1. Study suggests inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

    February 13, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Rutgers University press release:

    When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter — more than we think.

    Those are the findings of Rutgers University psychologists Louis Matzel and Bruno Sauce, based on an integrative review of recent studies on the nature of human intelligence. Their study is published in the December issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

    “Genetic influences don’t run the show, nor do environmental effects. It’s the genetic-environmental interplay that is the ringmaster,” said Matzel, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick. Sauce is a graduate student in Rutgers’ School of Graduate Studies.

    The study, the researchers say, has significant implications for the way we educate children, whose inherited IQ can increase, especially during early childhood, with the right kind of stimulation and attention.

    “We educate children the hard way in this country,” Matzel said. “We go to impoverished high schools and try to remediate kids, which is a perfectly good thing to do. But it’s often too late; the time to reach those kids is when they start school, while their intelligence is most malleable.”

    Scientists measure the heritability of traits on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0. Eye color has a heritability score of .99, meaning that it’s highly genetic. Intelligence typically rates at .8, Matzel and Sauce said, which means that it, too, is very heritable. However, Matzel and Sauce believe people often underestimate the role of environment.

    “Through interactions and correlations with the environment, genetic influences can be expressed in wildly different ways, and environmental influences are much more powerful than many scientists believe,” Sauce said.

    The researchers said the heritability of IQ can be as low as .3 in young children, which leaves plenty of room for changes in intelligence. But school systems often ignore this opportunity, they believe, focusing on increasing rote knowledge at the expense of critical thinking. Intervention programs then often fail to create lasting changes to children’s environment.

    Consider children who take part in Head Start, the federal program that provides low-income children with comprehensive early childhood education, nutrition and parent-involvement services. Matzel said those children’s IQ scores increase significantly while they’re part of the program, but frequently regress after they leave it — a common criticism of these programs. That, he said, is because the stimulation and encouragement received in Head Start is missing when the child returns to their more restrictive environment.

    Or consider identical twins separated at birth. If their IQs are nearly identical, and they have equal opportunities, they will be equally smart as adults. However, if one is deprived of opportunities, their cognitive abilities will diverge, Matzel said. This highlights the important role that environmental opportunity plays in the establishment of an individual’s intelligence.

    While twins may have the same basic mental equipment with which to face the world, the twin raised in the better environment can thrive while his sibling is thwarted. “The environment is the critical tool that allows our genetic equipment to prosper,” Matzel said.


  2. Study suggests imagining a successful future can help students overcome everyday difficulties

    February 10, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Having a clear picture in mind of what their future will look like can motivate students to keep going despite the challenges of college life. This strategy seems to be particularly effective for female students from relatively low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds says Mesmin Destin of Northwestern University in the US. He is the lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion that looked at the role of identity-based motivation in people’s college experiences. College is a time of great opportunity for some, but can be stressful for others. It is often the first time that many students are away from the consistent and familiar support of their family and friends. Vulnerable students from lower SES backgrounds often encounter greater financial and psychological challenges than others, and this can lead to hesitation and even withdrawal from difficult situations, such as when interacting with their lecturers or taking tests and exams.

    Destin and his colleagues wanted to understand if students’ responses to academic challenges improves when they look forward to the future. This idea is built around the theory of identity-based motivation. It holds that people can take positive action during times of adversity when they imagine a successful future for themselves.

    “The theory of identity-based motivation proposes that activating a focus on a successful future identity may be especially powerful in motivating students who are vulnerable during challenging academic situations to develop a sense of action readiness,” explains Destin. “This involves feeling ready and able to take appropriate action when confronting difficulty.

    In two almost identical laboratory experiments — one involving 93 female students, the other 185 students (including 101 women) — participants were first asked either to write about their past or their future success. After their contemplations, the participants were filmed during a mock interview with a so-called lecturer, and then had to complete a difficult academic test. The research team noted whether participants’ body language was bold and confident, and measured the amount of effort participants’ put into the academic test.

    The results were consistent with the theory of identity-based motivation. Destin and his team found that having a successful future identity can prevent especially female students from lower SES backgrounds from withdrawing during challenging academic situations. Specifically, lower SES women who wrote about their future identities displayed greater action readiness compared to those who contemplated their past. They showed more confident body language. It helped them to put more effort into tackling the test, and had an indirect effect on their performance.

