 400,000 children are expected to receive preschool services annually through this program (Office of Special Education Twelfth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Education for the Handicapped Act, 1990). For many of these children and families, preschool will represent their first contact with special education services and the first time that families will negotiate the process of placement evaluations, diagnostic labels, individualized education programs (IEPs) and related services. These transitions into and out of preschools will be occurring, in increasing numbers, across the nation, as services expand to meet the needs of all eligible children. Families' actual and perceived ability to participate in the process may influence subsequent interactions with the school system (e.g., Hamblin-Wilson & Thurman, 1990; Johnson, Chandler, Kerns, & Fowler, 1986).

Second, children will acquire new skills, behaviors, routines, friends, and a sense of belonging in their preschool program. The transition to kindergarten may disrupt many of the patterns established in the preschool program (e.g., Ziegler, 1985). Children's ability to transfer and maintain the skills and behaviors acquired in preschool, as well as their eagerness or excitement for school, may depend on the care with which providers and families plan the transition (Fowler, 1982); the match between the preschool and future environment (e.g., Carta, Atwater, Schwartz, & Miller, 1990; Salisbury & Vincent, 1990; Vincent et al., 1980); and the generalization strategies used to provide a bridge from one classroom to another (e.g., LeBlanc, Etzel, & Domash, 1978; Schwartz et al., 1990).

Third, families and children will form bonds with programs and staff during the years that they receive preschool services. Leaving these services can be a painful or stressful experience for both teachers and families (e.g., Johnson et al., 1986; Ziegler, 1985). In some instances, families will be moving from one service agency to another (e.g., from a private agency to a public agency or between two public agencies). Efforts to coordinate the evaluations, staffings, and exchange of records and to develop a sense of trust between programs may be critical to ensuring a successful and timely new placement. Coordination between sending and receiving staffs and programs is an area of school transitions with little research backing; anecdotal reports, however, indicate that it is often a critical juncture in transition planning (e.g., Fowler, Hains, & Rosenkoetter, 1990; Peterson 1991).

The role of each participant (child, family, and service providers) in the transition process is described here. Strategies identified through research, which may improve the process of transition for all concerned, are provided, as well as recommendations for future research.


Preparing the child for success in the future environment is an essential component of transition. This process includes assessing the child's strengths and weaknesses and, subsequently, teaching necessary academic and support behaviors, or arranging for compensatory strategies to be available in the future environment (e.g., peer support). A program to teach classroom survival skills only (i.e., those academic support behaviors exhibited by peers in the future environment) does not constitute comprehensive transition planning. Likewise, a transition plan without a component that targets assessing and teaching child-focused skills is insufficient. Both assessment and teaching of skills are essential.

Assessment of Skills Important in the Future


The earliest work in planning the transition from preschool to kindergarten focused on future environment surveys (Allen, 1980; Fowler, 1982; Vincent et al., 1980). The logic of future environment surveys is straightforward; look to the next environment to identify required skills, and use these skills to set goals and objectives for the current program. This type of assessment and training has been used frequently with many different populations to teach a variety of skills necessary to facilitate transitions across educational programs and from residential to community-based treatment programs (Anderson & Schwartz, 1986; Hannah & Christian, 1984; LeBlanc et al., 1978). An important caveat with this type of approach is that the skills students demonstrate in the future environment must be viewed as optimal goals, not as behavioral prerequisites for placement in that setting (Salisbury & Vincent, 1990). Several techniques for assessing future environments are prevalent in the preschool to kindergarten transition literature: teacher checklists, interviews, and direct observation.

For example, Vincent and her colleagues (Vincent et al., 1980) asked experienced kindergarten and early childhood special education teachers to generate a list of classroom skills that were necessary for students to succeed in a mainstreamed educational setting. Hains, Fowler, Schwartz, Kottwitz, and Rosenkoetter (1989) used a structured teacher interview format to compare the expectations of preschool and kindergarten teachers for essential kindergarten entry skills. The results of these two studies are very similar. The kindergarten teachers in both studies emphasized classroom skills that were conduct related and that promoted independence, such as following directions, following classroom rules, attending to and following classroom routines, and participating in group activities.

These teacher interviews and checklists are helpful in developing a general list of behaviors and issues that are important in a successful transition. These types of instruments, however, do not provide enough information to suggest specific goals and objectives for transition programming for individual students. The information they offer is limited because of methodological constraints. One drawback to such data collection instruments is that any questionnaire/checklist information is retrospective, and the responses to checklist items may not reflect actual classroom practice. Another is that these instruments do not allow behaviors to be studied in context. Student success in the future environment is based on having the essential skills and using them in the appropriate contexts (Anderson-Inman, Paine, & Deutchman, 1984).

