Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Checking to determine whether there were unanticipated benefits or drawbacks of early intervention for childrens socioemotional development

12/15/2009

One fair question might be whether there are unanticipated spillover benefits from focusing on child language, literacy and math outcomes on childrens socioemotional outcomes. One hypothesis might be that children may gain increasingly strong regulatory skills through more cognitively demanding and engaging curricula, where the content of teachers lessons helps to entrain and strengthen childrens attentional and memory skills (see Doctoroff, Greer, & Arnold, 2006). A contrasting hypothesis might be that children might respond negatively to more cognitively demanding and firmly structured classroom practices and curricula, showing increased behavioral difficulty that might offset language, literacy, or math gains.

Several ISRC interventions used hybrid models combining foci on language/literacy as well as childrens socioemotional development and analyses of treatment impact will elucidate whether there were consistent benefits or costs to childrens behavioral development, across interventions (see interventions led by Pianta, Fantuzzo, Odom, Kupersmidt, and Bierman). Of the ISRC hybrid models tested, Project REDI provided data to support improvements, rather than decrements in childrens socioemotional development as well as in their language development (see above). Across 13 of the 14 interventions in the PCER evaluation, teachers in the intervention groups and teachers in the control group did not differ on the level of their students behavioral difficulty or social skills (using the SSRS; Gresham & Elliott, 1990). Again, these null findings should be interpreted with caution. The one exception was that children in the Learning Approaches treatment group were found to fare less well on socioemotional measures than were children in the control group, as rated by kindergarten teachers (see above). With that exception noted, there was no clear evidence of negative consequences for teacher-child interaction. Nor is there evidence for negative behavioral or emotional consequences for childrens socioemotional development, in almost all studies where teachers were extensively trained and monitored to implement significantly more cognitively demanding interventions.

Another way to explore this question is to consider whether teachers training, time, or curricular focus on academically focused outcomes might inadvertently lead classrooms to become too tightly structured, overly cognitively demanding, or somehow less emotionally or behaviorally supportive. Descriptive data from many of the non-experimental studies submitted for this review, however, suggest that the risk of preschool classrooms becoming overly cognitively demanding is relatively low. For example, descriptive work by the Howes & Fuligni team (Fuligni, revised and resubmitted) as well as work by Justice et al. (under review) on the preschool activity contexts and preschoolers exposure to language suggests that relatively low percentages of class time are spent engaged in instructional effort. Similarly, Massey, Pence, Justice and Bowles (2008) report that teachers use of more cognitively challenging questions is limited to approximately 11% of their utterances directed to the low-income children in their classrooms (pp. 12).  While speculative, it does not appear that those classrooms included in this broad range of studies were already too tightly paced or cognitively demanding, prior to implementation of the intervention.  Put another way, there may be significant regulatory benefits, and possibly fewer regulatory costs to raising the bar for teachers structure and pacing of cognitively demanding material in classrooms serving low-income children.

The PCER 14-study evaluation offers limited but important opportunity to examine this question: Data on the quality of teacher-child interaction were collected three times during the school year across all 14 studies (as rated by observers using Arnett scales) (Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium, 2008). Overall, statistically significant evidence of beneficial spillover effects in improving the classroom climate were found for the Creative Curriculum intervention, where treatment-assigned teachers were observed to be less detached and more positive in spring than were teachers in control group classrooms. Though non-significant, evidence from seven of the exclusively literacy/language oriented curricula demonstrated point estimate differences between treatment and control groups that were in the right direction (e.g., with point estimates of effect sizes equal to .38 or higher) (see Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium, 2008, pp. xliv). In sum, measured indicators of classroom quality across all studies but one suggest that placing higher demands on teachers instructional practices using either language/literacy or hybrid intervention models did not lead to measurably negative impacts and in one case (mentioned earlier), the implementation of these interventions led to clear benefits regarding the socioemotional climate of the classroom.

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