Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Self-regulation: How children handle their emotions, attention, and behavior in classroom contexts

12/15/2009

Preschool has long been viewed as an important social context where children learn to follow adults directions, to handle their own emotions, attention, and impulses with increasing independence from adult regulatory support. Imagine any one of a number of routine classroom scenarios, where children are expected to sit attentively through circle time, line up for trips to the playground or bathroom without pushing or shoving peers, and to follow teachers directions to gather materials for a writing activity, clean up, or share a favorite book even when children feel tired, bored, or frustrated. Investigators have identified individual differences and growth trajectories in childrens ability to handle these regulatory challenges, based on a research tradition focusing on reactivity and regulation (see McClelland et al., 2007; Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007 for recent reviews). More recently, childrens ability to handle classroom challenges has been examined through a second neurobehavioral lens with research on childrens executive functioning emphasizing the roles of childrens working memory, attention deployment, and ability to inhibit prepotent impulses in order to meet external demands (Diamond & Taylor, 1996; Greenberg, Riggs, & Blair, 2007). In applied developmental contexts, investigators have considered childrens modulation of positive affect, attention, and behavior in classroom contexts as important approaches to learning that are correlated with teacher reports and direct assessments of childrens academic skill (Fantuzzo et al., 2007; McDermott, Leigh, & Perry, 2002; Rimm-Kaufman, Fan, Chiu, & You, 2007).

Evidence from a small, extant literature on self-regulation and executive functioning among low-income children suggests that exposure to more poverty-related risks is associated with childrens greater difficulty in their executive functioning and self-regulation skills (Li-Grining, 2007; Lengua, 2002). Evidence from recent neurobehavioral research suggests that executive functioning skills are late-developing through early childhood, suggesting an important window of opportunity or sensitive period for the development of competent regulation of attention, impulses, and use of working memory in early childhood (Diamond & Taylor, 1996).  On the basis of this model of self-regulation and school readiness (see Greenberg, 2006), several federally funded interventions in the ISRC consortium posited that children in treatment group would show significant gains in this domain of school readiness as compared to their control group counterparts (Bierman, Nix, Greenberg, Blair, & Domitrovich, in press-b; Fantuzzo, in preparation, Raver et al., revised and resubmitted).

Was there evidence from these federally funded research initiatives of significant impact of interventions on childrens self-regulatory skills? Several studies within the ISRC have found that children would specifically gain in self-regulatory skills when in classrooms that provided greater regulatory support. These have included Project REDI (Bierman et al., in press-a, reporting effect size of d = .29 on direct assessments of task engagement) and the CSRP (unpublished findings). Across these two studies, children in the treatment group were found to demonstrate stronger levels of attention, engagement, or focused effort on a direct assessment of attention and impulsivity at post-test, compared to children in the treatment group. In contrast, no statistically significant differences were found on teacher reports of childrens attentiveness, persistence, and other learning-related skills, on the Preschool Learning Behavior Scale (McDermott, Green, Francis, & Stott, 1996; PCER final report, 2008). These null findings are interpreted with caution in this review. This caution is based on concerns for power and correspondingly, the relatively high values that effect sizes would have to achieve, in order to be minimally detectable (see cell sizes and MDEs listed in PCERS final report, pp. 31)

Findings from REDI and CSRP are in line with prior work by Greenberg and colleagues (e.g., Riggs, Greenberg, Kusché, & Pentz, 2006) with older children, suggesting significant program impact on childrens executive function, and by recent findings by Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro (2007) where children assigned to the treatment group receiving the Tools of the Mind curriculum demonstrated significant benefits on a directly-assessed executive function task (the flanker task) relative to their control group assigned counterparts. In short, these findings suggest substantial evidence for the modifiability of childrens self-regulatory skills across the preschool year.

What are the implications of these hypothesized and demonstrated short-term gains in childrens executive function or self-regulation skills? An optimistic hypothesis might be that children with improved self-regulatory skills may be placed on a more positive developmental trajectory, better able to capitalize on future opportunities for learning in kindergarten and early elementary years. A less optimistic hypothesis is that these behavioral gains will be sustained only as long as children continue to have access to the conditions and classroom practices that supported the development of executive function and adaptive self-regulation within the intervention year. Future research is needed to learn whether these early gains in childrens ability to regulate their engagement, attention, and behavior are sustained into early elementary school years.

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