    “Activating imagined successful future identities appears to provide a potential pathway to enable vulnerable students to effectively navigate everyday stressors,” says Destin. “The findings therefore suggest that certain students may benefit from strategies that remind them to visualize their successful futures prior to any difficult and important task that they might otherwise be likely to avoid.”


  3. Study finds students more engaged and attentive following outdoor lesson in nature

    January 27, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    A study recently published in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology has found that 9-10 year-old children are significantly more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork following an outdoor lesson in nature. Strikingly, this “nature effect” allowed teachers to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long during a subsequent indoor lesson. The results suggest that outdoor lessons may be an inexpensive and convenient way to improve student engagement — a major factor in academic achievement.

    Scientists have known for a while that natural outdoor environments can have a variety of beneficial effects on people. People exposed to parks, trees or wildlife can experience benefits such as physical activity, stress reduction, rejuvenated attention and increased motivation. In children, studies have shown that even a view of greenery through a classroom window could have positive effects on students’ attention.

    However, many teachers may be reluctant to hold a lesson outdoors, as they might worry that it could overexcite the children, making it difficult for them to concentrate on their schoolwork back in the classroom. Ming Kuo, a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her colleagues set out to investigate this, and hypothesized that an outdoor lesson in nature would result in increased classroom engagement in indoor lessons held immediately afterwards.

    “We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” says Kuo. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?”

    The researchers tested their hypothesis in third graders (9-10 years old) in a school in the Midwestern United States. Over a 10-week period, an experienced teacher held one lesson a week outdoors and a similar lesson in her regular classroom, and another, more skeptical teacher did the same. Their outdoor “classroom” was a grassy spot just outside the school, in view of a wooded area.

    After each outdoor or indoor lesson, the researchers measured how engaged the students were. They counted the number of times the teacher needed to redirect the attention of distracted students back to their schoolwork during the observation, using phrases such as “sit down” and “you need to be working.” The research team also asked an outside observer to look at photos taken of the class during the observation period and score the level of class engagement, without knowing whether the photos were taken after an indoor or outdoor lesson. The teachers also scored class engagement.

    The team’s results show that children were more engaged after the outdoor lessons in nature. Far from being overexcited and inattentive immediately after an outdoor lesson, students were significantly more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork. The number of times the teacher had to redirect a student’s attention to their work was roughly halved immediately after an outdoor lesson.

    “Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lesson,” says Kuo, “and we saw the nature effect with our skeptical teacher as well.”

    The researchers plan to do further work to see if the technique can work in other schools and for less experienced teachers. If so, regular outdoor lessons could be an inexpensive and convenient way for schools to enhance student engagement and performance. “We’re excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time,” says Kuo. “Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”


  4. Study suggests intervention offered in school readiness program boosts children’s self-regulation skills

    December 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Oregon State University press release:

    Adding a daily 20 to 30 minute self-regulation intervention to a kindergarten readiness program significantly boosted children’s self-regulation and early academic skills, an Oregon State University researcher has found.

    Self-regulation skills — the skills that help children pay attention, follow directions, stay on task and persist through difficulty — are critical to a child’s success in kindergarten and beyond. The intervention, co-developed and tested by OSU’s Megan McClelland, a nationally-recognized expert in child development, uses music and games to help preschoolers learn and practice self-regulation skills.

    The intervention was added to a three-week summer school readiness program at a large school district on the East Coast for children entering kindergarten that had no prior preschool experience. The school district asked McClelland and her colleagues to evaluate their use of the intervention. It was the first opportunity for researchers to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in a “real-world” setting, where teachers, rather than researchers, led the students through self-regulation games.

    The researchers found that use of these games daily for three weeks improved the children’s self-regulation skills. They also found that the children’s broader school readiness skills, including early math and literacy skills, improved as a result of the intervention and the children saw greater-than-expected growth in the months following the program.

    “It was a test to see if the results of this intervention look similar in a less-controlled environment, and it appears that they do,” said McClelland, the Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “It helps demonstrate the feasibility and scalability of this kind of program.”

    The findings add to McClelland’s growing body of research demonstrating the value of teaching self-regulation skills to children entering kindergarten, particularly those who are at higher risk of struggling academically in school and opens the door for the intervention to be used more widely by teachers and schools.

    The evaluation of the school district program was published recently in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Co-authors are Robert J. Duncan and Sara A. Schmitt of Purdue University and Maura Burke of Fairfax County Public Schools. Duncan and Schmitt both earned their doctorates at OSU.