Assessing the future environment through direct observation addresses some of the methodological limitations of questionnaires and checklists. Classroom observations provide the opportunity to study the behaviors in context and can provide suggestions for programming for behaviors that are essential to specific settings (e.g., Hoier, McConnell, & Pallay, 1987; Rosenkoetter & Fowler, 1986). Direct observation methods have been used to compare individual student behaviors of the most independent child in a special education preschool classroom, compared with the least independent child in mainstreamed preschool classrooms (Carta, Sainato, & Greenwood, 1988; Sainato & Lyon, 1989) and to compare the behaviors of children with disabilities with those of peers in the same classroom (e.g., Walter & Vincent, 1982). These studies illustrate that independent skills are essential for success in the educational mainstream. For example, even the most independent child in a special education classroom spent more time in teacher-directed instruction than the least independent child in a mainstreamed class (Sainato & Lyon, 1989).

Using direct observation techniques to describe classrooms, Carta and her colleagues (Carta et al., 1990; Carta, Greenwood, & Robinson, 1987; Carta et al., 1988) have observed a variety of special education preschools, typical preschools, and kindergarten classrooms to determine the differences in classroom ecology (e.g., activities, materials, activity initiator), teacher behavior, and student behavior. These studies suggest that the ecology of special education preschool classrooms may preclude opportunities for students to practice skills that foster independence. Students in special education preschools spend more time in small groups or individual instruction, and receive much more teacher prompting than do peers in typical preschool classes. Although these instructional arrangements may facilitate skill acquisition, they may inhibit the acquisition of the very academic support skills that facilitate a successful transition to the academic mainstream. Children in these special education classrooms have few opportunities to acquire or practice the independent skills that are important for success in kindergarten.

The information gained by using future environment surveys, both through questionnaires and direct observation, can be extremely helpful in identifying the similarities and differences of the academic, social, and behavioral requirements between educational placements. The description of the differences between preschool and kindergarten classrooms is an essential first step in preparing children for the transition to kindergarten.

Strategies for Teaching Essential Transition


Students who make the transition to kindergarten armed with the necessary classroom survival skills and who use those skills in appropriate contexts are more likely to succeed in the educational mainstream than their peers without these skills. Two research programs have specifically addressed this issue by teaching classroom survival skills to young children with disabilities (Carta et al., 1990; Rule, Fiechtl, & Innocenti, 1990).

The classroom survival skills targeted by these two projects are very similar. Both projects built on previous research (e.g., Hains, Fowler, & Chandler, 1988; Hains et al., 1989; Vincent et al., 1980) to develop and conduct local assessments of the behavioral requirements of the post-preschool classroom environments (i.e., kindergarten classrooms). Rule and her colleagues (Rule et al., 1990) addressed nine activities in their Skills for School Success curriculum:

* Entry skills.

* Sequence tasks.

* Saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

* Group circle activities.

* Individual tasks.

* Large-group activities using commercially available curricula.

* Workbook tasks.

* Quiet-time activities.

* Transition activities.

Rule and her colleagues implemented their program in two mainstreamed day-care centers with 18 four- and five-year-old children with developmental delays. Data were collected on the percentage of steps mastered for each skill, and teachers rated the children's classroom survival skills before and after training. The results of the kindergarten teachers' ratings are reported for six students. These follow-up results suggest that the children demonstrated the classroom survival skills in their new classrooms.

Carta and her colleagues (Carta et al., 1990) addressed three classroom survival skills in their program:

* Completing within-classroom transitions.

* Participating in large instructional groups.

* Working independently.

This program was implemented in eight special education preschool and eight kindergarten classrooms. In the first year of the program, 84 children participated in the classroom survival skills intervention (39 preschoolers and 45 kindergartners), and 46 children were in control classrooms (23 preschoolers and 23 kindergartners). Observational data were collected using a 10 second interval system, and the students' use of classroom survival skills was rated by the teacher before and after the intervention. After the intervention, the participating students responded more frequently to group instructions and demonstrated higher rates of task engagement, with lower rates of teacher prompting during independent activities. The teacher ratings of students' classroom survival skills also showed improvement for the experimental group after the intervention. An important result of this intervention is the school placement data. Of the children who participated in the preschool intervention group, 61% were placed in mainstreamed kindergarten classrooms; only 48% of the children in the control group were placed in mainstreamed classrooms. These results suggest that teaching classroom survival skills to preschool children with special needs is an effective strategy to facilitate a successful transition to kindergarten. An important question remains: Do these children use their classroom survival skills in appropriate contexts during kindergarten and first grade, and are they successful in their mainstreamed placements?

