1. How reading and writing with your child boost more than just literacy

    September 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Washington press release:

    Children who read and write at home — whether for assignments or just for fun — are building long-term study and executive function skills, according to a paper from the University of Washington.

    And while home literacy activities have already been associated with higher test scores, the new study shows these activities also provide students with tools for lifetime success.

    “People who are good students tend to become good employees by being on time and putting forward their best work. All of the things that make you a good student also make you a good employee,” said Nicole Alston-Abel, a Federal Way Public Schools psychologist who conducted the study while pursuing her doctorate at the UW. “If you make sure your child is academically engaged at home through third grade, kids go on autopilot — they know how to ‘do’ school after that.

    Alston-Abel analyzed data collected by co-author Virginia Berninger, UW emeritus professor of education, who conducted a five-year longitudinal study of academic performance in grades one through seven. As part of that study, Berninger sent home questionnaires asking parents if, and how, they helped their children with reading and writing; Alston-Abel, a former primary teacher, then compared the responses with students’ academic performance.

    The study published online in May in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation.

    To collect a range of ages and school experiences, the study followed two groups of students in public elementary schools near the UW campus — one cohort of students from first to fifth grade, the other from third to seventh grade. In all, 241 families participated over five years, completing annual questionnaires about how their child felt about reading and writing, what kinds of activities they engaged in at home, and what kind of help parents provided.

    The demographics of both cohorts reflected neighborhoods around the university: About 85 percent of students were white or Asian American, and nearly three-fourths of parents had a bachelor’s or advanced degree. A more diverse pool, Alston-Abel said, would be illuminating from a research perspective, but the basic message would remain the same: “The takeaway is still the importance of having a parent involved in developing the habits and models a child needs to be successful. It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic status you come from.”

    Among the study’s findings:

    • Students spent significantly more time at home reading than writing.
    • Without a specific assignment, children were more likely to choose reading as an activity than writing.
    • Parents provided more help with writing than with reading.
    • Starting at the intermediate grades (four and up), writing assignments increased, while parent help for writing declined more gradually than for reading.
    • About three-fourths of the fifth- and seventh-grade students used a computer for writing assignments.
    • Parents of those older students described their children as “fluent” in using a computer for writing homework for 19 percent of the fifth-graders, and 53 percent of the seventh-graders.
    • Parent ratings of their student’s “self-regulation,” or ability to stay on task and exhibit other study skills, were associated with academic performance, especially in reading comprehension and written expression.

    The authors point out that there is no direct causal link between the responses on the questionnaires and student achievement, but that some patterns do exist. For example, among students whose parents described their lack of focus or unwillingness to help set modest goals, academic achievement was generally lower than among students who stayed on task or learned to prioritize.

    The study speaks to the need for a collaborative effort between parents and teachers, Alston-Abel said, especially among marginalized populations, and at a time when kindergarteners, according to Common Core State Standards, are expected to demonstrate basic reading and writing skills.

    “Some kids come to kindergarten reading basic ‘sight words,’ and others don’t know their letters. Add up the disadvantages and the demands of the curriculum, and it becomes very apparent that if you don’t have a collaborative effort, for these same kids, that gap is always going to be there,” Alston-Abel said.

    Teachers can start by asking parents about how they support their child’s learning at home — like with the kinds of questionnaires used in the study. The responses to open-ended questions about what kinds of reading and writing a child does at home, why, and for how long each week, can then inform instruction. Meanwhile, parents who work with their children, Alston-Abel added, are introducing study skills like time management and impulse control.

    The paper provides other tips for parents and teachers on how to work together to develop literacy and study skills. One way is to engage a child in writing at home through journals, a story to a family member, even an email or thank-you note. Another is to look for specific skills to help develop, such as spelling or reading comprehension, but pull back when the child appears able to accomplish more independently. And encourage any opportunity to read or write for fun.

    “Academic success is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise,” Alston-Abel said. “Teacher, parent and student all have a part to play. Fostering home-school partnerships that enhance and extend the experience of the learner can lead to life-long habits that foster success.”

    The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


  2. Young children’s sense of self is similar to that of adults

    September 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Young children’s sense of self is similar to that of older kids and adults, a team of psychology researchers has found. The results show that our ability to reason about our self-worth as individuals develops early in life, but also suggest that failure can instill discouragement sooner than previously thought.

