Interview with Rebecca Steinhoff: How Wyoming is Thinking About Effective and Supportive Kindergarten Transitions
The following article by Davida McDonald originally appeared on the New America website on Dec. 13, 2021
Wyoming has developed a statewide Early Childhood Strategic Plan that directs families, early childhood and K-12 educators and administrators, communities, and state officials to collaborate to thoughtfully connect children’s relationships, environments, and experiences during early childhood. The plan also directs Wyoming to execute effective and supportive policies and practices that recognize the essential need to support young children and families before, during, and after times of transition, especially the transition into the first year of elementary school. As part of this plan, stakeholders have worked to:
- Create a shared understanding of transitions across ECE and B-5 settings and sectors that recognizes that young children and families experience many transitions and should have access to supports to help them successfully navigate those transitions.
- Identify strengths and gaps in transition supports and programs across the state, replicate and scale successful programs, and foster opportunities to co-construct new programming.
- Ensure that all children and families are supported through transitions.
In a recent conversation with Rebecca Steinhoff, Executive Director of Wyoming Kids First, we delve into their community and state-level approaches to promoting successful kindergarten transitions. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you talk a little bit about the work you have done in Wyoming previously around pre-K to kindergarten transitions?
Our work really began with strong collaboration between the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Department of Education, and Wyoming Kids First (along with other entities and agencies who recognized transitions as a place where there was strong energy) to work within and across our settings and sectors to strengthen supports for children. In 2019, we started thinking about the Preschool Development Grant (PDG) and thinking about building key relationships across the state. That focus put us in a good place for 2020 when the governor’s office came to us about using some of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERS) dollars to fund work on transition supports, especially around kindergarten transitions, and to frame out an intentional approach that would then be nested in our statewide comprehensive three-year strategic plan. That request gave us an opportunity to look at who was at the table, who were the partners, and where the funding for the work was.
What are you currently doing to promote positive and seamless pre-K to kindergarten transitions (in terms of initiatives and/or products)?
We have framed out a framework/continuum to direct our current work, which includes supporting five community grantees and pilots across the state who have committed to do this work together in their geographic area. Next, we are building out supports for families, educators, programs, and communities who are not grantees in order to engage in their conversations about transitions. This part is really about creating relationships by providing virtual professional learning about the science of transitions, and hosting a statewide transitions summit for a more collective conversation. We believe that strengthening coordination and partnerships is the first step since transitions work requires: relationships that are equal and valued; recognition that transitions are about change (children are navigating their worlds and there is constant change as they build out resilience and healthy brain infrastructure); and aligning vision, expectations, and practice.
When you think about your work on transitions, what have you found to be the most essential components? What have been the most essential pieces of your process?
Transitions are part of young children’s everyday lives as members of families and communities, and children’s success during informal transitions also has an impact on their development and learning. We really think about the transition experience through the eyes of a child and embedded in this work is a critical focus on enriching the experience of families and shifting the burden of responsibility for a successful transition from the child to everyone else who is involved in the transition process. And children and families experience transitions differently—continuity and discontinuity depend on the people involved. They hinge on children, families, and professionals and on the spaces in which they interact, past experiences, cultures, values, transitions… Transitions need a before, during, and after approach!
What modifications did you have to make to this work in light of COVID-19? What worked and what didn’t?
We have done everything virtually and people have committed to doing this work virtually just the same as if we were in-person, so we have seen some really strong connections despite being virtual. We have also seen how communities and programs maintained a sense of community in a virtual space —everything from virtual home visits with kindergarten teachers and early childhood programs to an early childhood program using an outdoor tent as a classroom in order to share space and maintain health and safety standards. These kinds of examples give us a chance to think very specifically about what children are experiencing (and to find strengths and strengths-based approaches that may be new to adults).
What are the major challenges with this work? And what supports/knowledge/resources/etc. might you need to do this work better?
There are challenges that we know still exist in terms of policy and structural work to ensure that supports are accessible to all. We also recognize the tension between optimal conditions and the role of the state in proscribing this and answering the question: What is the standard of quality that we want in early care and education and how does this translate into a developmentally appropriate kindergarten-3rd grade experience? We have been so grateful for technical assistance from national and other resources that accelerates and helps us think coherently and put the pieces together – the ongoing thought partnership has been essential.
In terms of the second half of the 2021-2022 school year, and the 2022 -2023 school year, what are you planning to do to promote positive and seamless pre-K to kindergarten transitions?
We have some adjustments to make in terms of collaboration and how that looks moving forward—are we virtual or are we face-to-face? People have a lot going on and we are asking them to engage in rich conversations about the experience of children and families as they balance their own personal and professional needs—so when is the timing right? In a challenging environment. Looking forward, we will host our statewide transitions summit and professional learning to talk about what we have learned, work with our community pilots and stakeholders to actualize our framework and continuum, and connect to our trauma-responsive work and ensure we have an equity lens.
Have you all thought about how the potential federal investment in universal pre-K may impact this transition work?
We have been laying the groundwork to position ourselves to be as ready as we can be for more funding. The magnitude of the opportunity that may be coming from the federal level is beyond our wildest dreams and there is no way we could have expected Wyoming would invest in that amount of sustainable resources or to coordinate and strengthen and align. The Build Back Better Act still honors families as a child’s first teacher and recognizes the importance of their experiences and context, as well as the value that can be created in Wyoming for children and families through this significant and sustained investment.