by Hanna Vock
(Published in condensed form in News & Science under the title: From Kindergarten into Primary School – a Giant Step, to Be Accompanied by Both Sides.)
Historically a huge divide has developed between kindergartens and primary schools. This shows not only in the fact that these are two different institutions in separate buildings. The divide also extends into legislation and rulings, into the pedagogues’ vocational training and salaries as well as into the way days are structured and the general methodology.
It is the children, six or seven years old, who have to make that transfer from one institution to the other, while pedagogues safely stay on their side – often showing little understanding or sympathy for the work done on the other side. There is no other answer to the question why so many appeals for a closer collaboration have gone up in smoke for the longest time and why to this very day there are at best slight beginnings of such collaboration to be seen.
Just the more important are such first fruitful approaches.
This is what I would like to demonstrate by the example of one primary school and one kindergarten and by way of trying to piece together a complete picture of the issue.
Little Leo, assumed gifted, is experiencing the collaboration of the two institutions.
For successful collaboration good work must be done in one’s own institution
Collaboration between kindergarten and primary school will only be successful for gifted children if both institutions dispose of good concepts for the advancement of gifted children and if these are put into effect in every their daily work.
Unfortunately it is still the exception that a gifted child is adequately supported in both, kindergarten and primary school.
The first step is therefore that both institutions acquire an open-minded, impartial understanding of the phenomenon of giftedness. The next step is that they gather experience on this basis and that their methodology is adapted to suit the Special Playing and Learning Needs of gifted children.
Advancement of Gifted Children at Kindergarten means:
The kindergarten teacher investigates the questions, problems, topics, plans and contradictions the child is concerning itself with. What does it want to learn?
In order to find out the kindergarten teacher needs an active and emphatic interest in the learning processes of the child. Her communication with the child must be effective and adequate with regard to its developmental state.
2) Support, inspire and challenge:
In order to support the child in its self-determined learning processes the kindergarten teacher needs flexibility, enthusiasm, creativity, knowledge, pedagogic self-confidence and a sense of what the next appealing learning step would be for a child of exceptionally quick apprehension.
How is Leo getting on? (1)
First, Leo attends a kindergarten where his abilities and his developmental speed are not seen. He is addressed in the same manner all other children of the same age are.
For instance, nobody notices that at age 2;5 he can name all colours, including orange, purple, brown, grey, light blue and so forth. Upon pointing this out to his kindergarten teacher she shouts clear across the room “Leo, what colour is my jacket today?”
Leo turns around shortly and shouts back (with a rather uninspired look on his face): “Red!” Nothing else follows (and Leo had probably long given up any expectations).
A hint presented on a silver tray, and it isn’t recognised nor is any use made of it in the way of finding out more about his interests and abilities.
Leo is lucky, though, and changes to an “Integrative Focus Kindergarten for the Advancement of Gifted Children” at age 3;9.
Upon a first assessment of his developmental state he is introduced into the group of the oldest children. Everybody there is at least 11 months older than he is. Nevertheless he is quickly accepted as a playing mate by the older children.
The kindergarten teachers meet his interests and abilities with appreciation, Leo feels good.
One year later, at age 4;9, Leo is accepted into the group of prep-school children, even though it is not clear yet when he is going to enrol at school.
Mandatory and early school enrolment
For many gifted children school attendance begins too late. In most federal states of Germany mandatory school attendance for children goes into effect when a child reaches the age of six years before the 31st of June of the same year (in some states the deadline is set to the 30th of September). Throughout the whole of Austria mandatory school attendance begins on the 1st of September after the child has turned six.
However, most gifted children will early on develop an interest in such academic pursuits as reading, writing, calculating and general studies, and they usually explore these in their very own individual ways. It is a good thing if the parents and kindergarten do not hinder the children in these endeavours but rather support them actively. There is no minimum age for being allowed to learn these important cultural techniques.
Is early enrolment – ahead of mandatory attendance – the solution?
For every child school enrolment is a major turning point at this early stage in life because of the specific learning style at school. An individual assessment is to be made as to whether or not the child is strong enough to get on in the system “school”.
Some gifted children have been weakened in the development of their personality by their surroundings. In such cases it can be beneficial if they get to spend some more time in a strengthening kindergarten setting.
School enrolment – way before mandatory attendance, even as early as at the age of four years – is possible in Germany. This is at the discretion of the school’s board in connection with the obligatory approval by the school doctor. With regard to Austria I could find no further information on this other than that school enrolment is possible no earlier than at the age of six years.