    “Young children’s self-concepts are not qualitatively different from those of older children and adults,” explains Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “Young children can think of themselves as possessing abstract traits and abilities, and they can also reason about their self-worth, which has implications for self-esteem.

    “However, this level of maturity in reasoning about the self also means that young children can become dispirited in the face of failure and are not the undaunted optimists that previous theories have described. In light of this new work, we need to think carefully about, and investigate, ways of supporting young children’s motivation and engagement with important — but often difficult — activities such as school.”

    The study, which appears in the journal Child Development, also included Matthew Hammond, a faculty member at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, as well as Giulia Mazza and Grace Corry, who were undergraduate researchers at the University of Illinois when this research was conducted.

    It has long been thought that young children think of themselves in concrete, behavioral terms and, unlike adults or older children, are cognitively incapable of reasoning about their traits or their worth as individuals.

    The researchers tested this belief, aiming to understand if young children can think about themselves in terms of general traits and abilities (e.g., “I’m smart”) and judge their global worth as individuals — or if they are largely focused on concrete behaviors and outcomes (e.g., “I got a good grade”).

    To answer this question, the researchers conducted a series of studies of children ranging from four to seven years old. The participants were presented several hypothetical scenarios — commonly employed in psychology research for this age group — that varied in several respects. In them, the children were asked to imagine they could not complete a task (e.g., solving a puzzle) despite “trying really hard.” In some cases, they were told the task was easy (e.g., drawing the sun) and in others that it was difficult (e.g., drawing a horse). In addition, some children were informed the task was done at the request of an adult (a parent or teacher) while others were told it was self-initiated.

    They were then asked questions about their abilities (e.g., “Does not drawing the sun/horse right make you feel like you’re good at drawing or not good at drawing?”) and their global sense of self-worth (e.g., “Does not finishing the puzzle make you feel like a good boy/girl or not a good boy/girl?”). At the end of the sessions, children acted out positive scenarios and were debriefed.

    The results showed that children as young as four can flexibly reason about their abilities and their global sense of self-worth based on the context of their behavior. For example, children lowered their estimation of their abilities, but not their global self-worth, when told they failed an easy, as opposed to hard, task. Conversely, they lowered their estimation of their global self-worth, but not their abilities, when informed they failed an adult-requested (vs. self-initiated) task — in other words, adult involvement could negatively affect self-esteem, independent of the task.

    “This evidence reveals surprising continuity between young children’s self-concepts and those of older children and adults,” Cimpian observes. “However, more importantly, our findings show the impact others can have on young children’s sense of self-worth at a very young age.

    “It is therefore important for both parents and educators to understand that our children may become more discouraged than we previously realized and find ways to foster a productive learning environment.”


  3. Like adults, children show bias in attributing mental states to others

    September 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    Young children are more likely to attribute mental states to characters that belong to the same group as them relative to characters that belong to an outside group, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The study shows that 5- and 6-year-olds were more likely to describe interactions between two characters in terms of what they were thinking and feeling when the characters had the same gender or geographic origin as them.

    “We found that young children were selective in the way they attribute mental states — they were less likely to spontaneously refer to the mind of individuals belonging to a different group,” says researcher Niamh McLoughlin of the University of York. “Our research suggests that, at least from the age of 5, children demonstrate a bias that might be similar to dehumanization — ascribing fewer mental abilities and uniquely human traits to others. In addition, this work illustrates that there are situations in which children are more or less motivated to reason about the minds of other people.”

    Previous research has shown that adults tend to dehumanize people who belong to social groups or categories — for example, race, gender, socioeconomic status — that are different from their own. These “outsiders” are seen as having less intelligence, rationality, and emotional depth than do those who belong to the in-group. McLoughlin and University of York co-author Harriet Over were interested in investigating the developmental origins of this phenomenon.

    “Our aim was to examine whether young children also exhibited this bias with relation to mental state attribution,” says McLoughlin.

    Adapting an established technique, the researchers showed a total of 128 5- and 6-year-olds animations of a big triangle and a small triangle that seemed to interact, with one triangle seemingly coaxing or surprising the other.