    The school district added the self-regulation intervention at some schools participating in a summer “Bridge to Kindergarten” in 2013. It was also offered in 2014 and 2015. Researchers evaluated data from about 150 children from each year.

    “The school district wanted an explicit focus on self-regulation in this program designed to get children ready for kindergarten,” McClelland said.

    Teachers were trained to lead the children through the intervention, which uses movement and music-based games that increase in complexity over time and encourage the practice of self-regulation skills. The games require few materials and the children can help make the props as part of their lessons.

    One game is “Red Light, Purple Light,” which is similar to “Red Light, Green Light.” The instructor acts as a stoplight and holds up construction-paper circles to represent stop and go. Children follow color cues, such as purple is stop and orange is go, and then switch to the opposite, where purple is go and orange is stop.

    Other games include “Freeze,” where the children are encouraged to do the opposite of the teacher’s instructions; and “Sleeping,” where the children pretend to sleep and then wake up as something different and must remain in that character.

    Additional rules are added later to increase the complexity of the game. The game requires children to listen and remember instructions, pay attention to the adult leading the game and resist natural inclinations to stop or go.

    “The findings from this evaluation support our previous randomized controlled studies of this program, which is a promising sign that the intervention will also be effective in practical applications,” McClelland said. “If we can make the program more accessible to schools and teachers, and still ensure quality, it becomes more feasible to share it more widely.”


  5. Study suggests robot learning can help improve student engagement

    December 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    The first-ever study of Michigan State University’s pioneering robot-learning course shows that online students who use the innovative robots feel more engaged and connected to the instructor and students in the classroom.

    Stationed around the class, each robot has a mounted video screen controlled by the remote user that lets the student pan around the room to see and talk with the instructor and fellow students participating in-person.

    The study, published in Online Learning, found that robot learning generally benefits remote students more than traditional videoconferencing, in which multiple students are displayed on a single screen.

    Christine Greenhow, MSU associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology, said that instead of looking at a screen full of faces as she does with traditional videoconferencing, she can look a robot-learner in the eye – at least digitally.

    “It was such a benefit to have people individually embodied in robot form – I can look right at you and talk to you,” Greenhow said.

    The technology, Greenhow added, also has implications for telecommuters working remotely and students with disabilities or who are ill.

    MSU’s College of Education started using robot learning in 2015. Greenhow and Benjamin Gleason, a former MSU doctoral student who is now a faculty member at Iowa State University, studied an educational technology doctoral course in which students participated in one of three ways: in-person, by robot and by traditional videoconferencing.

    Courses that combine face-to-face and online learning, called hybrid or blended learning, are widely considered the most promising approach for increasing access to higher education and students’ learning outcomes. The number of blended-learning classrooms has increased dramatically in the past decade and could eventually make up 80 percent or more of all university classes, the study notes.

    With traditional videoconferencing, Greenhow said, remote students generally can’t tell the instructor is looking at them and can get turned off from joining the discussion. “These students often feel like they’re interrupting, like they’re not fully participating in the class. And as an instructor, that’s like death – I can’t have that.”

    “The main takeaway here,” Greenhow added, “is that students participating with the robots felt much more engaged and interactive with the instructor and their classmates who were on campus.”

    To engage the robot from home, students just need to download free software onto their computer.


  6. Study suggests socioeconomic status may be linked to differences in the vocabulary growth

    December 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Texas at Dallas press release:

    The nation’s 31 million children growing up in homes with low socioeconomic status have, on average, significantly smaller vocabularies compared with their peers.

    A new study from the Callier Center for Communication Disorders at The University of Texas at Dallas found these differences in vocabulary growth among grade school children of different socioeconomic statuses are likely related to differences in the process of word learning.

    Dr. Mandy Maguire, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), said in her study that children from lower-income homes learned 10 percent fewer words than their peers from higher-income homes. When entering kindergarten, children from low-income homes generally score about two years behind their higher-income peers on language and vocabulary measures.

    The vocabulary gap between the two groups of children gets larger throughout their schooling and has long-term academic implications, Maguire said.

    The primary reason for the differences in infancy and preschool is related to different quantity and quality of language exposure at home. But why the gap increases as the children get older is less studied.

    “We might assume that it’s the same reason that the gap is large when they’re young: that their environment is different,” Maguire said. “Another possibility is that all of this time spent in low-income situations has led to differences in their ability to learn a word. If that’s the case, there’s a problem in the mechanism of learning, which is something we can fix.”

