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Making the Choice: Pre-K vs. Transitional Kindergarten

If your child will turn five between September and December and you live in California, this is the time of year you are deciding between transitional kindergarten (TK) or another year of preschool. You may also be deciding on starting your child in a private kindergarten that will allow for enrollment following a different processor schedule (i.e., different cutoffs for birthdays).

For several years in my career, I’ve worked with parents and child care teachers daily, providing support and help ensure high-quality early learning environments. Throughout my career, I have worked with many families to determine their child’s readiness for transitioning into new programs or Kindergarten. This blog post is meant to help you evaluate what will work best for your family if you, too, have conflicting thoughts or are not sure how to best proceed.


What is Transitional Kindergarten?

“Created by the 2010 California law called the Kindergarten Readiness Act, and offered across the state, transitional kindergarten (TK) was designed to prepare children for kindergarten. Under the law, TK offers children with 5th birthdays between September and December a developmentally appropriate curriculum taught by credentialed teachers from K-12. It also changed the kindergarten entry date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 so that children enter kindergarten at age 5.

The entry date change and the creation of TK address a longstanding need in California, as children have historically started kindergarten at a younger age than kids in almost any other state – often without the maturity, social skills and early academic skills they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. At the same time, kindergarten standards and curriculum have changed over the years, and many of the skills children were once taught in first grade are now expected in kindergarten.” 1

To summarize, kindergarten readiness will be addressed, and children will have an extra year to grow and mature. Sounds great, right? Well, not so fast. Continuity of care, lower ratios, and group sizes, familiarity with the environment, opportunities to be a leader in their last year of preschool — these are all important factors to consider when thinking about your child and whether a final year of preschool may work better than a transition into TK.

A Deeper Dive into Transitional Kindergarten and Preschool Considerations


Transitional kindergarten ratios are more in line with those of kindergarten, meaning one teacher can have up to 30 children on their own. (On average, TK programs have one teacher to 22 students). Compare this to licensed preschool and child care programs – in centers; the max ratio is 1:12, and in family child care programs you will typically see a 1:6 or even 1:4 ratio.2

Teacher qualifications

Transitional kindergarten teachers do need to be credentialed, and many have spent time as kindergarten teachers. However, only 25% have any previous preschool or early childhood education experience or education. Expectations for kindergarteners are pretty different for expectations for younger children so this is a factor you should consider, and ask your local TK program about the background of their specific TK teachers. Conversely, family child care providers don’t necessarily have to meet any educational requirements, but within the Wonderschool network, anyone operating a preschool program must meet a baseline of education and experience, and often exceed those baseline requirements.


What does the day of your local TK program look like versus your child’s preschool program – do children have ample opportunities to explore and play, or are they expected to sit still and receive direct instruction for large portions of the day? Do they play outside multiple times per day? How do they get to the bathroom? What needs to they need to be able to address on their own? All questions that should be asked to your specific program as they will vary from school to school. If you’re worried that your child needs a more academic environment, we offer more information on why a play-based curriculum is so important before kindergarten.3

A child playing outdoors.

Your current child care provider should also be able to describe the daily rhythm of their program and help you understand how your child is learning through play and within the structure of their specific curriculum.

Larger campus/older children (before/after care)

If you are a working parent, you may need Before and After School care in addition to TK, as it only covers a portion of the day. Your child may be mixed in with a group of children up to 10 years old during Before and After Care, which may or may not feel comfortable to you. This expanded mixed-age group is a potentially big transition that your child may be ready for now or, another year of developing in a familiar environment may be better for them.


Transitional kindergarten is freewhich is a huge and undeniable consideration. If your family is struggling to pay for child care, as many of us do, this may alleviate a noticeable strain on your family’s budget.

Other factors

Depending on your district, if a lottery system is in place opting-in to TK may earn your family more “tiebreaker” points than not opting-in to TK. San Francisco is one example of this.

Common myths on what children need for Kindergarten success

Children need larger groups to thrive and learn: ⛔️ False

“Improved verbal interactions are correlated with lower child:staff ratios. Small ratios are very important for young children’s development. [Small] group size and child:staff ratio allow three- to five-year-old children to have continuing adult support and guidance while encouraging independent, self-initiated play and other activities.”4

Children need direct academic instruction to be ready for kindergarten: ⛔️ False

Play-based learning is not only appropriate for children before kindergarten (even children in kindergarten!) but actually helps promote kindergarten readiness.3

Social and emotional development is arguably the most important element of your child’s early learning experience: ✅ True

“Research shows the link between social and emotional skills and school success is so strong, it is a greater predictor of children’s academic performance in the first grade than their familial background and their cognitive abilities. Why is this link so strong? Simply put, we know that learning is a social process. Children cannot learn when they are struggling to follow directions, get along with their peers and control their emotions in a classroom setting.”4

Social-emotional development may be best nurtured and supported in a smaller, more intimate environment: ✅ True

“Direct, warm social interaction between adults and children is more common and more likely with lower child:staff ratios.” 5

Doing what feels right

As you probably already know from the hundreds and thousands of decisions you have already made for your child, you need to do what you think is best for them and your family. The choice between TK or a final year in preschool is undoubtedly a very personal decision for each family. Cost is a consideration, of course, as is location, hours of care, environment, and more. Being able to select between your child’s current preschool program and a TK program are two good options to have!

After looking into TK myself, as well as even considering private kindergarten (cost was certainly an issue there!), I decided to keep my own daughter in her preschool program for another year. I look forward to her having the opportunity to be a leader in her mixed-age program, enhance and refine many skills, and continue working on her own social and emotional development.

Learn about the benefits of play-based learning prior to kindergarten, and teaching kids when they are ready.

Mia Pritts has been the Head of Early Care and Education at Wonderschool and is a 20-year+ veteran of the early care and education fields. Mia’s roles have spanned all aspects of program operations: from teaching preschool, to opening and directing preschool and child care programs, to providing consultation to teachers, parents, and child care owners, to building shared business services for early childhood education providers. She truly loves her work and the many experiences she has had with children, teachers, directors, and families.

Find the right fit with Wonderschool’s help

When you’re deciding between school and program options, it’s all about factoring in your family’s priorities and values. Wonderschool’s child care finder can help you find a program that fits your child’s needs. Filter by cost and program type to find where your little one can blossom and set your child up for a great education.


Mia Pritts

Mia is the Head of Early Care & Education at Wonderschool. She started her career as a preschool teacher 20 years ago and has since taken on major leadership positions in the field of Early Care and Education. In addition to deep knowledge and expertise in all operational aspects of childcare programming, she has also helped launch several shared business services initiatives specific to the field of ECE.