There is one drawback to early school enrolment in Germany, though. Regardless of how young the child is, school attendance becomes mandatory once the child has formally enrolled at school, there is no way back to kindergarten. A practice, well-tried in numerous cases and to be further endorsed, is to give the child the chance of a nonbinding “try out period”. (See 7th Piece.)
How is Leo getting on? (2)
According to the law Leo would be enrolled at school at age 6;9. But here is the catch: the better a gifted child feels and the more it has been supported the further it will be developed. This means: “the gap widens”; the difference in developmental stage between the gifted child and the other children grows in time. This is a natural process and should not discourage anybody.
The adults around Leo continuously marvel at his interests and abilities, and so the idea of early school enrolment arises.
The experienced kindergarten teachers see it coming that they will not be able to provide any more suitable common fields of learning for the gifted child and its mates at kindergarten.
For parents, kindergarten teachers and the child itself school increasingly comes into focus
Early school enrolment should in no case be a flight from kindergarten. When considering the pros and cons of early enrolment these questions should be answered:
1) Does the child want to go to school?
2) If so, why? What does it expect and are its expectations realistic?
3) If the child does not yet want to go to school, why not? Is it afraid of the change? Might this fear subside?
4) Which interests and and abilities does the child have with regard to requirements at school?
5) Will the child’s main playing mates and friends stay behind at kindergarten or are they being enrolled?
6) In which areas might the child have trouble meeting the requirements at school?
7) Is there good reason to think that the child will be able to cope with these problems if allowed to enrol?
8) What is the parents’ stand on the issue of early enrolment? What arguments in favour of or against it do they have?
9) What is the prospective school / teacher thinking?
Some annotations concerning these points:
Annotations – points 1–3:
It is advisable to convey realistic ideas of what school is to all children at kindergarten. It is also important to encourage positive expectations with regard to school and to deal with possible fears some children might have. This may be somewhat more laborious with gifted children than with some of the other children. Their apprehensions often do not arise out of immaturity or underdevelopment, but out of complex foresight – also of possible problems.
How to Prepare the Children for School (in German)
We Make Our Own “Classroom” (in German)
Project: School Corner … and Our Feelings (in German)
Annotations – point 4:
If the child for an extended period of time shows interest for things which are usually brought up no earlier than in school, there are two ways of dealing with the situation: either the kindergarten changes routines and caters to these interests adequately or the child changes over to school. In no case the learning process should be retarded “so that the child won’t be too far ahead later at school”.
Annotations – point 5:
If the child’s main playing mates and friends move on to school there is good reason to enrol the child early, otherwise there is the danger that the child is left behind without the stimuli provided by and the exchange with the older children for a whole year.
Annotations – point 6:
Often early enrolment is advised against because the child is seen as well developed with regard to cognitive abilities, yet not so in terms of its social skills, and that it does not yet show either an adequate attitude towards work nor sufficient tolerance for frustration.
Numerous experiences related in our courses as well as observations made in many parent consultations have shown that sometimes there is grave misjudgement at the bottom of such assessments, rooted in a lack of knowledge about the developmental dynamics of gifted children. If there really are serious deficits in social skills and personal competencies, these should certainly be tended to. A situation where the child is continuously underchallenged cognitively should be handled with priority and resolved better sooner than late.
Annotations – point 7:
Experience has shown that knowledge gaps of gifted children should not be overrated. Even young children show an astonishing ability to catch up if they are motivated to stay in a learning environment which they experience as more suitable. Above all it is their intrinsic motivation that will kick in if they are challenged adequately.
It is a known fact that gifted children who have skipped one level to the next form quickly catch up to the new level in an accelerated learning phase and even move on to the top group of the learners (while feeling comfortable because the tempo is just right for them) – and then sometimes fall back into a situation where they feel underchallenged again. This seems to imply that measures of acceleration (such as early enrolment or skipping to the next level form) may mitigate the problem of being underchallenged but do not address the root problem. In cases where children already know how to read and /or calculate it is sometimes advisable to consider a jump-start right into 2. form upon enrolment.
Annotations – point 8:
Often parents are not sure whether early enrolment is really the measure of choice. These parents need support. Concrete observations and assessments by the qualified kindergarten teachers can encourage parents to make that unusual move. It is in turn important for the child that the parents take a solid stand on the issue and thereby give the child a sense of security.