    The study, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, aimed to determine whether socioeconomic status is related to word learning in grade school and to what degree vocabulary, reading and working memory might mediate that relationship.

    For the study, 68 children ages 8 to 15 performed a task that required using the surrounding text to identify the meaning of an unknown word. One exercise included three sentences, each with a made-up word at the end — for example, “Mom piled the pillows on the thuv.”

    “You have to understand all of the language in each sentence leading up to the made-up word, remember it and decide systematically across all three sentences what the made-up word must mean,” Maguire said. “In this case, the three sentences all indicated ‘thuv’ meant ‘bed.’ This isn’t quite the same as real word learning, where we have to create a new concept, but this what we think kids — and adults — do as they initially learn a word.”

    Specifically, the study found that children of lower socioeconomic status are not as effective at using known vocabulary to build a robust picture or concept of the incoming language and use that to identify the meaning of an unknown word.

    Reading and working memory — also known to be problematic for children from low-income homes — were not found to be related.

    The study also provides potential strategies that may be effective for intervention. For children ages 8 to 15, schools may focus too much on reading and not enough on increasing vocabulary through oral methods, Maguire said.

    Maguire said parents and teachers can help children identify relationships between words in sentences, such as assigning a word like “bakery,” and having the child list as many related words as possible in one minute. Visualizing the sentences as they read also can help.

    “Instead of trying to fit more vocabulary in a child’s head, we might be able to work on their depth of knowledge of the individual words and linking known meanings together in a way that they can use to learn new information,” Maguire said.

    This study was funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, which was awarded in April 2016.

    Three co-authors of the paper are BBS doctoral students who work in Maguire’s Developmental Neurolinguistics Laboratory: Julie M. Schneider, Anna E. Middleton and Yvonne Ralph. Lab coordinator Michael Lopez and Dr. Robert Ackerman, an associate professor, also are co-authors, along with Dr. Alyson Abel, a recent Callier Center postdoctoral fellow who is an assistant professor at San Diego State University.


  7. Study suggests teens get more sleep when school starts later

    December 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    A later school start time could mean teens are more likely to get adequate amounts of sleep, according to Penn State researchers.

    In a national study of urban teenagers, researchers found that high school start times after 8:30 a.m. increased the likelihood that teens obtained the minimum recommended amount of sleep, benefiting their overall health and well being.

    “Teens starting school at 8:30 a.m. or later were the only group with an average time in bed permitting eight hours of sleep, the minimum recommended by expert consensus,” said lead author Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. “Later school start times were associated with later wake times in our large, diverse sample.”

    Buxton and colleagues report their findings Dec. 1 in Sleep Health, the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, which devoted an entire special issue to the topic.

    Teens with the earliest high school start times — 7:00-7:29 a.m. — obtained 46 minutes less time in bed on average compared with teens with high school start times at 8:30 a.m. or later.

    School start times after 8:30 a.m. were associated with increased time in bed, extending morning sleep by 27-57 minutes compared to those teens with earlier school start times.

    A common argument against later school start times is an assumption that teens will just stay up later.

    “The presumption is if you let kids start school later they will simply go to sleep later and still not get enough sleep,” Buxton said. “But that’s a hypothetical scenario. There wasn’t data to back that up.”

    While researchers did find that teens with the earliest school start times were going to bed earlier than those with 8:30 a.m. or later, the teens with earlier start times still did not get the recommended amount of sleep. Only those teens with schools that had a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later actually got the recommended amount of sleep, Buxton said.

    One theory is that, despite going to bed earlier than their peers, teens with the earliest school start times didn’t get enough sleep possibly due to anticipation of an early wake time the following morning, according to Buxton.

    In addition, the investigators considered other research that looked at teens’ “sleep debt,” where teens make up for lost sleep on non-school days, leading them to wake up consistently and significantly later than those on school days.

    Both anticipation and sleep debt can misalign teens’ circadian clocks from expected early wake timing on school days, interfering with having consistent sleep.

    Four hundred and thirteen teenagers completed an online daily diary each evening, beginning after 7 p.m., during seven consecutive days, including school days and non-school days during both the academic year and the summer, which was defined as September through May and June through August, respectively.

    From each diary entry, researchers looked at the participants’ reports of the previous night’s bedtime, the time the teen woke up in the morning, whether or not the teen went to school, and the school start times.

    Data collection included daily diary data from a subsample of the parent study, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which follows a longitudinal birth cohort of children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 United States cities.


