Early Childhood Education



Readiness, as a general construct, signifies developmental status relative to some task or set of tasks. Children are ready for potty training, they are ready to spend the night at a friend’s house, they are ready to crawl. In U.S. contexts, readiness has a specific meaning connected to the start of formal schooling. The definition provided here focuses on this type of readiness, examining the skills, dispositions, and abilities expected of children as they enter kindergarten.

The idea of readiness for school was created in the context of a developing system of formal education and more specifically the implementation of compulsory schooling (Snow, 2006). Entrance criteria for the early grades were developed to signal an idea of readiness—a model indexed to a particular age. Readiness gained both practical and scientific currency in the early twentieth century through the work of Arnold Gesell, who argued that readiness was essentially a biological construct, determined by the physical unfolding of the developing organism (Gesell, 1926). From this nativist and maturationist perspective teachers and families were cautioned to carefully assess children’s readiness and to avoid “overplacement” in contexts that placed demands for which children were unready. Maturationist philosophy motivated a variety of practices designed to make sure that children were ready for the rigors of school. Developmental screening purportedly measured readiness for kindergarten, with the intention that unready children would wait a year. Academic redshirting called for delaying kindergarten entry for boys who were young relative to a kindergarten entrance cutoff, socially and emotionally immature, or physically small. Kindergarten retention places unready children in kindergarten for an additional year and transitional programs either before or after kindergarten were designed to create developmental curriculum for children who needed additional time to grow and develop. While these solutions to readiness problems had practical appeal, empirically, they have limited research support. Developmental screening poorly predicts kindergarten or later outcomes; children who are redshirted, retained, or attend transitional programs do not gain an advantage over their relatively younger peers and they have higher than expected incidence of social and emotional problems later in schooling (Graue and DiPerna, 2000; Meisels, 1999; Stipek, 2002). The lack of evidence to support maturationist practices parallels eroding support for maturationist theory as an explanatory tool for understanding child development. Rather than assuming linear maturation of individuals, theorists in areas as diverse as child development, psychology, literacy, and anthropology increasingly view development as multiply determined, occurring in specific contexts, and leveraged by specific expectations and resources. From this more socially oriented perspective, readiness is a contingent characteristic that certainly involves children but also requires attention to schools, communities, and families.

Current conceptions of readiness locate readiness dialectically, as a measure of the child relative to a particular historical and developmental context. For those who work from a developmental systems perspective, child readiness is considered in relation to the varied social systems in which a child lives and the degree to which these systems facilitate or constrain development (Mashburn and Pianta, 2006). Key to readiness are secure relationships among children, teachers, and families who support the growing child. Social constructivists assume that while readiness is expressed through child characteristics, it is a socially negotiated meaning held by stakeholders in local settings (Graue, 1993). When readiness is seen as socially constructed, it is entirely sensible that assessment of readiness will vary across raters, because the meanings they have for what constitutes a ready child vary as well. A related approach comes from evolutionary developmental psychology, which points to schools as culturally developed institutions into which human children are socialized (Bjorkland and Bering, cited in Snow, 2006).

Increasingly, policy concerns about readiness focus on its malleability, recognizing that readiness is developed in interaction with the environment across the preschool years. Initial definition by the National Education Goals Panel focused on a whole-child image of readiness, composed of (1) physical well-being and motor development, (2) social and emotional development, (3) approaches to learning, (4) language development, and (5) cognition and general knowledge (National Education Goals Panel, 1995), with attention to both ready children and ready schools. There is growing attention on programs that enhance readiness in the preschool years in indicator systems that track both institutional supports for children and families and child outcomes predictive of readiness, on developing definitions and measurements of readiness, and on the critical role that kindergarten plays in child readiness. These efforts work within a number of tensions: the incredible variability in the contexts experienced by young children prior to kindergarten, the diversity of kindergarten programs, and the developmental variation among children in the early years. This combination of variability makes defining a single set of readiness skills or characteristics a daunting task.

As the theoretical, conceptual, measurement, and instructional work continues, readiness practice focuses on providing adequate resources for children, families, and schools to support readiness across the developmental domains. Strategies that support readiness include responsive systems of early care and education that coordinate service delivery systems of health care, high quality child care, and publicly funded pre-K programs, and readiness indicator systems that track the availability of these resources. Receptive schools welcome all children when they are legally eligible to enter by being both developmental and inclusive in their approach.

Together, these viewpoints illustrate the importance of linking child and context in all considerations of readiness. Definitions of readiness need to consider ready children and ready schools, ready families and ready communities. Any conceptualization of readiness acknowledges its multidimensional nature, that it is a birth-to-five process that can be nurtured in diverse environments, and that it develops within an ecological system in which we all have responsibility (Snow, 2006). See also Constructivism; Grade Retention; Maturationism.

Further Readings: Gesell, A. (1926). The mental growth of the pre-school child; a psychological outline of normal development from birth to the sixth year, including a system of development diagnosis. New York: Macmillan Company; Graue, M. E. (1993). Ready for what? Constructing meanings of readiness for kindergarten. Albany: State University of New York Press; Graue, M. E., and J. C. DiPerna (2000). The gift of time: Who gets redshirted and retained and what are the outcomes? American Educational Research Journal 37(2), 509-534; Mashburn, A. J., and R. C. Pianta (2006). Social relationships and school readiness. Early Education and Development 17(1), 151-176; Meisels, S. J. (1999). Assessing readiness. In R. Pianta and M. J. Cox, eds., The transition to kindergarten. Baltimore: Paul Brooks Publishing, pp. 39-66; National Education Goals Panel (1995). Reconsidering children’s early development and learning: Toward common views and vocabulary. Washington: National Education Goals Panel; Shepard, L. (1992). Retention and redshirting. In L. R. Williams and D. P. Fromberg, eds., Encyclopedia of early childhood education. New York: Garland, pp. 278-279; Snow, K. L. (2006). Measuring school readiness: Conceptual and practical considerations. Early Education and Development 17(1), 7-41; Stipek, D. (2002). At what age should children enter kindergarten? A question for policy-makers and parents. Social Policy Reports 16, 3-13.

Elizabeth Graue