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A kindergarten class eagerly awaits the chance to correct a sentence in the morning lesson. Credit: Jackie Mader, The Hechinger Report

When states across the nation recently turned in accountability plans required under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), they showed great variety in their plans for early learning.

With much of the funding going directly to school districts, state and district partnerships will be crucial to ensuring that these plans address the real-life issues that school districts throughout the country are facing.

As districts partner with states to implement components of ESSA, districts that feel caught between academic rigor and developmentally appropriate practices can leverage the whole-child focus of ESSA to marry these concepts and more effectively prepare children to be successful in school and beyond.

Related: Cramming for Kindergarten

By addressing this divide, educators will be freed from the expectations that result in a perpetual push-down of expectations, and be better equipped to help children learn the skills and concepts that are necessary for the world of today.

Unfortunately, many educators have come to imagine a rigorous kindergarten curriculum that is guided by a “harder is better” mantra.

Unlike previous federal laws, ESSA’s focus on the whole child, including social-emotional development, opens the door to correcting the well-intentioned but ill-conceived practices we adopted to meet the proficiency-driven demands of laws such as No Child Left Behind.

Among those practices was a swing toward focusing kindergarten on the development of first-grade competencies. This focus often came at the exclusion of teaching practices that allowed children to play with ideas and peers, to make mistakes and try again, to persist and accomplish and to be focused and engaged.

In short, rather than helping children to work in teams or test ideas, this downward push can create barriers that prevent kindergarten educators from providing opportunities to fuse academic and social development.

Related: Why is it so hard to stop suspending kindergarteners?

What would the fusion of academic and social development look like? From an administrative perspective, when observing a kindergarten class, an administrator would see a classroom filled with children deeply engaged in meaningful activities and projects. Some children will be making mistakes, some children will be assisting peers, and all children will have the opportunity to play with ideas.

Play serves as the catalyst for deep engagement and creates the space for the type of learning that we know is critical to building a foundation for long term success — academic and otherwise.

Unfortunately, many educators have come to imagine a rigorous kindergarten curriculum that is guided by a “harder is better” mantra. Worksheets, checklists, sentence starters and highly programmed daily and weekly schedules designed to maximize every moment of students’ time are considered optimal.

This approach not only hinders the ways in which children are able to display their understanding of crucial concepts but also deprives them of the opportunities to take initiative, problem-solve and persist on tasks. By the way, these are precisely the skills that children will rely on to be successful for their entire school experience as well as in life.

Perhaps we shouldn’t wait until children are in high school to communicate clearly and effectively, utilize critical thinking or work productively in groups with peers. If we choose to wait, good luck with robotics teams, anti-bullying initiatives or implementation of Next Generation Science Standards, as we will never get to the depth that is necessary to address these initiatives in ways that make sense to children, educators and families.

However, ESSA creates an opportunity for a strengthening of kindergarten that supports educators in marrying the concepts of academic rigor and developmentally appropriate practice. It presents an opportunity to refocus the interactions between teachers and children to those that are play-based, interdisciplinary and worthy of doing in the first place.

As the real work of implementing ESSA plans begins, let’s leverage the potential found in ESSA to build strong state and district partnerships that not only fuse academic rigor and developmentally appropriate practices, but once and for all lift kindergarten educators into a world that supports learning and makes sense.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

A former kindergarten teacher, Vincent J. Costanza, Ed.D., is the current superintendent in residence at Teaching Strategies. He previously served as director of the New Jersey Office of Primary Education and of the Statewide Early Learning Challenge Grant.

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