A parallel area of research has focused on what children know about their emotions and the negotiation of interpersonal problems, emphasizing the social cognitive mechanisms revealed in childrens successes versus failures to get along with peers and adults (see classic work by Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994; Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2002). Additional research on childrens attachment relationships with teachers, with the development of relationships characterized by closeness versus conflict also informs several interventions funded by the ISRC and PCER initiatives (Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Childrens social skills and quality of relationship with teachers have been found to be correlated to their later social and academic competence in early elementary school (see Raver, Garner, & Smith-Donald, 2007 for review). Both of those research areas suggest that children develop relatively stable social cognitions or attributions regarding strategies of getting along with peers and adults in classroom contexts. These attributions appear to be built on a foundation of childrens knowledge of emotions, knowledge of prosocial behaviors (e.g., helping, sharing, and taking turns), and the ability to generate and use more effective social problem-solving skills (see Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007).
Past correlational research has faced the persistent problems of omitted variables bias and reverse causality (or bidirectional influence). For example, children who are temperamentally prone to be more sociable have been found to elicit more positive responses from peers and teachers than do children who express more anger and distress in the classroom (see for example, Justice, Cottone, Mashburn, & Rimm-Kaufman, under review). In the context of those relationships, more well-liked children may have greater opportunities to talk about, process, and remember information about their own and others feelings, and about strategies for successfully navigating social relationships than might children who are less well-liked. Similarly, childrens placement in classrooms with more emotionally supportive teachers and their negotiation of academic as well as social challenges are likely to be at least partially influenced by time-invariant individual and contextual variables that are often omitted from models (see OConnor & McCartney, 2007 for exception and methodological solutions using longitudinal data).
It is within this framework that the federally funded research initiatives targeting childrens SEL skills are likely to be of major impact to the field. In this area, randomized trials represent a key opportunity to test causal claims of the role of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula for childrens knowledge, attributions, and behaviors regarding prosocial versus aggressive behavior with peers. Interventions targeting teachers practices also offer the opportunity to test the modifiability of childrens relationships with adults in classroom contexts. Outcomes that are commonly tapped in interventions that target childrens social problem-solving with peers and positive relationships with teachers include direct assessments of childrens emotion understanding, of childrens selection of adaptive versus maladaptive strategies in hypothetical vignettes of conflict with peers. Outcome variables also include more general teacher reports of childrens social skills as well as teachers reports of the quality of their relationships with individual children.
With that brief review as an empirical backdrop, was there evidence from the federally funded research initiatives of significant impact of interventions on childrens social problem-solving skills and their ability to get along with peers? Evidence from Project REDI suggests that the intervention, comprised of cognitive and socioemotional curricula as well as teachers provision of emotion coaching and support was associated with moderate to medium-sized program impacts for childrens emotion understanding and interpersonal problem-solving (ds ranging from .15 to .39; Bierman et al., symposium presentation). These gains in childrens socioemotional skill acquisition were paralleled by substantial gains in treatment enrolled childrens generalized social competence, with effect sizes of d = -.28 for teacher rated aggression, d = .26 for observer-rated social competence (p<.08) (Bierman et al., in press-a ). These findings are in keeping with prior randomized trial research by Bierman and colleagues (see Greenberg et al., 2007 and Domitrovich et al., 2007 for comparison) and by other senior leaders in the area of low-income childrens socioemotional development (see for example, Izard, Trentacosta, King, Morgan, & Diaz, 2007).
Was there evidence from the federally funded research initiatives of significant impact of interventions on childrens relationships with teachers? Building on their hallmark program of observational research across large samples in preschool and elementary school contexts, Pianta et al specifically targeted teacher-student relationships as a key socioemotional outcome for their web-based intervention, with evidence of improved teacher-student relationship using observational measures (see below). Similar findings of program impact on the teacher reports of the quality of teacher-student relationship have been informally discussed, but not yet submitted for publication from Project REDI and CSRP. These findings (should they be robust to sensitivity checks using alternative model specifications) would suggest that teacher-child relationships are modifiable. Additional analyses are also currently underway in both the REDI and CSRP labs to detect whether improvements in teachers relationships with children are bidirectionally related to childrens improvements in self-regulation (the teams are constrained from making causal claims regarding those linkages, however; see Raver et al., submitted, for further discussion).
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