Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Contextual Factors in the Effectiveness of Interventions

12/15/2009

There are a wide range of programmatic, classroom, teacher, and home/family factors that provide influence the implementation of interventions, the effectiveness of professional development approaches, and the effectiveness of interventions for improving children's outcomes. There is a need to better understand the role of these contextual factors in translating high quality curricula, intervention models, or professional development experiences into improved teacher practices and children's school readiness outcomes. However, contextual factors, such as teacher and workplace characteristics, are often not measured or included in evaluations of professional development.

Program context and administrators, instructional supervisors, and program structure play an important, yet relatively unexplored, role in supporting interventions. Furthermore, the role of teacher aides, as well as the relationship between the teacher and aide, in contributing to the success of professional development efforts, intervention implementation, classroom instruction, and program quality requires further attention in research. In a study of the Head Start REDI intervention (Domitrovich, Gest, Gill, Bierman, Welsh and Jones, 2009), researchers provided similar professional development to both the teacher and the aide, treating the teaching team as an intervention unit, and found positive effects of coaching for both the teacher and the aide.

Classroom characteristics and composition were also highlighted as an important context that can impact implementation. For example, in classrooms with high numbers of children with challenging behaviors, socioemotional curricula that were too cognitively oriented were difficult to implement. Another study, which examined the effectiveness of individualized, web-based consultation with a coach combined with teacher-accessed web-based support compared to teacher-accessed web-based support only, found the greatest impact of individualized, web-based consultation on teacher-child interactions in the highest poverty classrooms (Pianta et al, 2008), which. In contrast, teachers in high poverty classrooms who received only teacher-accessed web-based support without individualized web-based consultation with a coach showed a decline in the quality of teacher-child interactions over the course of the study. The results of this study suggest the need for greater support in under-resourced classrooms.

Teacher characteristics also play an important role in mediating outcomes. Specifically, there was discussion about the need to consider the psychological well-being of educators. For example, in the QUINCE study, much of the coaching relationship focuses on dealing with issues of depression and isolation. Other studies reported by Pianta and his colleagues have found that about 15 percent of teachers report depressive symptoms (Hamre & Pianta, 2004). There is a general consensus that it will be important for future professional development efforts to address teachers' mental health. Furthermore, we need a better understanding of how interventions fit with teachers' personal and professional goals, which will help to determine teachers' readiness for change. This point was supported by the finding in several studies that teachers implemented curricula with greater fidelity when they had a high level of dedication to and positive attitudes towards the curriculum.

In addition to programmatic and staff characteristics, the role of parents and the home environment was emphasized as an important context. Research suggests that parents and the home environment have a larger impact on child outcomes than early childhood programs do (e.g., NICHD ECCRN, 2002).  This finding suggests that interventions should involve and target parents as well as children.  However, there is a question over what this involvement entails:  (1) getting parents invested in early childhood program so that they view the program as an opportunity for their child, or (2) intervening with parents as well as with children. The rationale for the latter approach is to intensify the impact on children by improving the enriching experiences at home as well as providing high-quality experiences in the early childhood program. From this perspective, enhancing children's experiences in multiple contexts offers greater opportunity to impact children's outcomes and suggests the need to identify more ways to involve families. Many researchers view the literature as providing support for interventions with parents as well as children, while others point to research on such two-way intervention models that have not demonstrated impacts on parenting (e.g., Abecedarian and CARE). Interventions that target a wide range of parenting behaviors may be too overwhelming for parents, thus preventing improvement in any area.  Interventions designed to target specific parenting outcomes may be an alternative to broader programs.  Specifically, interventions to improve parents' vocabulary may be one appropriate target that may help children as well.

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