  8. Study suggests school exacerbates feelings of being ‘different’ in pupils with Autism Spectrum Conditions

    November 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    autism_stairsNegative school experiences can have harmful long term effects on pupils with Autism Spectrum Conditions, a new study in the journal Autism reports.

    Researchers from the University of Surrey have discovered that experiences of social and emotional exclusion in mainstream schools can adversely affect how pupils with autism view themselves, increasing their risk of developing low self-esteem, a poor sense of self-worth and mental health problems.

    Examining 17 previous studies in the area, researchers discovered that how pupils with autism view themselves is closely linked to their perceptions of how other’s treat and interact with them. They found that a tendency of many pupils with the condition to internalise the negative attitudes and reactions of others toward them, combined with unfavourable social comparisons to classmates, leads to a sense of being ‘different’ and more limited than peers.

    Negative self-perception can lead to increased isolation and low self-esteem making pupils with autism more susceptible to mental health problems.

    It was discovered that the physical environment of schools can impact on children’s ability to interact with other pupils. Sensory sensitivity, which is a common characteristic of autism and can magnify sounds to an intolerable level, can lead to everyday classroom and playground noises such as shrieks and chatter being a source of anxiety and distraction. This impacts on a pupil’s ability to concentrate in the classroom and to socialise with others, further increasing isolation and a sense of being ‘different.’

    It was also found that pupils with autism who developed supportive friendships and felt accepted by classmates said this helped alleviate their social difficulties and made them feel good about themselves.

    These findings suggest it is crucial for schools to create a culture of acceptance for all pupils to ensure the long term wellbeing of pupils with autism in mainstream settings.

    Lead author of the paper Dr Emma Williams, from the University of Surrey, said: “Inclusive mainstream education settings may inadvertently accentuate the sense of being ‘different’ in a negative way to classmates.

    “We are not saying that mainstream schools are ‘bad’ for pupils with autism, as other evidence suggests they have a number of positive effects, including increasing academic performance and social skills.

    “Rather, we are suggesting that by cultivating a culture of acceptance of all and making small changes, such as creating non-distracting places to socialise, and listening to their pupils’ needs, schools can help these pupils think and feel more positively about themselves.

    “With over 100,000 children in the UK diagnosed with autism, it is important that we get this right to ensure that pupils with autism get the education they deserve and leave school feeling accepted, loved and valued, rather than with additional mental health issues.”


  9. Study suggests intentional teaching makes the biggest impact on early childhood outcomes

    November 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute press release:

    A comprehensive review of research on several measures of the quality of early childhood education suggests that the instructional practices of preschool teachers have the largest impact on young children’s academic and social skills. The review helps untangle a complicated knot of factors that affect young children.

    “High quality preschool is one of the most effective means of preparing all children to succeed in school,” said Margaret Burchinal, senior research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “However, this review of research indicates the need to expand our definitions of quality.”

    Burchinal said her review of the science suggests the field should continue to measure the quality of relationships of preschool teachers and children, especially the sensitivity and warmth of the teachers. In addition, the review suggests factors such as the levels of education of program directors and teachers and the teacher-child ratio also influence outcomes.

    However, the areas with the strongest connection to beneficial results for young children involve what teachers teach and how they teach it.

    “The largest effects on child outcomes involve curricula,” Burchinal explained. “Some of the biggest impacts on literacy, math, and other skills involved curricula focused on those specific skills with accompanying coaching or training for teachers.”

    According to Burchinal, many of the most effective curricula incorporate planned, engaging activities for preschoolers, with a schedule of lessons and activities in a variety of learning settings. Effective learning opportunities often include some whole group instruction and more time in small groups, learning centers, and computer work.

    Burchinal also said the research shows that the teaching practice of “scaffolding” brings big benefits. “Scaffolding occurs when the adult caregiver talks with and models a learning activity for the child, making the activity fun through conversation that builds on and extends the child’s interest and knowledge about the world.”

    Some of the largest impacts on children’s outcomes have arisen from the strongest pre-kindergarten programs, Burchinal added. These programs show even larger impacts for dual-language learners and for children from low-income families.

    “These prekindergarten impacts are larger than impacts from traditionally-measured dimensions of quality,” Burchinal said. “This is further evidence that more focus on scaffolding and intentional teaching is needed.”