Currently, there are no published data to answer these questions. Carta and her colleagues (Schwartz et al., 1990) are conducting follow-up observations on their original sample during kindergarten and first grade. These data will be important in evaluating the efficacy of teaching classroom survival skills to young children with special needs.

Summary and Future Directions

To prepare children to meet the challenges of a mainstreamed educational placement, we need to identify the social, behavioral, and academic requirements of that setting. Using future environment surveys is one method of describing behaviors essential in the next classroom. Special education preschool classrooms must provide opportunities for students to learn and practice independent work skills, give children an opportunity to work in large groups, and to work and play without constant teacher supervision. These behaviors appear consistently in the literature as essential skills for success in kindergarten. However, there will never be a universal checklist of transition skills because the requirements of individual classrooms vary too much. Rather than attempting to create a comprehensive list, we should work towards developing a strategy for assessing future environments and for identifying, teaching, and facilitating the generalization of those essential classroom skills. This approach has promising consequences and may indeed become an integral component of all programs for planning successful transitions from preschool to kindergarten.


Transition from early childhood special education programs to public school kindergartens presents a host of changes for children's families. For many families, this transition involves not only relinquishing ties with the familiar preschool setting, but also adjusting to a school that may provide fewer opportunities for family involvement and may place more complex academic and social demands on the child (Hains et al., 1988; Johnson et al., 1986). In addition, parents are faced with the tasks of adjusting family schedules and routines, locating and accessing needed services, attending additional conferences, establishing relationships with new school personnel, and helping their child to make this major transition successfully (Diamond, Spiegel-McGill, & Hanrahan, 1988; Hains et al., 1988). Because such life changes are potential stressors for families (Beckman, 1984), the transition to kindergarten, involving multiple changes, is particularly stressful for many families.

Several authors have discussed some of the possible benefits of systematically incorporating family needs and parent participation into the transition process (e.g., Barber, Turnbull, Behr, & Kerns, 1988; Fowler, Chandler, Johnson, & Stella, 1988; Hains et al., 1988; Speigel-McGill, Reed, Konig, & McGowan, 1990):

* The stress of transition might be reduced if families have adequate information about the process, assistance in clarifying their own concerns, and strategies for addressing those concerns.

* Families might facilitate the transition by providing information to programs, by helping their child adjust to the change and learn the skills required in the new environment, and by actively participating in placement decisions and planning for the child's transition.

* Through their active involvement, families might gain valuable information and skills for dealing with future transitions.

For these benefits to be realized, however, a flexible process is recommended to accommodate the needs, preferences, and resources of individual families (Hains et al., 1988; Johnson et al., 1986). Several authors have cautioned that rigid policies requiring a given level of involvement might result in unrealistic demands and additional stress for many families (Kysela, McDonald, Reddon, & Gobeil-Dwyer, 1988; MacMillan & Turnbull, 1983). Although the empirical literature on family participation in transitions is sparse, recent studies and model programs have helped to delineate family concerns and have demonstrated specific procedures for systematically addressing those concerns.

Assessment of Family Concerns

One strategy for determining family concerns regarding the transition process has been to interview parents following their child's transition from preschool intervention services to kindergarten. For example, Johnson et al. (1986) interviewed 19 families in a moderate-size midwestern city. According to parents' reports, all participated to some extent in planning their child's transition, and most were satisfied with all facets of the process. Parents' responses revealed individual differences, however. Although 80% of the families found the IEP meetings to be very helpful, 20% indicated that they did not understand the discussions at the meetings and thus were reluctant to participate. Approximately half of the families described an initial period of stress following their child's placement.

In comparison to these results, a survey of 91 parents from a large urban setting illustrates the differences in transition practices that exist across school districts (Hamblin-Wilson & Thurman, 1990). Although all parents reported that they were involved in the process, only 54% of those parents actually participated in transition planning. A factor analysis of specific responses revealed a positive relationship between parents' satisfaction with the transition process and the amount of explanation and support they had received from sending and receiving programs.

In other research, a statewide survey of 37 special education cooperatives indicated that all parents reported participation in placement decisions, but only 44% were involved in writing their child's IEPs (Swartz, Dykstra, & McLaughlin, 1980). The parents in that study expressed a desire for more direct involvement in setting goals and objectives for their children during transition planning.