    Each child saw two videos. In one, the triangles were described as having the same gender or coming from the same town as the participant; in the other, the triangles were described as having a different gender or coming from a far-away country. The researchers chose to examine gender because it’s a category that children are particularly sensitive to, while they decided to look at geographic origin because of its relevance to current social and political debates.

    The researchers asked the participants to describe what happened and to rate how much they liked the group discussed in each video.

    Using a predetermined coding scheme, the researchers counted any words that described a character’s thoughts, desires, emotions, intentions, or current states as mental-state terms.

    The data showed that 6 year-olds used more mental-state words overall and a more diverse range of these words compared with children who were one year younger, a finding that highlights the ongoing development of theory-of-mind processes in early childhood.

    More importantly, both 5- and 6-year-olds used more mental-state terms when they believed the characters had the same gender or home town as opposed to when they had a different one. And the 6-year-olds also used more diverse mental-state words in describing characters from the same group relative to those from a different group.

    This group-based bias extended to direct ratings: Participants also preferred individuals who belonged to their own gender and geographic group. .

    These findings hint at early origins for social phenomena including bias between social groups and dehumanization, the researchers argue.

    “We plan to use this research as the base for future work examining the social consequences of biased mental-state attribution, such as the extent to which children help members of an outgroup,” says McLoughlin. “We hope that this work can ultimately inform research-led interventions that aim to foster positive intergroup relations.”


  4. Child’s home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

    August 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that can cascade into later academic success, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

    The study, published online in the journal Applied Developmental Science, followed a group of children from birth through 5th grade to track the influence of early home learning environments on later cognitive skills and understand the factors that might explain long-term influences.

    “There is growing evidence for the power of early learning environments on later academic success,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, the study’s lead author and a professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt. “Our study confirms that strong home learning environments arm children with foundational skills that are springboards to long-term academic achievement.”

    Research shows that the home learning environment powerfully shapes children’s language and cognitive development. Children’s participation in learning activities, the quality of parent-child interactions, and the availability of learning materials like books and toys are three key features of the home learning environment that support language and pre-academic skills in early childhood.

    In this study, Tamis-LeMonda and her colleagues examined early home learning environments and whether they predict 5th grade academic skills for children of families from ethnically diverse, low-income backgrounds. The researchers studied 2,204 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project.

    Children’s learning environments were measured through a series of home visits at 14 months, at 2 and 3 years, and at pre-kindergarten. The researchers looked at literacy activities (including book reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers), learning materials in the home (including books, toys, or games that facilitate expression and learning), and the quality of mothers’ interactions with their children. Examples of high quality interactions included labeling objects in the environment and responding to children’s cues; these sensitive interactions are attentive to children’s needs and cognitively stimulating.

    Learning environments were again assessed in 5th grade based on the number of books in the home and the quality of mothers’ engagement with children, both spontaneous interactions and during a discussion-based task.

    At the pre-kindergarten and 5th grade visits, children were assessed on age-appropriate academic skills. The pre-K visit included measures of vocabulary, letter and word identification, and math problem-solving; the 5th grade visit measured vocabulary, reading, math, and general cognitive abilities.

    The researchers found that early learning environments supported the emergence of pre-academic skills that persisted into early adolescence to predict children’s 5th grade academic skills. Pathways from early learning environments to later academic skill were similar for children from White, Black, Hispanic, English-speaking, and Hispanic Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

    Notably, learning environments were highly stable over the 10-year study, suggesting that the experiences parents provide their infants as early as the first year of life may solidify into patterns of engagement that either continue to support or impede children’s emerging skills.

    The study highlights the importance of early childhood experiences for children’s skill development and long-term academic success, and reinforces the notion that families have a major influence on children’s academic outcomes.

    The researchers note that the findings have implications for policy and practice, including the design of interventions for young children and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    “Improvements to early learning environments, whether it be in the home or through early childhood programs like Early Head Start, can effectively support the development of children exposed to socioeconomic disadvantage,” said Tamis-LeMonda, who also co-directs the Center for Research on Culture, Development and Education at NYU Steinhardt.


