Three decades of research in the fields of developmental psychology and early childhood have suggested that childrens socioemotional development is clearly associated with their school readiness (see Blair, 2002; Zaslow et al., 2003). Children have been argued to draw upon positive styles of self-regulation and social skill as key sources of support when navigating new contexts of school (Raver, 2002). Conversely, children who are persistently emotionally dysregulated and behaviorally disruptive have been found to receive less instruction from teachers and to have fewer opportunities for learning from peers (see Arnold et al., 2006; McClelland & Morrison, 2003). However, claims of the role of socioemotional competence for childrens later academic achievement have recently received greater scrutiny (Duncan et al., 2007). In addition, recent analyses using the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten (ECLS-K) data set suggest that preschool experience may pose both risks and benefits to childrens long-term chances of success in school (Magnuson, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2007). It is against this backdrop that a new set of federally funded research initiatives funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education were to test innovative models of program improvement and support for childrens school readiness. Findings from these sets of research initiatives are particularly timely from both the standpoints of science and social policy.
Tests of the role of childrens socioemotional development for their later chances of success in school become even more pressing in the context of income poverty. Specifically, young children in poverty are more likely to be exposed to multiple ecological stressors such as higher levels of neighborhood and family violence, greater psychological distress among adult caregivers, and a range of other co-factors that appear to place childrens ability to regulate their emotions and behavior in jeopardy (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, & Aber, 1997; Li-Grining, 2007; Raver, 2004). Policy contexts (such as early childhood education) that provide direct services to children have been argued to be the most effective means of supporting low-income childrens optimal outcomes (Magnuson & Duncan, 2003). This context underscores the significance of major federal investments in evaluations of the impact of interventions targeting low-income childrens school readiness (such as the interventions within the ISRC and PCER consortia).
This review provides the opportunity to briefly review emerging findings from this set of major federal research initiatives. After providing a brief definition for each relevant socioemotional construct, this review summarizes the rationale for targeting that domain. Models of program impact mediated through improvements in instructional support (such as changes in teachers use of emotionally and behaviorally supportive classroom practices) are also reviewed, with the recognition that children within this set of interventions were hypothesized to be affected primarily through improvement in the quality and quantity of teachers instruction. (It is important to note that interventions such as Head Start and Early Head Start have invested in more comprehensive approaches that include provision of family supports and services, but those more comprehensive approaches will not be discussed, here). This review also discusses some of the potential tradeoffs in implementing new curricula in early childhood settings. Specifically, this review examines whether there is any evidence for any unexpected benefits or of any unanticipated negative consequences for childrens socioemotional development or for emotionally supportive classroom practices from the implementation of a large number of interventions in preschool settings. Finally, new directions for applied developmental science in early childhood educational settings are briefly outlined.
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