Strategies for Facilitating Family


Several investigators have demonstrated specific strategies for assisting families in addressing their concerns within the transition process. Fowler and her colleagues (Fowler et al., 1988) have developed two Transition Planners by which parents can identify needs for their child and family, define their level of involvement in the transition process, and clarify family and staff responsibilities. The first Transition Planner was designed to help parents prepare for the planning process, and the second one to assist in selecting the child's next placement. Based on specific concerns identified in the second planner, individualized checklists were developed for parents to use in evaluating potential placements. Among 30 families who had used the Transition Planners, a majority reported that they wanted to share responsibility for planning their children's transitions (87%) and that they planned to use the checklist to guide their program selection (79%).

In an experimental study, seven families completed structured assessments of their children's skills and met with a school/community liaison person before their IEP meetings (Brinckerhoff & Vincent, 1986). Seven control families received only a letter explaining the purpose of the meeting. In comparison to the control group, parents who received planning assistance presented more of their own concerns at the IEP meeting, made more programming decisions, and received more suggestions from school personnel for working with their child at home.

In another study, Diamond et al. (1988) described a model for coordinating the involvement of families, preschool staff, and public school personnel throughout the transition process. Parents were assisted in a series of steps that involved the following activities:

* Identifying survival skills their children would for the next school placement.

* Obtaining information about community services and their legal rights.

* Articulating their concerns to the school system.

* Participating in IEP development and transition planning meetings.

* Monitoring their children's progress on IEP objectives.

* Assessing the success of the transition.

This report, however, does not include evaluative data on the effectiveness of the procedures.

Systemwide Transition Planning

Specific strategies for family involvement must be built into a system's overall transition process. One model for achieving that goal has been developed by Project TEEM at the University of Vermont (Conn-Powers, Ross-Allen, & Holburn, 1990). The project assists public school systems in establishing a planning team composed of parents and staff from early childhood special education and elementary programs. Rather than prescribe a standard set of procedures, Project TEEM provides information and guidelines to aid in the development of a process tailored to the needs of the particular system. Among its guidelines, the project advocates the following:

* Individualized, collaborative planning involving parents and school staff.

* Support for families as active participants in the transition process.

* Preparation of both the child and the next environment to ensure a successful transition.

* Post-placement follow-up.

Summary and Implications for Future


To date, parent surveys, although limited in number and scope, are consistent with suggestions that many parents are interested in participating actively in their children's school transitions, but that the preferred level of participation differs across individuals. Data on the actual extent of parental participation in the transition from special preschool to kindergarten are limited to a few localities and to parental reports. Further studies involving a greater diversity of school districts and additional sources of information (e.g., teachers' reports and school records) would be important for establishing the generality and validity of previous findings. For example, what specific transition practices are more predictive of parents' satisfaction? What factors influence a family's ability and desire to be actively involved in the transition process?

Perhaps the greatest need is for more definitive information about procedures for involving families at a level that is optimal for the family and the child. The studies reported here demonstrate many promising strategies for identifying and facilitating optimal levels of participation and for building such strategies into a school district's overall transition process; yet many important questions remain. For example, is it common practice for families to visit and evaluate potential receiving programs? Or is such involvement, in fact, restricted to a few model programs? What specific strategies or model programs actually result in hypothesized benefits for families? (Such benefits include reducing family stress, fostering the short- and long-term success of the transition, and strengthening a family's skills for managing future transitions.) Longitudinal studies that incorporate data from a variety of sources (e.g., parent and professional reports, direct observation of children in their classrooms, and records of school placement and special services required) are critical for answering such questions definitively.


Staff in the sending and receiving program also contribute to the ease or difficulty with which children and families experience a change in programs. A number of logistical issues require consideration by the sending program, such as identifying program exit criteria, who among the staff coordinates a child's transition, when and how child records are transferred, and the timing with which transition occurs (start of summer, end of summer). Receiving program staff must identify appropriate placement options and the need for continued special education and related services, based on the child's evaluations and on the child's IEP. Identifying program responsibilities, staff and family roles, and major events associated with transition planning are critical issues often reported, albeit anecdotically, by service providers when asked about transition stresses.

Fowler and her colleagues (Fowler, Rosenkoetter, & Hains, 1991), during a series of workshops on early childhood transitions, surveyed 120 school district participants. The results showed that team members were unable to identify who in their program was responsible for coordinating activities related to school transitions; further, lack of role designation, planning time, and communication between programs were major barriers to transition planning. Similar barriers also were identified by Conn-Powers and colleagues (Conn-Powers et al., 1990) through inservice meetings with teachers.

