Pre-K Classrooms in Public Schools: Ready or Not Here They Come!

Colorful magnetic letters spell "pre-school" on a blue surface, with additional letters scattered above.

By Dale C. Farran, PhD Vanderbilt University


California approved $2.7 billion dollars to implement a Transitional Kindergarten program (Pre-K by another name), mandated to be open to all children whose families want them enrolled by 2025. Additional funding was provided to help districts create appropriate learning spaces for the children, but the funds required a local match that many districts simply don’t have.

Regardless of whether the space is appropriate, districts must serve the children. Alan Reising, business services administrator with the Long Beach Unified school system in California, observed: “Whether or not we are ready for them, students are coming. And so, we will do what we have done for decades, which is, we will make do with what we have.”¹

“Making do” is exactly what is wrong with the current approach to serving young children through classrooms placed in the public schools. Many public elementary schools are drastically unsuited for young children. These physical limitations have consequences.

We observed 99 prekindergarten classrooms housed in public elementary schools in two urban districts. All the classrooms had to meet the state department of education requirements for the prekindergarten program. For example, each classroom had to include a teacher licensed in early childhood education and one teaching assistant, with a group size no larger than 20 children. Classrooms met for an average of 6-7 hours a day.

Our observations lasted the full day, mid year, and we noted physical characteristics of the settings such as whether bathrooms were attached to the classrooms, whether children ate in their classrooms or in the school cafeteria, and whether they went outside to play. We tallied how much time the children spent in transitions, how much time they spent in active play (indoors or outdoors), and the number of behavior approvals and disapprovals they received from their teachers.

Overall children spent half their day in routines (naps, meals) and transitions.

Children spent an average of 61 minutes napping and 37 minutes in meals. They were in transitions an average of 108 minutes of the day, nearly 2 hours. Transitions involve periods of time when no learning or other activity is going on – children moving from place to place, lining up, standing outside the bathroom, waiting on the rug for an activity to start, etc.

Children spent very little time in active play, whether indoors or outdoors — about 16 minutes a day in physical activity. In one district, children attended 7 hours a day, but half of the classrooms never went outside or even to an indoor gym. Children and teachers spent a long day in a single classroom, broken up perhaps by walking the halls (quietly) to go to the bathroom or the cafeteria.

A little less than 1/3 of the classrooms did not have adjacent bathrooms. Another 1/3 actually did have bathrooms connected to their classrooms, but the teachers preferred to take the children to the big bathrooms down the hall or the next hall over. So altogether almost 2/3 of the classrooms had their children line up, walk the hallways, and wait outside the larger bathroom for children to go in small groups.

For lunch, 88% of the classrooms took their children to the large central cafeteria.

Most of these cafeterias are not set up for small children. The “lunch ladies” can get impatient with children who do not remember what they said they wanted for lunch a few hours earlier. Strict quiet is enforced in many places. Eating is not a time for pleasant socializing.

The lack — and lack of use — of adjacent bathrooms plus time spent getting to and from the lunchroom both have consequences.

The first is, as you might expect, children transitioned longer. Using an external bathroom and lunch outside the room resulted in an extra 32 minutes of transition time a day.

Transitions were associated with much greater rates of behavioral disapproval. As children walked down the hall, they heard “put a bubble in your mouth;” “don’t touch your neighbor;” “don’t touch the wall;” “walk, don’t run” and other admonitions.

In general, the rates of disapproval were twice that of approval. Children heard many more things they should stop doing than praise for what they were doing. In terms of what children experienced, they heard a positive reinforcing statement, smile, or gesture about every 3 minutes. They were given a scowl, a disapproving comment, a strong negative gesture every minute and a half.

To be clear, we differentiated ordinary management talk (“We will all line up now”) from disapproval. Disapprovals were coded when directed to a single child (“Johnny, haven’t I told you twice already to clean up!”) or to the entire class if things were perceived as getting out of hand (“You are way too loud, sit down and be quiet for 2 minutes!”).

It is no surprise that transition time is highly related to behavior disapprovals. If children had to transition to central bathrooms and the lunchroom, disapprovals rose to a rate of nearly one per minute. Approvals did not change. Clearly the stick was more often used than the carrot in these classrooms. Over the course of the day, children who had to move through the school building for bathroom and lunch, experienced an average of 300 disapprovals. While we coded disapprovals directed to an individual, all children can hear or see most of them.

Districts and whole states have become committed to Pre-K (or TK in California). Pre-K is increasingly viewed as an additional grade below kindergarten. The programs follow the school day, school year calendar, and the classrooms are in public elementary schools. Although lip service is paid to having a “high quality” program, few states attend to the effects the facilities have on children and teachers.

Four-year-olds are often messy, rambunctious, and highly active — they need care more than they need “school.” They need teachers who know how to provide that care, who do not believe cleaning up after a bathroom accident is beneath them (and so use the school bathrooms that others clean instead of the one in the room), teachers who understand that children simply must have periods of active play throughout the day, and that walking the halls is not the same.

Pre-K programs are centrally administered by states. State policies could mandate appropriate facilities (and their use). It would mean a slower roll out of the state program, but that will not be a bad thing. Better to actually get it right than to have hundreds, even thousands, of children in the wrong settings for them at a critical time in their development.

¹Yu, Elly (June 11, 2024). California is adding a new grade for all 4 year olds. But not every district has the right space for them. LAist. transitional-kindergarten-tk-classroom-space-facilities-bonds