Annotations – point 9:
The school accepting the child should do so in a friendly manner which means supportively and without reservation.
At kindergarten, too, parents frequently notice a significant gap between the activities in kindergarten and the child’s cognitive aptitude and they clearly notice that this does not do the child any good.
The consequences of the child’s being underchallenged may be:
- a principal dislike of kindergarten
- the daily attempt to delay attendance at kindergarten or the direct refusal to go
- complaints by the child about being bored and not finding adequate playing mates
- the tendency to turn to one or all kindergarten teachers for attention
- the wish to move on to school
And indeed, early enrolment at school may be a (temporary) way out of being cognitively underchallenged.
How is Leo getting on? (3)
He is – as are other children from the pre-school group – increasingly looking forward to going to school.
His kindergarten teachers confirm: He is not only cognitively well developed, but also of robust constitution and his social skills are sufficiently developed.
His kindergarten teachers are sure that it is time for him to move on; after all, as much as they provide qualified and adequate care for a gifted child – it is also important that the child find congenial playing mates.
All of Leo’s friends are about to enrol at school …
The kindergarten speaks out in favour of Leo being enrolled.
Still, his mother is insecure about it and needs encouragement by the kindergarten teachers to stick with the decision she has made.
The school comes up with its own assessment or rather substantiates it
Unfortunately many kindergarten teachers still tend to advise against early enrolment for gifted children, pointing out that a successful transfer to school involves more aspects than the appropriate cognitive development.
They often see the emotional / social development of a gifted child lagging behind its cognitive development.
While this is not so very surprising when cognition is far ahead, it is still not true in many cases. I have been privileged to get to know quite a few gifted children who were emotionally and socially rather mature.
The question should be more specifically: does the child’s emotional and social development lag behind so far that the successful transfer to school is seriously in question?
Scores of children who have reached the age of mandatory school attendance do have emotional and social “deficits” and are nevertheless enrolled at school.
How many cases of regular enrolment would have to be re-examined under such considerations?
In any case of doubts on the side of the kindergarten it would be important for the school to come to its own assessment of the child’s aptitude to attend school.
How is Leo getting on? (4)
After having been enlisted for school one year ahead (in September) Leo is experiencing the regular admission procedures of the primary school.
Shortly after the deadline for registration the headmaster of the primary school visits the kindergarten. She and the kindergarten management have a thorough look at the prospective new pupils.
In the course of this consultation the school’s headmaster gets initial information about Leo being a still young but well developed and possibly gifted child. She acknowledges the information provided by the kindergarten openly and with appreciation. There is trust, which has grown in the course of previous consultations and parent talks.
One November morning Leo, together with one other child from his group, is invited to school. This is not a special measure for gifted children – all children receive such invitations.
Here the children come together with three friendly school teachers (and without their parents) for one hour. They strike up a conversation with the children on specific points, taking notes on their observations.
Leo catches attention by answering (at the age of 4;11) the question how far he could count:
“I once counted to 1,049 on an airplane; but then I quit because I had not taken a break yet.”
He happens to love numbers.
From his conduct (social and working attitude) and his verbal contributions the observing teachers conclude that Leo does dispose of the necessary scholastic aptitude.
Leo himself found the hour “interesting”.
But the time for a definite decision has not come yet.
Further information for the kindergarten and the parents
There are three groups of adults involved in the decision about early enrolment. Two of the three know the child rather well (parents and kindergarten teachers). The third group (the prospective teacher and the headmaster of the school) are yet getting to know the child.
Stiftung Warentest (a German consumer organisation and foundation that investigates and compares consumer goods and services) writes:
„Hardly anybody can give a more reliable assessment of a child’s scholastic aptitude than can kindergarten teachers. They know the child’s conduct outside of the family. Is the child able to make friends, to get along within a group and solve problems appropriate for its age group? They provide information on the child’s concentration, willingness to work and its perseverance. Consulting with kindergarten teachers is therefore most valuable.” (Stiftung Warentest, see:
So it is wise for the school teacher to acknowledge well-founded and concrete information from the kindergarten. This is how school teachers can employ the kindergarten teachers’ knowledge about talents and developmental advances of a child right from the start and incorporate them in their own educational concepts.
How is Leo getting on? (5)
Leo’s kindergarten goes far beyond the usual. His parents, as do all parents of children to be enrolled at school, receive a profile of their child, which has been developed on the basis of years of observation.