Assessment of Issues and Agreements

Critical to Transition Planning

A systematic and logical way for programs to commence transition planning is to assess the methods and activities that they currently use for planning transitions, the extent to which these procedures are routine and predictable and their satisfaction, as well as family satisfaction, with the process. The following activities are addressed by most model programs, although not necessarily in this order:

1. Agreement on exit criteria from preschool.

2. Discussion with families regarding the exit criteria, timeline for child's transition from the program, consent for release of information, and the parents' role in planning the transition.

3. Notification of the receiving agency or agencies that child will be entering their service system.

4. Evaluation of child to determine current level of development.

5. Staffing of the child with representatives from the sending and receiving program and family members to determine eligibility for continued special services.

6. Development of the IEP, if the child is eligible for continued special education services.

7. Identification of placement options based on the principle of least restrictive environment, but only after the child's needs are determined to ensure that placement is appropriate and not based simply on what classrooms are available.

8. A visit to each placement option by parents and by sending program staff; a visit to the sending program by staff from the receiving school.

9. Decision regarding placement by family and staffs.

10. A review of procedural safeguards and transfer of appropriate records.

11. A visit by child and parent to the new classroom and discussion of home-school communication strategies.

12. Follow-up by sending and receiving programs to determine if the transition has produced a good fit between child and family and the new program.

These steps, or variations of them, have been recommended by Conn-Powers and colleagues, Fowler and colleagues, Hanline (1988), Kilgo, Richard, and Noonan (1989) Thurlow, Lehr, and Ysseldyke (1987), and Wolery (1989). The extent to which these practical procedures have been implemented by most school programs as part of their transition planning process has not been empirically researched. Data should be collected to show the extent to which these identified activities occurred, the time required for their occurrence, the timeliness of their occurrence, the satisfaction of the participants with the activities, and the subsequent evaluation of child and placement fit. Such information might assist in overcoming current barriers to transition planning.

The most frequently cited logistical barriers to transition planning are time and finances. Time barriers include provision of adequate planning time and staff release time to visit program options, to meet with families regarding their role in the process, to communicate with the receiving program, and to collect follow-up data. Financial barriers include funds for teacher release time (e.g., hiring of a substitute) and in some cases determination of financial responsibility for child evaluation and transfer of records (Fowler, Hains, & Rosenkoetter, 1990; Peterson, 1991). Interagency or intra-agency agreements between preschool special education programs and elementary programs may be necessary to reduce these barriers, particularly when programs are within different agencies or run by different departments within an agency (Conn-Powers et al., 1990). Once again, however, the use and actual benefits of these procedures has not been documented in a systematic fashion. As Rice and O'Brien (1990) noted: "Little research has been done addressing the necessary and sufficient conditions or procedures for successful interagency collaboration concerning transition" (p.9).

Transition planning between early intervention service programs (children ages birth through 2 years) and preschool programs was specifically required in P.L. 99-457, the legislation authorizing early intervention services; and interagency agreements were recommended to ensure that gaps in services did not occur and that financial responsibility for child evaluations and transfer of records was clarified. These requirements should set a precedent of best practice for preschool programs. The same procedures for entry to preschool should be adopted for exit from preschool and transition to kindergarten.

Summary and Implications

Evaluation of transitions requires research attention. The majority of evaluation data are reports of satisfaction from professionals and parents. Although these kinds of social-validity measures are important, they are not appropriate as the only measures (Schwartz & Baer, 1991). In addition, these satisfaction measures may be unrealistically high, because most people receiving clinical services give positive ratings to the services that they receive regardless of effectiveness (Bornstein & Rychtarik, 1983; Fuqua & Schwade, 1986; Lebow, 1982; McMahon & Forehand, 1983; Ware, 1978). The field of early childhood education needs to assess the extent to which transition planning procedures are or are not implemented, and whether their implementation makes a difference in services received. Is there a match between planned outcomes (placement and related services, level of family involvement in the determination of services) and actual outcomes? In addition, we need to follow the example of Carta and her colleagues by defining and measuring the extent to which children participate actively in their new programs and evidence maintenance of skills acquired in preschool, while acquiring new skills for kindergarten. With this information base, families, agencies, and service providers can then make decisions that benefit all participants in the process and reduce the stress of transitions on families and children.


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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Trends and Issues in Early Intervention; notes helping handicapped children make the transition from preschool to kindegarten
Author:Fowler, Susan A.; Schwartz, Ilene; Atwater, Jane
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Instruction in early childhood special education: "Seeing through a glass darkly ... knowing in part." (Special Issue: Trends and Issues in Early...
Next Article:Mainstreaming during the early childhood years.

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