  5. Mothers’ responses to their babies’ distress help predict infant attachment

    August 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    The security of the relationship infants establish with their mothers is important for children’s development. Although most babies establish secure attachment relationships with their mothers, approximately 40% of infants establish insecure attachment relationships, with some developing insecure-avoidant attachments (minimizing expressing negative emotions and avoiding contact with their mothers when they’re afraid or uncertain) and others developing insecure-resistant attachments (becoming emotionally overwhelmed and inconsolable by their mothers in these circumstances). These infants are at risk of problems later in life. A new study sought to identify factors that predict infants’ avoidance and resistance, looking specifically at how mothers respond physiologically and emotionally to their infants’ distress.

    The study is by researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbia; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; and The Pennsylvania State University. It appears in the journal Child Development.

    “Identifying factors that contribute to infants’ avoidance and resistance is important for developing effective interventions that promote babies’ attachment security, and in turn, positive child development,” notes Ashley M. Groh, assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who led the study.

    The researchers looked at an ethnically and economically diverse group of 127 mothers and their infants. Half of the families were African American and half were European American. Half of the families lived below the 2002 federal poverty line (that is, annual income below $15,000 for a family of 3) and half lived above that line.

    Researchers examined mothers’ respiration sinus arrhythmia (RSA), or the variability in their heart rate over the breathing cycle, when they interacted with their distressed babies at 6 months of age. Decreases in RSA when confronted with a challenge, such as a crying baby, reflect better physiological regulation that supports actively coping with the challenge. Researchers also examined how mothers expressed emotion when they interacted with their distressed infants.

    Six months later, when the babies were 12 months old, researchers assessed infants’ attachments to their mothers using the Strange Situation procedure, in which infants go through a series of separations and subsequent reunions with their mothers; an infant’s behavior when reunited with his or her mother tells us about the pattern of attachment. Upon being reunited with their mothers, insecure-avoidant infants ignore their mothers, while insecure-resistant infants become very distressed and simultaneously seek and resist their mothers.

    Results from this study indicated that mothers who had smaller decreases in RSA — meaning, less physiological regulation — when they interacted with their distressed infants at 6 months were more likely to have avoidant infants at 12 months. Such physiological responding might undermine mothers’ ability to cope with their infants’ distress. Their babies might view them as less effective sources of comfort and ultimately be less likely to seek out their mothers when upset or uncertain. Mothers who were more emotionally neutral (versus positive) when their infants were distressed at 6 months were more likely to have resistant infants at 12 months. This suggests that an emotionally muted response from a mother when an infant was distressed might lead an infant to heighten his or her expressions of distress.

    “This study provides evidence that we can better understand babies’ and mothers’ experiences in these important encounters when babies need reassurance and support if we consider both the mothers’ emotional response and her physiological regulation in these challenging caregiving contexts,” explains Martha Cox, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The evidence can inform efforts aimed at promoting attachment security. Such efforts might target the specific challenges mothers face when confronted with their babies’ distress.”


  6. Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age

    August 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Washington University in St. Louis press release:

    A 5-year-old who writes “fepiri” when asked to write the word “touch” might seem to know nothing about spelling, but this attempt looks more like a word than “fpbczs” as produced by a 4-year-old.

    Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler’s first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

    But new research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that children as young as 3 already are beginning to recognize and follow important rules and patterns governing how letters in the English language fit together to make words.

    The study, published this month in the journal Child Development, provides new evidence that children start to learn about some aspects of reading and writing at a very early age.

    “Our results show that children begin to learn about the statistics of written language, for example about which letters often appear together and which letters appear together less often, before they learn how letters represent the sounds of a language,” said study co-author Rebecca Treiman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

    An important part of learning to read and spell is learning about how the letters in written words reflect the sounds in spoken words. Children often begin to show this knowledge around 5 or 6 years of age when they produce spellings such as BO or BLO for “blow.”

    We tend to think that learning to spell doesn’t really begin until children start inventing spellings that reflect the sounds in spoken words — spellings like C or KI for “climb.” These early invented spellings may not represent all of the sounds in a word, but children are clearly listening to the word and trying to use letters to symbolize some of the words within it, Treiman said.

    As children get older, these sound-based spellings improve. For example, children may move from something like KI for “climb” to something like KLIM.

    “Many studies have examined how children’s invented spellings improve as they get older, but no previous studies have asked whether children’s spellings improve even before they are able to produce spellings that represent the sounds in words,” Treiman said. “Our study found improvements over this period, with spellings becoming more wordlike in appearance over the preschool years in a group of children who did not yet use letters to stand for sounds.”

