What is school readiness?
School readiness traditionally includes several factors that, when combined, indicate how prepared a child is to succeed in formal schooling. As further described below, these factors span across physical, social, emotional, and cognitive areas of measurement.
“Ready to Learn” became a national mantra in the early 1990s when the National Education Goals Panel adopted its first goal: “by the year 2000, all children will enter school ready to learn.” The panel identified readiness in the child as determined by a set of interdependent developmental trajectories. Three components of school readiness were broadly described as: 1) readiness in the child, 2) schools’ readiness for children, and 3) family and community support that contributes to child readiness.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends assessing school readiness in children by examining five key domains that span across physical, social, emotional, and cognitive areas of measurement. Although there are many ways to define school readiness, this playbook highlights the school readiness domains recommended by the AAP, as they also reflect the original intent of the National Education Goals Panel. Although we recognize the racial, ethnic, and other disparities previously documented in studies of school readiness, school readiness data are already available in many states and districts and therefore have the potential for careful scale-up as indicators of population-level mental health among young children.
The term “school readiness” often is used interchangeably with “kindergarten readiness” and refers to the readiness in the child as well as the readiness by the school to teach the child. This playbook focuses on readiness in the child and uses the term “school readiness.”
Healthy children are ready to learn. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has developed the following three key science-based messages that can help explain the connection between school readiness and health.
- The brain and all other systems in the body interact with each other as they adapt to the environment.
- Experiences during the prenatal period and first two to three years after birth affect lifelong health at least as much as they affect school achievement.
- Inflammation, as part of the body’s stress response, helps defend against infection, injury and acute threat—but persistent inflammation in response to chronic adversity can have long-term, disruptive effects on physical and mental well-being.
What domains can be used to assess school readiness?
- Physical well-being and sensory motor development, including health status and growth.
- Social and emotional development, including self-regulation, attention, impulse control, capacity to limit aggressive and disruptive behaviors, turn-taking, cooperation, empathy, and the ability to communicate one’s own emotions; identification of feelings facilitates accurate communication of these feelings.
- Approaches to learning, including enthusiasm, curiosity, temperament, culture, and values.
- Language development, including listening, speaking, and vocabulary, as well as literacy skills, including print awareness, story sense, and writing and drawing processes.
- General knowledge and cognition, including early literacy and math skills.
Who collects data on school readiness and for what purpose?
A variety of partners, including early childhood educators, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers, and social and child welfare workers, may be collecting data to assess school readiness. Pediatricians can also play a role in promoting school readiness as part of their efforts to promote overall wellness and screen for factors associated with school readiness, including social determinants of health. Although the main purpose of individual-level school readiness assessments is to measure how well prepared a child is for school, aggregate-level data can be used to compare trends over time, compare schools or school districts across a larger jurisdiction, and identify schools or school districts that are seeing an increased proportion of students who are not meeting the criteria of school readiness.
For example, those who work in early childhood education, kindergarten teachers, and social and child welfare workers routinely assess school readiness to identify the strengths and challenges faced by individual children, as well as monitor the progress of learning in young children (typically ages three to six years). Teachers and school personnel also use school readiness assessment data to guide teacher training, curriculum development, and academic planning.
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) developed the Healthy and Ready to Learn (HRTL) Title V Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant National Outcome Measures (NOMs). The NOMs use data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH)—a nationally representative, annual household survey that assesses the health and development of children ages zero to 17—across four domains and one cumulative summary measure. The four domains include early learning skills, self-regulation, social-emotional development, and physical well-being and motor development. Because the Healthy and Ready to Learn measure was developed within the NSCH, state-level estimates of young children’s kindergarten readiness can be obtained, though multiple years of data may need to be combined for smaller states.
Although individual-level school readiness assessments are used to measure how well prepared a child is for school, aggregate-level data can be used to:
- compare trends over time
- compare schools or school districts across a larger jurisdiction
- identify schools or school districts that are seeing an increased proportion of students who are not meeting the criteria of school readiness
All of the above may be indicative of mental health needs or inequities in access to early development support.