Early Grades and A Longer Day – Making It Work for Kids

Over the years, we have often heard the concern that a longer school day would not work well for our youngest students because they would be unable to handle the demands of school for so many hours.  Our just-released report goes a long way toward showing that this concern may be misplaced by shedding light on the incredible benefits an expanded school day can have for young children, when designed thoughtfully. A longer school day for the early grades can be the platform upon which a more individualized, more well-rounded, and, in turn, less onerous learning experience takes shape.

I must say the argument that young children don’t have the stamina for more than a 6-hour school day has always struck me as a bit odd. After all, for many, many children, their first exposure to a formal learning setting comes at the age of infancy (or soon after) in daycare that often runs from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm, a full 10-hour day.  And, yet, somehow the presumption is that when they reach the age of kindergarten, children can no longer endure a school day much longer than six hours.

Believe me, I’m not trying to be obtuse. I totally get that there are meaningful differences between a voluntary daycare setting and formal, required schooling.  The essential purpose of the two places of learning are fundamentally different. In pre-school, educators aim primarily to create a physically and emotionally safe space where each child can develop at his or her own pace. By the time children enter kindergarten, however, expectations abruptly shift to become much more goal-oriented. In this mode, each child is supposed to attain certain levels of competency in order that they are properly prepared to tackle increasingly complex academic material as they advance through school. The loosely structured approach to cognitive and social development in pre-school gives way to one where growth is carefully monitored and measured, with these metrics pegged to fixed benchmarks of progress.

Perhaps the concerns about a longer day, then, really stem from the feeling that as learning expectations become more explicit and standardized, the corresponding demands on children intensify. Hence, the reduced exposure to formal schooling—that is, a much shorter school day in public school compared to pre-kindergarten—seems justified and developmentally appropriate. Meanwhile, a longer school day, and the greater demands it implies, would be a burden.

Yet this is where schools with substantially longer days turn the “burden” argument on its head, for they prove that more time can be a resource for good. With more time, educators in expanded-time schools are able to construct schedules and an educational program that attends to children’s developmental needs in a number of domains, and does not focus solely on their cognitive growth. As our new report, Creating Learning Environments in the Early Grades that Support Teacher and Student Success, explains:

Put another way, these schools aim to integrate the best of what early education for the youngest children offers—a variety of cognitive activities, physical movement, individual play and creative expression, healthy social interaction, intermittent rest of brain and body, and prolonged opportunities to do all of these things—within the proscribed goals for learning that define public schooling.

For the educators in the profiled schools, the transition from the pre-school model of learning where there are few explicit expectations to which students and teachers are held accountable to the school system of structured education should be gradual and organic, as it is for the children in their charge.

Indeed, we found that once the three profiled schools converted to longer operational days, they have, in large part, been better able to support the development of young children than they were when they operated with a shorter day, specifically because they can now structure a day more aligned to students’ real developmental and learning needs. Not to put too fine a point on it, they disprove the view that younger students find an expanded school day to be too long.  In the hands of expert educators who leverage the time to match students’ needs, an expanded day can be a boon to the development of young students.  And for children from low-income backgrounds such an opportunity to foster healthy development at the start of formal schooling is not just a “nice to have”, but may just be the difference between a life stuck in poverty and an escape route to the middle class.