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What Is Transitional Kindergarten and What Does It Mean for Multilingual Children?

by Judie Haynes |

This month, I’d like to introduce you to a guest blogger, Karen Nemeth. Karen is a well-known expert in the field of early childhood education and owner of Language Castle. I asked Karen to write a blog about the growing popularity of transitional kindergarten programs.

Karen Nemeth, EdM, is an author, speaker, and consultant who focuses on improving early education for children who are multilingual learners. She has written more than a dozen books and many articles on this topic. She served on the board of NJTESOL-NJBE and has held leadership roles in TESOL International Association, NAEYC, and NABE. She hosts an advocacy and resource website at

What Is Transitional Kindergarten?

Who Is It For?

Kindergarten is available to most 5-year-old children in the United States, but some eligible children might not seem ready for the structure and curriculum of a typical kindergarten program. According to Borst, transitional kindergarten (TK) is a yearlong program designed for children who meet — or are close to — the age requirement for kindergarten, but who educators and families have determined need more experience and support before they enter the kindergarten year. First created in California school districts, we are now seeing the term “transitional kindergarten” or “young 5s” used by programs in other U.S. states like Washington, Michigan, and Florida as the concept gains popularity across the country. State or district-funded TK programs may be conducted in elementary school buildings or through partnerships with private preschool programs. Some independent early childhood education programs are responding to the growing interest in TK by offering their own versions for a fee.

Children who are multilingual learners of English or dual language learners may benefit from this extra early learning experience, but we don’t yet have specific studies about outcomes for children who are multilingual learners. Let’s talk about what to expect from a TK program and then we’ll consider how these features might support children who are new to English.

What to Expect From a Transitional Kindergarten Program

In California, the TK model includes a full academic year program that might be half-day or a full 6-hour school day, or even a 9–10 hour day with wrap-around care. It is designed as an improvement over the old practice of “red-shirting” or having children repeat the 4-year-old preschool year or the whole kindergarten year.

TK is meant to have a uniquely designed curriculum that is more advanced than preschool and prepares specific skills needed to succeed in kindergarten. California programs offer small class sizes (15 children or fewer) and teachers with special training. A comprehensive curriculum is recommended to support early language and literacy, math skills, social-emotional learning, fine and gross motor skills, and a general orientation to the kinds of structure and behaviors that children will encounter in kindergarten.

A high-quality curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for this transitional year will provide:

  • a print-rich environment
  • many hands-on explorations
  • support of play-based active learning
  • an individualized, child-centered approach
  • plenty of meaningful two-way instructional interactions
  • a system of regular observations and assessments of children’s progress and interests

Transitional Kindergarten and Multilingual Learners of English

All of these components are likely to give multilingual children a boost in their preparation for kindergarten. In many cases, TK offers the advantages of learning English in an educational and engaging setting. We should also keep in mind that current research highlights the importance of incorporating the home language in learning activities to foster comprehension, expression, and a sense of belonging.

English Language Educators

District English as a second language (ESL) teachers can be a valuable resource, especially when they have the training needed to support early learning and tie their supports to the daily curriculum. Many programs prioritize a consultative model for ESL specialists to provide guidance directly to classroom teachers rather than pushing in or pulling out to work with young children, which disrupts their learning day. If a push-in or pull-out service is mandated by a district, the ESL teacher should participate in joint planning with the classroom teacher and should learn about the overall curriculum for that TK class to provide cohesive supports for young children.

Teachers who specialize in ESL instruction need to be prepared to provide supports for inclusion programs that may enroll children with disabilities who are also multilingual learners of English. In many cases, the TK program may be the first exposure a child has to an early learning program. Their needs and abilities will not be readily labeled when they first enter the school, and all staff need to be prepared to support a diversity of experiences, cultures, abilities, and languages.

Family Engagement

California TK programs emphasize family engagement as a key component to building a strong foundation for school success. Planning will be needed to identify the roles of monolingual and bilingual classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, ESL specialists, and other school staff in building meaningful, reciprocal relationships with linguistically diverse families. Input from families can contribute to the design of a culturally and linguistically responsive learning environment. The relationships formed during this first school experience can set the stage for family involvement throughout the child’s future educational path.

Helping Learners Thrive in Transitional Kindergarten

There are many reasons why a child might be enrolled in TK. Some teachers and some families worry that a child might not be mature enough to handle the rigors of today’s academic approach to kindergarten. Some children may present obvious delays, which might be temporary or more long-lasting. For example, some children enter their first school experience with little or no exposure to books. Some children may be recent immigrants, coming from a culture with different early learning and adult-child interaction styles, or they may have experienced trauma and challenging life changes that make it hard for them to behave as expected in the American kindergarten tradition. Children may enter TK with no English or a combination of two or more languages. And, some children will simply be a bit young to start kindergarten. With well-planned curriculum and well-prepared teachers and staff in the TK year, all of these children can thrive.

About the author

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

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