    Burchinal pointed to FPG’s Abecedarian Project as an example of a program that combined intentional teaching with warmth and sensitivity. The project used an intensive, language-driven approach that involved teacher scaffolding of activity-based learning to build children’s knowledge base and language skills. The center-based, birth-to-5 program for children from low-income homes famously contributed to better cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical health outcomes that have persisted for decades.

    Burchinal’s new review of research includes several studies based in the United States and other countries. “Measuring Early Care and Education” appears in “Child Development Perspectives,” which the Society for Research in Child Development publishes.

    “As we think about the components of high-quality early childhood education, our policies and practices can reflect what this research tells us,” she said. “Ideally, our new models of quality will encompass evidence-based curricula and intentional teaching within content areas, as well as professional development that focuses on the teaching practices that promote the skills young children need to succeed in school.”


  10. Study suggests dual-language learners outperform monolingual students once they gain English proficiency

    November 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Not all dual-language learners are at risk academically, but as a group, these students are often labeled as such, despite differences in their English skills.

    A new Iowa State University study examined how variation in dual language status among Head Start students related to development in cognitive and academic areas. The research team led by Ji-Young Choi, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, found dual-language learners (DLLs) had significant growth, eventually outperforming students who only spoke English, once DLLs gained basic English proficiency. The results are published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

    Choi, Christine Lippard, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State; and Shinyoung Jeon, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, analyzed data measuring inhibitory control (the ability to pay attention and control natural, but unnecessary thoughts or behaviors) and math achievement for low-income students in Head Start through kindergarten. The data, collected through the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009, included 825 children — whose home language was English or Spanish — at 59 Head Start programs across the country.

    Instead of treating DLLs as a homogenous group, researchers created two categories — Spanish-English bilinguals, who can function in both languages; and DLLs with limited English skills — based on ability entering Head Start. They identified stark differences between the DLL groups and English-only students over the course of the study. Entering Head Start, bilingual students had higher inhibitory control, but lower math scores, than English-only students did. DLLs with limited English skills lagged behind both groups. However, over the course of 18 months, bilingual students outperformed English-only students with higher scores in math and inhibitory control, despite having lower baseline scores for math at the beginning of the study.

    DLLs with limited English skills — students considered at risk when they entered Head Start — also made significant progress, the study found. These students outpaced bilingual and English-only students in the rate of gains for inhibitory control skills. While their scores had not caught up with the other two groups by the midpoint of kindergarten (the final point of analysis for the study), Choi expects with more time DLLs with limited English skills would eventually match or even outperform English-only peers as they learn more English and become bilingual.

    “Recognizing that dual-language learners can do better than we expected has huge implications. When these students do not have age-appropriate English skills they are more at risk, but once they achieve those skills they actually excel,” Choi said. “This study also confirms that there is a cognitive benefit for bilingual students.”

    Importance of inhibitory control

    The researchers say that bilingual children’s faster growth rate in inhibitory control over time helped explain the significant difference in kindergarten math skills between bilingual children and English-only students. Based on the FACES data, they could not provide a definitive explanation for the faster growth rate in inhibitory control. However, Choi says the research results lend support to the theory that bilingual students develop stronger inhibitory control skills because of their daily practice toggling between languages to fit the conversation, and inhibiting one language while speaking another.

    Inhibitory control encompasses everything from a child’s ability to suppress the impulse to grab a toy away from a friend to inhibiting the impulse to pronounce a “t” sound at the beginning of the, Lippard said. It is an important foundational skill for academic growth as well as behavior.

    Supporting students’ home language

    Recognizing skill-level differences is important given that DLLs are in more than 70 percent of Head Start classrooms. Lippard says all early childhood educators need to understand the developmental strengths of DLLs, and recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach for teaching these students. The study makes the case for instructional support to help DLLs become proficient in English while learning or maintaining their home language. Lippard says one way to achieve that is by giving students the opportunity to engage with linguistically diverse teachers.

    “Preschool programs are so full of academic expectations that adding a Spanish lesson time may not be helpful or developmentally appropriate,” Lippard said. “Learning Spanish by interacting with a native Spanish speaker and experiencing typical preschool activities like singing songs or reading stories in Spanish holds potential benefits for all of the children in the classroom.”

    Choi would like to see instructional support for DLLs throughout their formal education. DLLs use their home language less and less as they are exposed to English in school and risk losing their home language, Choi said. While it is important for students to be proficient in English, she says DLLs would lose the potential bilingual benefits without support for their home language.