According to this profile Leo is partially far ahead of the other children, who are to be enrolled, in eight areas that have been subject to observation. These areas (as specified by Howard Gardner) are these:
Linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalist, intrapersonal, interpersonal, existential.
The individual profile is depicted graphically. In addition, an overall average is determined and also depicted graphically.
This shows the parents where the child stands in comparison with other children with regard to its developmental state. It also serves to put their expectations on a realistic basis. How these profiles are drawn up and what they mean is explained in teacher-parent conferences.
In addition to this the parents receive a comprehensive developmental report towards the end of their children’s kindergarten attendance.
(Examples of such are to be found in: Developmental Report at the End of Kindergarten Attendance – in German)
Both documents can be made available to the school if the parents wish to do so.
Meanwhile Leo speaks of his transfer to school as if it was the most natural thing, while still enjoying every day at kindergarten.
What does School feel like? And: School refines its impression of the children.
In April of the year Leo is going to be enrolled at school, the school invites all children to sit in with the first form. In pairs of two the children from kindergarten experience two school lessons. Among other things they take part in the morning circle, and work sheets are handed to them.
This is where the teacher can see how the children behave in class. The first visit in school was about the children’s knowledge and abilities, their verbal skill, their ability to make contact with the teacher and their working attitude when personally addressed.
Now it is about their conduct in class. Will they be able to concentrate here too? Do they participate verbally in class or are they timid and shy? Do they make it through the entire two school lessons?
How is Leo getting on? (6)
Leo likes it at school. Without inhibition he tells the class about his adventures at the past weekend in the morning circle. He gets a math work sheet – along with the instruction to ask the teacher if he has a question and to turn it in when he is finished.
One minute later he has written down all the answers. He walks up to the teacher’s desk and says: “That was too easy.” He then gets another work sheet from the end of the first school year. It takes him a little longer to finish, but he turns it in without any mistakes.
This gives the teacher important further information about Leo, which she might not have gathered so easily in the larger group of all new pupils.
Leo himself has got a more concrete idea of what school feels like: pretty good so far.
All this does by no means mean that there will not be any problems arising. But everybody involved in the transfer to school has carefully prepared this step so that there is good reason to expect at least the beginning of Leo’s school attendance to be a success.
School permits temporary attendance ahead of formal enrolment, a “try out” is possible.
The decision for or against early enrolment will in some cases not be easy for all parties involved in the process. Only if all four parties (parents, school, kindergarten and the child itself) are sure about it, it is safe to say that the decision is right.
In many cases, the concern that early enrolment might be wrong and could result in serious harm, tends to outweigh all other considerations. For this reason it seems that in too many cases early enrolment is not favoured, even if it would be the better choice for the child.
A temporary “try out” has proven to be a good method in order to diminish insecurities on the side of the parents and the child, and to verify the decision.
Such a try out can take place at different times throughout the school year. It should at least be two to three weeks in the first form (in individual cases even in the second form), in which the child gets a chance to find its way into the system and to validate its own ideas of what school is like. This is the minimum amount of time the child will need to acclimatise in the group, get accustomed to the regime in class and to find out whether school is the better learning environment.
After this try out period a consultation between school, parents, and favourably involving the kindergarten, based on concrete observations should take place.
I want to emphasize that it must be understood by all the parties involved: this should be an open process where in the end nobody is wright or wrong, but where the best solution is to be found. A return to kindergarten must be possible without the slightest loss of face. This can be achieved by handling the situation without tension and considering the try out simply as a positive opportunity…
If the parties come to the conclusion that the child is better off at school, it will have a positive effect if the child gets to stay at school right then.
The often experienced rejection of such “luxurious conditions for enrolment” by schools incidentally contradicts the idea of inclusion and will hopefully soon be history. [Inclusion in education is an approach to educating students with special educational needs. Under the inclusion model, students with special needs spend most or all of their time with non-disabled students. This approach has been heavily endorsed by politics and put into practice in German schools over the past few years.]
How is Leo getting on? (7)
It remains to be seen whether Leo will receive adequate support in school. Often school is one big disappointment for gifted children, when they come to realise that there is hardly anything new for them to learn at school and that the pace of learning and the many repetitions do not suit them.
At Leo’s school, too, there have been remarks by teachers with regard to other very talented children of the kind: “You told us, he has special abilities, now he just disturbs the lessons and doesn’t do anything.”