    Treiman’s study analyzed the spellings of 179 children from the United States (age 3 years, 2 months to 5 years, 6 months) who were prephonological spellers. That is, when asked to try to write words, the children used letters that did not reflect the sounds in the words they were asked to spell, which is common and normal at this age.

    On a variety of measures, the older prephonological spellers showed more knowledge about English letter patterns than did the younger prephonological spellers. When the researchers asked adults to rate the children’s productions for how much they looked like English words, they found that the adults gave higher ratings, on average, to the productions of older prephonological spellers than to the productions of younger prephonological spellers.

    The productions of older prephonological spellers also were more word-like on several objective measures, including length, use of different letters within words, and combinations of letters. For example:

    A 5-year-old who writes “fepiri” when asked to write the word “touch” might seem to know nothing about spelling, but this attempt looks more like a word than “fpbczs” as produced by a 4-year-old.

    “While neither spelling makes sense as an attempt to represent sounds, the older child’s effort shows that he or she knows more about the appearance of English words,” Treiman said.

    The findings are important, Treiman said, because they show that exposure to written words during the 3-to-5-year age range may be important in getting children off to a strong start with their reading, writing and spelling skills.

    “Our results show that there is change and improvement with age during this period before children produce spellings that make sense on the basis of sound.” Treiman said. “In many ways, the spellings produced during this period of time are more wordlike when children are older than when they are younger. That is, even though the spellings don’t represent the sounds of words, they start looking more like actual words.”

    “This is pretty interesting, because it suggests that children are starting to learn about one aspect of spelling — what words look like — from an earlier point than we’d given them credit for,” she said. “It opens up the possibility that educators could get useful information from children’s early attempts to write- information that could help to show whether a child is on track for future success or whether there might be a problem.”


  7. Family factors may influence a child’s temperament

    August 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wiley press release:

    A new study indicates that a child’s temperament may be influenced by maternal postpartum depression, maternal sensitivity, and family functioning. Maternal depression was associated with difficult temperaments in infants when maternal sensitivity was low, but not when maternal sensitivity was high. Family functioning similarly moderated these links.

    The findings suggest that family factors play a critical role in shaping the trajectory of an infant’s behavioral style as it unfolds over development.

    For example, even when dealing with depression, mothers who consistently and appropriately respond to their infants’ needs, which are hallmarks of sensitive parenting, may more effectively teach their infants how to regulate their negative emotions than mothers who respond less sensitively. Similarly, a highly functioning family unit characterized by effective communication and high interpersonal involvement among family members may support an infant’s emotion regulation even when the mother is depressed.

    “Maternal postpartum depression was only associated with persistently difficult infant temperament when other family risk factors were present,” said Dr. Stephanie Parade, lead author of the Child Development study. “This work underscores the importance of supporting families in the postpartum period.”


  8. Preschoolers learn from math games, to a point

    July 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    What is the best way to help poor schoolchildren succeed at math? A study co-authored by researchers at MIT, Harvard University, and New York University now sheds light on the ways preschool activities may — or may not — help children develop cognitive skills.

    The study, based on an experiment in Delhi, India, engaged preschool children in math games intended to help them grasp concepts of number and geometry, and in social games intended to help them cooperate and learn together.

    The results contained an unexpected wrinkle. Children participating in the math games did retain a superior ability to grasp those concepts more than a year later, compared to children who either played only the social games or did not participate. However, the exercises did not lead to better results later, when the children entered a formal classroom setting.

    “It’s very clear you have a significant improvement in the math skills” used in the games, says Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and co-author of the study. “We find that the gains are persistent … which I think is quite striking.”

    However, she adds, by the time the children in the study were learning formal math concepts in primary school, such as specific number symbols, the preschool intervention did not affect learning outcomes.

    “All the kids [in primary school] had learned, but they had learned [those concepts] equally,” says Duflo, who is a co-founder of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which conducts field experiments, often in education, around the globe.

    A paper detailing the results of the study, “Cognitive science in the field: A preschool intervention durably enhances intuitive but not formal mathematics,” is being published in the journal Science.

