By Published: Oct. 13, 2021

Banner image credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder

A new study led by CU Boulder has taken one of the most in-depth looks yet at a typical day-in-the-life of a kindergarten student. The team’s results suggest that kids attending schools serving low-income communities in a large urban area seem to spend their class time differently than students from wealthier backgrounds.

The message they get: Sit still and wait quietly. 

The researchers discovered that 5- and 6-year-olds from lower-income schools spent a lot of time waiting around and not doing much of anything as they transitioned between class activities. They also had very little time to stretch, run around or engage in other physical activities.

Mimi Engel, lead author of the new study and associate professor in the School of Education, and her colleagues published their results in August in the journal Educational Researcher.

“We don’t know what the ideal kindergarten day should looks like for kids,” Engel said. “This is our first attempt to explore the kindergarten experience for kids in an urban setting.”

It was a massive undertaking: Over the course of three years, the group traveled to a large urban school district (they can’t say which one) and spent 82 days sitting in on lessons in 32 classrooms. In 24 of those schools, more than 90% of kids, on average, qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch, while in eight, less than 15% of the student body met that mark. The observers went wherever the kids went. When it was time to read The Seven Silly Eaters, Engel and her colleagues sat and listened along. When the kids went to recess, so did the researchers.

What the team, including researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin-Madison, found was eye-opening. 

Students from the 24 lower-income schools whiled away 42% of their six-hour school days, or 2.5 hours on average, transitioning between activities—much more than the roughly two hours on average spent doing the same thing in the higher-income schools. 

Engel suspects that some of those differences may come down to staffing: More adults were available to work with the young kids in the schools serving higher-income communities, helping the day flow smoothly. 

Beyond transition time, the study suggests that the educational experiences of kids in the U.S. can begin to diverge before they hit first grade.

“This is troubling. When I have the opportunity to spend time in schools, something I think about is: ‘Would I want this for my own kids?’” Engel said. “And when I think about what I observed in kindergarten classrooms serving kids from low-income households, my answer is ‘no.’”

Butts in seats

The results, she added, highlight the changing face of early childhood education in the United States. Over the last two decades, the percentage of children enrolled in full-day kindergarten has skyrocketed across the country. At the same time, their days have become more focused on reading and math and less on play and socialization.

“The next place for us to go is to understand what kinds of kindergarten experiences are best, and how we can facilitate those kinds of experiences across school districts,” Engel said.

The 32 schools the team visited showed just how sizable the differences in those days can be.

Students from schools serving families with lower incomes, for example, got a lot less time to be active—spending 18 minutes a day, on average, on physical activity versus the nearly 45 minutes a day in wealthier schools. “Young children need to move their bodies to stay engaged in the classroom”, Engel said. 

Youngsters from those same schools also spent almost all of their instructional time learning reading and math and little on other academic areas. 

“I’m concerned about how few opportunities the kids seemed to have to be physically active and to have learning experiences that were more playful,” Engel said. 

She emphasized that teachers from these schools seemed to really care about their students. But the team’s findings may show how limited budgets can affect the quality of children’s education in unexpected ways. The PTAs for the schools serving lower-income communities spent an average of $15,000 per year to support kids’ educational experiences. In the higher-income schools, that number leapt up to $780,000.

Engel said she hopes that the research will, ultimately, help school districts improve their early-childhood programs by identifying problem areas and shifting resources to fix the disparities.

“Kindergarten opens the door to elementary school for the vast majority of young kids in the United States,” Engel said. “I don’t think anyone originally envisioned kindergarten as a time when kids would spend the day sitting quietly in their seats or waiting in line.”