SDSU Ready to Assist as California Takes Transitional Kindergarten Plunge

August 2, 2022
CFD master's student Flor Burciaga at the SDSU Children's Center.

As the new school year approaches, a major change is coming to elementary education in California: public schools are about to get younger.

This fall, schools will open transitional kindergarten (TK) programs serving children who just missed the kindergarten cutoff, turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 5. It’s California’s first baby step toward a goal of universal TK for all 4-year-olds — an ambitious vision that foresees enrolling more than 300,000 children and hiring tens of thousands of newly qualified teachers by 2025-26. 

San Diego State University’s College of Education is eager to help the state meet massive, looming workforce needs — and do so in a way that puts teachers in TK classrooms who understand the unique developmental needs of their youngest pupils. 

“We're really well-positioned for this,” said Sarah Garrity, interim senior associate dean. “We have the subject-matter experts that can come together and design a program that is going to meet the needs of students, families, teachers and communities.” 

For now, TK classrooms will be staffed either by multiple-subject (elementary education) teachers who earn 24 units of early childhood education, or bachelor’s degree holders in early childhood who return for a multiple-subject credential. For the former group, SDSU offers a list of courses teachers can take to satisfy the requirement. 

Looking ahead, California is developing a new Early Childhood Education (ECE) specialist credential to teach preschool through third grade. Once final state guidelines are released, SDSU’s education faculty are prepared to develop an ECE specialist credential program. 

“In our college, we have the Department of Child and Family Development, a School of Teacher Education, a Department of Special Education and a Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education (DLE),” said Garrity, who is also an associate professor in child and family development. “All four of those departments really want to work together on this. I think we all understand the importance of developmental science in informing everything that we do.” 

It’s a cross-disciplinary effort that reflects the complicated considerations at play. 

Developmental science 

One thing SDSU’s experts want to make clear is that TK should not mean plopping 4-year-olds down in a classroom and teaching them like first-graders. Any TK teacher, if they are to be effective, must be trained in both developmental theory and science reflecting this unique stage. Pedagogy and learning should be built around play and active engagement with activities that are of interest to 4- and 5-year-olds — rather than having them sit still and passively digest a teacher-directed lesson. 

Lisa Linder, assistant professor in child and family development and director of SDSU’s Healthy Early Years clinic, is concerned that if teachers and schools statewide don’t have a firm grasp of the importance of play-based learning and the science of social-emotional development, they risk doing a lifelong disservice to children. 

“I can't imagine them sitting in desks,” Linder said. “We know that children's brains aren't wired to learn that way. I think many of us in the early childhood field have a lot of concerns about just turning them into littler kindergarteners.” 

Through her work with Healthy Early Years, which provides early childhood mental health services in school settings across San Diego, Linder has seen some warning signs. At some schools that already offer TK, she said she has seen teachers identifying 4-year-olds as having challenging behaviors at higher rates than typically seen in our work in early childhood settings. 

“We feel that the teachers may be struggling to work with these kiddos because they're used to 5- and 6-year olds and not 4-year-olds,” Linder said. “That's a very big difference.” 

Supporting diverse students 

Universal TK is a growing area of growing focus for the DLE program, already the top producer of bilingual educators in California. 

“Having a teacher that comes from the same community, understands the culture and speaks the native language is so important, especially for small children,” said Margarita Machado-Casas, professor and chair in DLE. “This is going to set the tone for how they see themselves, for how they see school and how they're going to approach education moving forward.” 

This fall SDSU’s DLE department is welcoming 30 current preschool teachers into its bilingual multiple subject teaching credential program, seeking to meet the credentialing demands to become TK teachers. And Machado-Casas said many more are on the way — so many that she’s considering a special cohort for future bilingual TK teachers to provide additional support for their success. 

Staffing shortage 

One challenge for the state’s TK ambitions is that California already faces a serious staffing shortage in qualified special educators at all age levels. 

SDSU, however, is ready to fill the void. In addition to offering an early childhood special education specialization, the university recently launched a new integrated teacher education program that allows students to earn both a B.S. in child development and an early childhood specialization credential concurrently in just four years. 

“Early childhood is one of the main areas of special education where we need people,” said Laura Hall, professor and chair in the Department of Special Education. “The staffing shortage is very serious and we want to have well-prepared folks. But we have the capacity here.” 

Boosting the early childhood special education workforce, Hall added, has the potential to make a life-changing impact on children with exceptionalities. 

“There's research to show that when children are young, their brains are still developing and you can make some real differences,” she said. “It's an opportunity to really have an influence that can change the trajectory of someone's development.” 

Ready to build 

Across SDSU’s College of Education, it’s a waiting game. Early discussions on a new ECE specialist credential program have already taken place and alignment between disciplines and departments, which at many universities might be inclined to war over turf, is clear as day. 

All that’s needed now is the green light — and final guidelines — from the state. 

“We've all been talking about it, we're just waiting for the go-ahead,” Garrity said. “We're ready to build this program."

This story was originally published on SDSU NewsCenter.