    The authors are Duflo; Moira R. Dillon, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology; Harini Kannan, a postdoc at J-PAL South Asia; Joshua T. Dean, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Economics; and Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology and researcher at the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University.

    It’s a numbers game

    The results bear on the question of how early-childhood educational interventions can help poor children access the same educational concepts that more privileged children have before entering primary school.

    Spelke, an expert in cognitive development among children, notes that around age 5, children “transition from developing knowledge in a common-sense, spontaneous manner, to going to school, where they have to start grappling with formal subjects and building formal skills.” She adds that this can be a highly challenging transition for children living in poverty whose parents had no schooling themselves.

    To address that, the researchers developed a field experiment involving 1,540 children, who were 5 years old on average and enrolled in 214 Indian preschools.

    Roughly one-third of the preschool children were put in groups playing math games exposing them to concepts of number and geometry. For instance, one game the children played allowed them to estimate numbers on cards and sort the cards on that basis.

    Another one-third of the preschool children played games that focused on social content, encouraging them to, for instance, estimate the intensity of emotional expressions on cards and sort the cards on that basis. In all, the games were “fun, fast-paced, and social” and “encouraged a desire to play together,” Dillon says.

    Meanwhile, the final one-third of the preschoolers had no exposure to either type of game; these children formed another control group for the study.

    The researchers then followed up on the abilities of children from all three groups, soon after the intervention, as well as six and 12 months later. They found that even after the first year of primary school, children who had played the math games were better at the skills that those games developed, compared to children from the other groups. The intervention using social games had effects on social skills but did not produce a comparable effect on math skills; the effects of the math games were specific to their math content.

    Despite these effects, the early exposure to numerical concepts such as one-to-one correspondence, and geometrical concepts such as congruence and parallelism did not produce an advantage for the first group of students when it came to achievement in primary school. As the paper states, “Although the math games caused persistent gains in children’s non-symbolic mathematical abilities, they failed to enhance children’s readiness for learning the new symbolic content presented in primary school.”

    Not adding up

    The researchers have been analyzing why the intervention did not produce improvements in school results. One possibility, Duflo observes, is that children in Delhi primary schools learn math in a rote style that may not have allowed the experiment’s set of games to have an effect. Kids in these schools, she observes, “are [only] learning to sing ‘1 times 1 is 1, 1 times 2 is 2.'” For this reason, Duflo notes, the greater understanding of the concepts provided by the preschool math games might be more beneficial when aligned with a different kind of curriculum.

    Or, Spelke puts it, “the negative thing that we learned” from the study is that lab work is not necessarily “sufficient to establish what actually causes knowledge to grow in the mind of a child, over timespans of years in the environments in which children live and learn.”

    With that in mind, the research team is designing follow-up studies in which the games will segue more seamlessly into the curriculum being used in a particular school district.

    “We want to include in the games themselves some element of bridging between the intuitive knowledge of mathematics and the formal knowledge they will be actually exposed to,” Duflo says. J-PAL is currently engaged in developing projects along these lines in both India and the U.S.

    The larger goal of helping disadvantaged preschool children remains intact, Duflo emphasizes: “If we could take the poorest kids and instead of sending them to school with a [learning deficit], because they haven’t been to preschool or been to very good preschools, or their parents have not been able to help them out in the schoolwork, why couldn’t we try to use the best cognitive science available and bring them to school with a slight advantage?”


  9. Children play key role in making early education successful

    July 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Northwestern University press release:

    The way children engage with their teachers, peers and tasks is vital to the success of early-childhood education but greatly underestimated, according to new Northwestern University research.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, emotionally supportive, well-organized and stimulating pre-kindergarten classrooms may not be enough — especially for low-income children, according to the study.

    “Children bring a lot to the table,” said Terri Sabol, an assistant professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy, who led the research. “It’s important to look beyond overall classroom quality and capture children’s individual experiences in classroom settings.”

    Children’s individual engagement was related to their developmental gains, even after accounting for emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support at the classroom level.

    Positive engagement with teachers was related to improved literacy skills, and positive engagement with peers was related to improved language and self-regulatory skills. In addition, positive engagement with tasks was related to closer relationships with teachers.

