Study shows that low-income kindergartners spend more time waiting

“Criss-cross applesauce.” “If you hear me, clap once.” “Quiet time.” These may be familiar terms for those who went to school in the U.S. In between absorbing new topics and concepts, we are often told to be orderly, to wait, and to pay attention.

It turns out that these waiting periods may not be equal among all schoolchildren.

A research study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Michigan found that, on average, children who were in schools serving lower-income students spent more time waiting in between activities than students from higher-income schools did. These students in lower-income schools also had fewer opportunities and less space to physically move around than their higher-income peers.

“In the field, we find very strong associations between having had high quality early childhood experiences, and later school and life success,” says Amy Claessens, a professor of educational policy studies at UW–Madison who helped conduct the new research. Her research focuses on kids’ experiences with early childhood policy and programs, and how their experiences influence later life outcomes.

Claessens and her colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Michigan have been visiting kindergarten classrooms to study how kindergarten classes are taught and structured. Their question: What are the differences in math instruction in kindergartens across one urban school district?

They observed and recorded any activities in the classroom that were longer than one minute and coded them by subject matter. “We would code things for if it was reading or whatever the primary content was. So if you were singing but singing a math song, we would code it for math and singing,” Claessens explains.

Claessens and her team also recorded transitions between activities, such as “waiting in the cafeteria to be picked up, kids waiting in the auditorium for a presentation to begin … kids waiting for the music teacher to get some technology to work.”

Within the large urban district that Claessens and her colleagues studied, there were a variety of schools serving children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is where Claessens and her team noticed stark differences in structure and curriculum.

The researchers discovered that kindergartens that served higher-income families had more space for students to engage in physical activities. For example, these schools had more opportunity to rotate between different “activity centers,” where they could choose to work on different activities in smaller groups and move around the classroom. “They were able to move around, and they have a little bit more agency than the kids in the other schools,” Claessens explains.

Research has demonstrated that physical activity, such as recess or physical education has many benefits for children, such as increased concentration in school and benefits to their mental health. The researchers’ concern was that some kindergartners are not given the time and resources to be able to move around in the classroom. “The fact that we see this difference between the two groups around those kinds of activities is striking given this is within the same district,” says Claessens.

Claessens says that even when these different schools were getting equal funding from the district, other sources of funding, such as from parent teacher organization fundraisers, led to a stark difference that led to an “extreme” contrast in resources.

Funding disparities are not unique to this specific district. “It’s not unlike what happens in Madison, as well, you get equal resources from the district, but then (parent teacher organizations) are able to (fundraise), and that’s correlated with the income of the families in the schools,” Claessens says.

This study suggests that schools serving lower income children should think of ways to provide more opportunities for kids to “have some agency in choosing the activities that they work on,” Claessens says.

Claessens and her team are continuing to work on this study to examine math curriculums across kindergartens in the district. They are hoping to also work across different districts to see if their observations with kindergartners and physical activity apply in more schools. “We have a pretty small sample — it’s one district. It’s unclear that this would be the same if we were in a potentially less urban setting where maybe there was more space to play outside or to run outside.”

With more research, Claessens and her team hope to come up with policy recommendations to improve the quality of education for all students.