Kindergarten – Full-Day Gets Higher Marks

By Morgan Baker


Faces light up in a room full of college students when the topic of kindergarten is brought up. Excited voices humorously recall scissors and blocks. They also remember being in kindergarten for a half-day, if at all.


Today in Massachusetts, you’ll find many more full-day kindergarten programs – in fact, more than half of the kindergarten classrooms here offer full-day programs. It’s a welcome sign for many working parents, who’ve been frustrated for years by private preschool programs that kept children in school longer during the day than the half-day kindergarten programs offered once those children entered public school.


But while many parents have long advocated full-day kindergarten, school districts here have cited funding as the biggest obstacle to change. And there has been the enduring question: Are full-day programs really better for young, socially developing kindergartners than half-day programs?


While it’s difficult to assess whether full-day kindergarten is better (results can vary depending on any one child or teacher), recent research overwhelmingly supports the academic benefits of full-day programs over half-day programs.


The Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) says studies have shown that children in full-day programs:


• have a greater proficiency in literacy, math and general learning skills, as well as social and emotional development;


• have fewer behavioral problems;


• score higher on achievement tests;


• and have fewer grade retentions and special-education placements.


“Children who are in full-day programs develop more intellectual curiosity,” says Mary Mindess, a kindergarten expert and coordinator of the Early Childhood Institute within Lesley University’s Center for Children, Families and Public Policy.


The curriculum in full-day kindergarten is so much richer, educators say. There is more time to engage children, more time for them to question how something works and how they can change things.


Currently, 52 percent of kindergarten classrooms offer full-day programs in Massachusetts, compared to 29 percent in 1999. Of the 352 school districts here, 158 offer full-day kindergarten, according to the DOE. 


Eventually, the state would like to see 100 percent of Massachusetts kindergartens go to full-day programs, says Elisabeth Schaefer, the DOE’s administrator for early learning services. But it all depends on funding, either at the state level or from local communities.


The need for full-day kindergarten has evolved with the times. Most mothers are now employed outside the home; and many children have experienced a full-day preschool, Head Start program or daycare by the time they reach kindergarten, says Kathleen McCarthy, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Half-day programs force many working parents to scramble to find childcare for their kids’ out-of-school hours. But while childcare is certainly an issue, full-day kindergarten provides a real academic and social leg up as kids enter public school.

“Yes, it’s essential,” says Mindess of full-day programs. “Kids need time to engage.”
Academic Advances
While kindergarten today still involves scissors, cutting and pasting, it also includes reading, math and even science. By the time children reach kindergarten these days, they are ready for more challenges. In a full-day environment, the breadth of experience the children get is going to be greater, says Mindess.


10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“It’s self-evident that a two or two-and-a-half-hour day does not allow for flexibility,” notes McCarthy. With more time, the curriculum can include extended projects, and journal writing, which lead to huge academic gains. “It’s amazing to see what [kids] can do,” she says.

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Schaefer, however, says it’s important to realize that much of the academic growth still takes place in the block corner or reading corner. When kids are playing with blocks – designing and setting up ramps for toy cars – they are also working on math skills and physics. The academic component of a full-day kindergarten classroom is conducted in an age-appropriate manner that is playful, stimulates the thought process, and involves problem solving.

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Mindess says students have more book experience in full-day programs, creating a greater interest in using books, and understanding the different genres. This disposition to liking books stays with the students after kindergarten.

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10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Maryanne Martinelli, program coordinator for early childhood for the Boston Public Schools, has seen firsthand the effects of changing the kindergarten program here. Phased in over several years, all Boston Public School kindergartens went to full-day programs five years ago. Since that time, students have shown an increased interest and proficiency in reading and math. Boston students have the opportunity to read and write in several ways, Martinelli says. Students participate in four types of reading: shared, read aloud, guided reading and independent reading.  Similarly, they take part in four kinds of writing: modeled writing, shared, guided and independent.

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n 0pt">In fact, Boston kindergartners are able to write four-page stories with an illustration on each page by January. They now can accomplish in half a year, what took them at least a year previously. In addition, teachers work with the students individually, helping them move at their own pace.

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n 0pt">Teachers also benefit from longer kindergarten days. When they have only three hours to work with children, a significant amount of that time is spent getting kids dressed for outside time, reading a story and giving them snack. 

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n 0pt">Another advantage of full-day over half-day is that teachers end up with half as many students as they’d have if their school district ran two half-day programs in one day. This means fewer children and families to work with, letting teachers focus more intently on them.

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Better Social Skills

n 0pt">Full-day programs also allow children to learn more about socializing and friendship, says Mindess.

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n 0pt">Studies have shown that kids in school or childcare programs build up their resiliency when they can rely and depend upon one person. This is easier to do in full-day rather than half-day programs, Mindess says. Children who leave a half-day program and then go to childcare have a harder time finding a person with whom they can bond.

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There are also some children who don’t have friends or can’t seem to make friends. It’s easier and more effective to teach them social skills and coping strategies in full-day situations.


The full-day program also slows the pace down for kids. “There’s a lot less hurry,” says Schaefer. Ironically, children in half-day programs are so rushed, they are often more tired than the ones in full-day where the pace is more relaxed.


“Very few kids get tired,” says Martingelli of Boston’s full-day kindergarten students. “The curriculum is so rich. As we stimulate children more, they want to be there. If they’re feeling successful, they want to be there,” she says.


Better Student Assessment

One of the most significant advantages of full-day programs is that teachers have the time and the opportunity to assess each child independently, to create a learning program specific to each child’s needs. With programs tailor-made for different children, there is more of an opportunity for each child to succeed, and with that comes confidence and the ability to continue learning and experiencing success.


“The program needs to be something where every kid has success,” says Mindess.


Mandating Full-Day?

Converting half-day programs to full-day takes more than extending classroom hours. The switch requires planning and budgeting for teacher and curriculum development, additional supplies, and community outreach. The DOE estimates the cost for starting a full-day program at $87,950. To maintain that program, the cost is $76,185 per classroom.


While the state sees obvious advantages to full-day kindergarten, mandating it isn’t practical at this point, Schaefer says. Decisions need to be made on a town-by-town basis. While funding is available through Full-Day Kindergarten Development Grant Programs from the DOE, more study is needed on whether local governments can help pay for the increased costs – and classroom space needed – for full-day programs, Schaefer says.


“Schools need to be careful about opening up a program that they can sustain. You don’t want them to then close it the following year,” she says. “Slow growth is the best way.”

Is Your Child Ready?
Check out our article to learn more about kindergarten readiness.


Massachusetts Department of Education781-338-3000; – Call or visit online to learn more about kindergarten in Massachusetts.