Transitions in Schooling
School transitions play a critical role in children’s development as learners (Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Pianta, 1999; Pianta & Cox, 1999; Wigfield, Eccles, Schiefele, Roeser, & Davis-Kean, 2006). With regards to motivation, most studies have focused on kindergarten and middle school transitions, with a smaller set of studies examining the effects of the high school transition (Eccles, 2004). Many of the school structures and classroom processes discussed above play an important role in children’s adjustment to new school environments. During critical school transitions, aspects of the child’s self-definitions are redefined by parents, teachers, peers, and the children themselves (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). In this section, we briefly review research focused on motivation changes related to transitions in schooling.
Transition into Elementary School
The entry into elementary school is accompanied by several significant changes in children’s lives (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Pianta & Cox, 1999). Compared with the home or preschool environment, elementary classes are organized by age, making it possible for children to compare their skills and abilities to other children. In many schools, children are also grouped by ability for reading and mathematics instruction. Children’s abilities are assessed for the first time with standardized achievement tests. Whereas preschool children learn through play and exploration, kindergarten and first-grade teachers increasingly are adopting didactic, basic skill teaching approaches (Stipek, Feiler, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995). Moreover, the quality of children’s relations with teachers and peers can have a significant impact on school adjustment and achievement in the early grades. Lastly, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are expected to adapt to a school environment that favors the mainstream culture (Meece & Kurtz-Costes, 2001).
Children’s early school experiences are shaped by gender and ethnicity, as well as by the resources they bring to school—skill levels, parental expectations, and family income (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). Evidence also suggests that children’s temperament, peer relations, and self-regulatory processes play an important role in children’s successful transition to school (Bronson, 2000; Entwisle, Alexander, Pallas, & Cadigan, 1987; Howse, Calkins, Anastopoulous, Keane, & Shelton, 2003; Ladd & Kochenderfer, 1996; Miles & Stipek, 2006), and may even mediate the influence of family background characteristics on early school achievement (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988).
In a longitudinal study of children’s transition to elementary school, Alexander and Entwisle (1988) found that first-grade students whom teachers perceived as attentive, interested, and cooperative, earned higher initial marks in reading and mathematics, even after controlling for differences in prior test scores. Additionally, these initial evaluations of children’s abilities are used, more than standardized test scores, to assign students to ability groups for reading and mathematics. Furthermore, low teacher perceptions of personal maturity and a low mark in first-quarter reading were important predictors of first-grade retention, reducing the effects of ethnicity, gender, and family income level (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). Due to differential instruction and achievement expectations formed by parents and teachers, within-class ability grouping and early grade retention have a powerful influence on children’s subsequent achievement and motivation (Pallas, Entwisle, Alexander, & Stluka, 1994). By the end of second grade, children’s early performance in school was the most important predictor of subsequent achievement, overshadowing the effects of personal- and home-related variables as they move into third grade (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988).
Research also suggests that, along with child characteristics, the qualities of classroom instruction and teacher-student relations also influence children’s achievement and motivation in the early elementary grades. For example, Stipek and her colleagues (Stipek, Feiler, Byler, Ryan, Milburn, & Salmon, 1998; Stipek et al., 1995) contrasted the effects of didactic versus child-centered instruction. A didactic approach is defined by those teachers who provide high levels of direct instruction and who play a central role in selecting activities, providing instruction, and defining rules. The focus of instruction is on basic skill and factual knowledge acquisition. On the other hand, teachers using a child-centered approach serve as partners in children’s learning, providing direction and guidance to help children develop their knowledge while providing opportunities for children to take responsibility for their own learning. Teacher-student relations are characterized by warmth, nurturance, and support.
Research contrasting these approaches has not found consistent effects on children’s motivation and learning in the early grades (Hamre & Pianta, 2005; Rutter & Maughan, 2002; Stipek et al., 1995, 1998). Stipek et al. (1995, 1998) reported that children taught by didactic methods made significant gains in reading skills, whereas children in the child-centered classes outperformed their counterparts on problem solving, oral language, and conceptual grouping tasks. Marginal differences were found for mathematics achievement. With regards to motivation, differences were found related to achievement expectancies, negative affect, compliance, and discipline. For these measures, the differences favored children taught by child-centered methods. Thus, a didactic instructional approach in the early years of elementary school has motivation costs that need to be considered in relation to children’s academic gains.
Recently, studies on the elementary school transition have examined the effects of different instructional approaches on children at risk for early school failure. Recall that child characteristics, such as family income, parental education, and personal maturity, tend to place children on different achievement trajectories by the second grade. Children low on these indicators of early school success are at greater risk for remediation, retention, and early school failure (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). For this group of children, high-quality direct instruction and evaluative feedback can offset the negative effects of low parental education or early academic difficulties (Hamre & Pianta, 2005; Morrison & Connor, 2002). However, for those children at the highest risk for school failure, showing a combination of behavioral, social, and academic problems at the entry to elementary school, emotionally supportive classrooms characterized by positive teacher and peer relations are most predictive of achievement gains (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). This finding is consistent with research on older elementary and middle school students indicating that supportive teacher and peer relations in the classroom can increase students’ motivation to pursue academic goals.
Schools have implemented a number of strategies to assist children and families with the kindergarten or first-grade transition (Smolkin, 1999). These strategies include the expansion of public pre-kindergarten classes, reducing kindergarten class size, creating brief summer programs before entry to school, encouraging home visits, creating home-school partnerships, and using curriculum assessments and interventions to address social and academic behaviors necessary for early school success. For many schools, reducing class size in the first two years of schooling has yielded particularly positive benefits. A statewide class reduction experiment in Tennessee, involving over 11,000 students, indicated that small class size from kindergarten to third grade significantly increased reading and mathematics achievement (Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2000). The most dramatic impact was found for those children who started in small classes at the entry to school. Additionally, small classes can reduce the risk of grade retention, disciplinary actions, and high school dropout for low-income students (Nye et al., 2000). For these benefits to occur, the ideal size of a kindergarten classroom is 13 to 17 students.
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