If it comes to that point a lot has gone wrong already at school. Hopefully Leo will be saved from this experience.
After three weeks Leo was asked:
“What have you learned at school? What was new for you?”
– Leo: “Nothing.”
– A week later he adds: “Physical education is pretty good. We have learned a new game.”
– “And what else is good?”
– Leo: “The breaks.”
– “And all the other subjects?”
– Leo: “Boring.”
– “Well, what do they do in class?”
– “Practising numbers and letters.” (Leo reads almost fluently and writes numbers and capital and lower case letters legibly.)
– “What do you like better, kindergarten or school?”
– Leo: “Kindergarten.”
– Leo: “There I was allowed to learn what I wanted.”
In a parent-teacher conference the parents are told that Leo does write numbers legibly but not orderly enough yet. They want him to practise this over the following weeks; then he will get more interesting problems to solve. And that he still has problems sitting still in class.
A few days later he is working on an assignment that was made up for him, a 5;9-year-old, by his grandmother. He sits perfectly still and works concentrated. His grandmother says to the boy, whom the parents had told about the statements the teacher had made in the parent-teacher conference:
“But now you’re sitting quite still and you have been for quite a while too.”
– Leo: “Yes, this is fun.”
On Friday Leo says: “I’m glad I don’t have to go to school tomorrow.” And beaming with joy he adds: “And not the day after tomorrow either!”
It must be pointed out here that according to his parents Leo used to enjoy going to kindergarten every day and that he has found new friends in class. He does like his teacher, he finds his satchel easy to carry, he knows how to handle his things for school and the walk to school is not too far for him – it could all be so nice if only there were interesting things for him to learn at his own pace …
We will see how this goes on. Hopefully this early disappointment with school will not turn into Permanent Frustration.
See also: My First Year at School – Interviews with Children (in German)
Addendum by Dorit Nörmann:
Here in Lower Saxony we had a project some six years ago, it was called “Bridge Year” and was conducted by the school authority. It consisted in a 2-year initial funding granted to schools and kindergartens that were able to present a concept for cooperation. The money was designated mainly for personnel. After the two years the projects were to be self-sufficient and further financing was only granted for coaches supervising the projects.
In our community there were two kindergartens and one primary school involved in the project. We came up with a special mode of cooperation, put it into practice and are still operating this concept to this day.
When the funding by the school authority ran out our parents turned to the municipality and asked them to cover for the additional personnel and working hours. And it worked. For the past two years the municipality has taken care of finances and will continue to do so for the coming two years too.
What is our system of cooperation?
One year before regular school enrolment we test the children in a 30-minute screening to determine their strengths and weak spots.
The focus is on six areas:
1) visual and general memory
2) conceptualisation of numbers, amounts and organisation
3) figure-ground-perception, perception of spatial position
4) perception of sound and rhythm
5) logical thinking
6) understanding of instructions
Children, for example, who show weakness of memory get together on Thursdays in primary school in 6-week intervals. So they spend the first two lessons of the day working on their memory skills together in small groups of up to 6 children.
The groups stay the same over a period of six such sessions while the teacher and the kindergarten teacher change to a different group after every two sessions. This is how one group might work with the manager of the kindergarten N°1, then with the deputy headmaster of the primary school and finally with the manager of kindergarten N°2.
This is how we get to know all the children to be enrolled and we can find the best possible constellations in which to place them in the coming class.
In the second semester the prospective teachers for the first form get involved. Children who do not show any weaknesses are put together in so-called proficiency groups and get to work on special assignments.
Even our very young children, who are more talented and curious-minded, are allowed to participate and get an early insight into school.
The teachers get in contact early on and it is easy to enter into a discourse about early enrolment.
Especially in the proficiency groups there are often younger children from kindergarten. They get to work together with older children. The teacher working with that group gets to know the gifted children early on. The possibility of early enrolment can be considered at an early stage. Sometimes one such session at school per week is all the child needs.
This specific kind of cooperation in Wietzen is singular, there is no comparable project going on anywhere else in Lower Saxony.
Recently I had a team of kindergarten teachers from nearby in our kindergarten for a consultation: they had no cooperation with their primary school. The school teachers ignored them completely. So we worked the whole day trying to find points to tie in their primary school with their work in kindergarten. I felt very sorry for these colleagues. They were so motivated but just could not get through to their school.
Read more about the Concept of Bridge Years (in German).
Published in German: November 2013
Translation: Arno Zucknick
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see Imprint.