Voices from the Field

Sandra's Story: Managing Your TK Classroom

Teaching transitional kindergarten took some figuring out in the first year, but there is no other place I’d rather be! I love the energy these young learners bring to the classroom. My TK kids are full of curiosity and eager to learn. I am delighted to help them learn brand-new concepts and strengthen their skills, as well as set them on a path to lifelong learning.

Even with my 10-plus years of experience teaching kindergarten, I continue to learn from TK. Now that I’m in my second year of TK, I’ve learned a few new lessons about managing the classroom.

The Classroom Routine 

Preparing Children Socially and Emotionally

The first part of the TK year is all about helping my students feel comfortable with me and each other.  We focus on learning and practicing the aspects of social interactions and group dynamics that will help them be successful learners throughout their educational careers.

We spend time as a group every morning sitting in a circle and sharing something important to each of us, a time I call “Care and Share”. This helps build comfort and confidence among the students, while also developing oral language and teaching them about turn-taking.

A big part of my focus is also helping my students use words to interact positively with others. They are learning to express feelings, recognize that others have feelings, and understand that their actions have consequences. One tool I use for this is the book Fill a Bucket: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Young Children.

This approach helps develop the social-emotional understanding that when you are kind and supportive of other people, you are not only filling their happiness “buckets,” but you’re also filling your own.

The kids seem to really be able to grasp this, and often talk about how their buckets are (or aren’t!) being filled.  I send home a note at the beginning of the year about the bucket idea to involve families and get their support.

One of the most important things to remember about kids this age: they need opportunities to practice, practice, practice.

The gift of time in transitional kindergarten is the ability to introduce kindergarten standards to TK students knowing they will develop mastery in some areas, and will get the time they need in kindergarten to develop mastery in other areas. I learned last year, after our team of teachers and administrators put together a scope and sequence that my pacing was going to have to remain fluid and flexible.

Many transitional kindergarten students need to be introduced to the concept of being in a classroom, and all children need opportunities to practice skills and strategies for remembering expectations and understanding limits. Providing verbal, musical and visual cues helps my students engage in building, practicing and retaining routines. Cues I use include a flipchart page for the SMARTBoard, pictures to go with the written rules and singing Dr. Jean Feldman’s song “Rules Rap” daily. I try to be very consistent with my language by using the words from the song. I remind them to use their “small voices” and “work together” to clean up. Using the same cues provides the consistency and structure my young students need.

Tip: When transitioning from centers to rug time, I ring a wind chime, and have students freeze until the ringing ends. It’s amazing what a gentle sound can do in a classroom of very active, loud, children when they’ve had a chance to practice the response!

I also help my TK students conceptualize the rules and expectations by having conversations with them about rules, such as “What does it look like to keep your hands and feet to yourself when you’re in the playdough center?” These conversations serve as prompts for my students that help them remember, while supporting oral language and social emotional development.  When a child is struggling to control their behavior, I will ask them to sit on a special bean bag, away from others, for “Think Time.”  I make a point of talking with them about their choices, and they are free to rejoin the class when they feel they are ready to follow the rules. This break from the action is usually enough to allow them to regain control of themselves without feeling punished. Fostering self-regulation is a huge goal of TK.

Ingredients for a Daily TK Schedule

My daily schedule consists of guided activities in academic content areas, free-choice time at learning centers and indoor or outdoor gross motor activities. Child-initiated learning at centers is one of the crucial ingredients in a TK classroom.

I manage learning centers by setting clear expectations for conduct and limiting how many children can be at a center at one time (up to four in my classroom). I attach four pieces of Velcro to a chart next to a picture of each center. Each child has a “Center Ticket” with their name and picture, and Velcro on the back that they can put on the chart. This way, once four students are at a center, the others know they have to wait. I rotate who gets to choose their center first so each student will get a chance to use their first choice center. This helps children learn patience when waiting their turn. With a few weeks of practice and reminders at the beginning of the year, they catch on. I switch out the content of the learning centers every couple weeks to keep the kids engaged. If the center is really popular, I may keep it a little longer.

Tip: Ask parents and PTA members for donations of used toys, puzzles, and supplies such as beans, craft sticks, etc. to gather needed materials. Share center materials with grade partners, and browse Pinterest and TeachersPayTeachers for new ideas.

With the centers, I really make it a free-choice activity. I do not force the students to go to all the centers. As the year progresses, I introduce more complex content for the children to explore.  I’ve noticed that they explore new centers when they’re ready for them. This made me nervous during my first year, as I worried that my students wouldn’t have enough experience in all areas. One boy in particular spent the first six months exclusively in the block center and wouldn’t go near the writing center. By spring, as he had acquired more fine motor strength and control and the understanding of how print is used, he was in the writing center every day making books!

The other crucial ingredients to the transitional kindergarten schedule are movement and outdoor learning. Young children have boundless energy and short attention spans. Intentional planning for movement helps them get their “wiggles” out while building gross motor skills.  My lesson planning includes periods of quiet between the active. I can informally assess their progress by making games out of hopping or balancing on one foot, tiptoeing slowly, or throwing bean bags, seeing which students can do it with one hand and which ones need more guidance. As with everything in TK, these sorts of activities can also be an opportunity to build vocabulary and oral language development.

Building Blocks for Success

Transitional kindergarten truly does offer the gift of time to our youngest learners. Remembering that has been, for me, the key to giving my students the developmentally appropriate building blocks they need for kindergarten success.

Sandra Willey has been blessed to be a public school teacher for 20 years, ten in kindergarten and ten in upper elementary. She never planned on teaching, but as a mom she was fascinated watching her children grow and learn. This led to a class or two, and before she knew it she was a full time teacher!