    Children who were negatively engaged in the classroom — those who got into conflicts with teachers or peers — were at a comparative disadvantage in terms of their school readiness, the study found. Children with higher levels of negative engagement performed at lower levels across nearly all of the academic, language, and social outcomes measured, including lower language, literacy and self-regulatory skills.

    High-quality early childhood education has long been hailed as a promising approach to narrowing the achievement gap. But assessment of early-childhood education programs has emphasized teachers, often missing the central role that children play in their own development, according to the study of low-income, ethnically diverse students.

    Conducted by researchers at Northwestern, Montana State University Billings and the University of Virginia, the study was published in the journal Child Development.

    The study looked at 211 low-income, racially and ethnically diverse 4-year-olds in 49 classrooms in state and federally funded preschool programs. Researchers measured the children’s engagement in the classroom by observing their positive and negative interactions with teachers, peers and tasks.

    “We have to think about children as active participants in their own education when we are devising interventions,” said Sabol, who also is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern and leads the University’s Development, Early Education and Policy Lab.

    The lab produces innovative and functional scholarship aimed at improving the lives of low-income children.

    A former first grade teacher, Sabol personally observed these patterns in her classroom at Lavizzo Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, where she taught first graders with Teach For America before enrolling in graduate school.

    The student body at Lavizzo is 96 percent low income, according to the 2015-16 Illinois Report Card.

    “After teaching 35 low-income first graders, I took a step back and tried to understand why is it that by the time the kids are in first grade, they’re already behind before they even started,” Sabol said. “This study takes some of the emphasis off of teachers and really unpacks the positive and negative effects of children’s engagement on their own learning.”


  10. Positive engagement in preschool key to developmental gains

    July 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    Many interventions and programs designed to improve low-income children’s lives focus on providing high-quality early-childhood education. Preschool classrooms that are emotionally supportive, well-organized, and cognitively stimulating can help boost children’s learning and development. Yet for the most part, focusing on the quality of early-childhood education has emphasized teachers, often missing the central role that children play in their own development. A new study has found that children’s individual engagement with teachers, peers, and tasks was important to the gains they made during the preschool year, even after taking into account differences in classroom quality.

    The study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, Montana State University Billings, and the University of Virginia, is published in the journal Child Development.

    “Children can have very different experiences in the same classroom and their individual engagement is associated with their learning gains above and beyond the average quality of classroom instruction,” explains Terri J. Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, who led the study. “It’s important to look beyond overall classroom quality and capture children’s individual experiences in classroom settings.”

    The study looked at 211 low-income, racially and ethnically diverse 4-year-olds in 49 classrooms in state and federally funded preschool programs. Researchers measured the children’s engagement in the classroom by observing their positive and negative interactions with teachers, peers, and tasks (e.g., their ability to communicate with teachers, sociability and assertiveness with peers, self-reliance in tasks, conflicts with teachers and peers).

    The quality of the classroom setting was also measured (e.g., the classroom climate, teachers’ sensitivity, emotional support, classroom organization), and children were assessed on measures of school readiness in the fall and the spring of their preschool year. Most previous research has examined either the effect of classroom interactions or the role of individual children’s engagement in the classroom on children’s outcomes; this study included both.

    “To truly understand and support individual children’s development, it is vital that we have observational tools that capture individual children’s engagement and the overall classroom context,” notes Natalie Bohlmann, associate professor of education at Montana State University Billings, who collaborated on the study.

    Children’s individual engagement was related to their developmental gains, even after accounting for emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support at the classroom level, the study found. Specifically, children’s positive engagement with teachers was related to improved literacy skills and their positive engagement with peers was related to improved language and self-regulatory skills. In addition, their positive engagement with tasks related to closer relationships with teachers.

    Children who were negatively engaged in the classroom (e.g., those who got into conflicts with teachers or peers) were at a comparative disadvantage in terms of their school readiness, the study found. Children with higher levels of negative engagement performed at lower levels across nearly all of the academic, language, and social outcomes measured, including lower language, literacy, and self-regulatory skills.

    “Interventions designed to prepare children for school should include a focus on children’s individual behaviors in the classroom,” adds Jason Downer, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, who was the lead investigator. “Observing children’s engagement can guide decisions about where, when, and how to intervene with at-risk children, and help educators enact more useful individualized strategies in the classroom.”