Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Socioemotional Domain

12/15/2009

As Raver reports, the current conceptualization of the socioemotional domain distinguishes three major mechanisms or processes that support children's development: self- regulation (emotional and cognitive), social cognitions, and prosocial skills. Raver also describes a fourth area of socioemotional development, behavior problems (externalizing and internalizing), which factors into children's ability to learn and relate to other people. The behavioral manifestations of these processes, taken together, form a picture of a child socially and emotionally ready for school. This child is able to:

  • follow adult directions;
  • control his/her own emotions, attention, and impulses independent of adult regulation;
  • establish positive social relationships with peers and adults;
  • successfully solve social problems without being disruptive or aggressive;
  • attend in a sustained way to learning tasks in the environment;
  • evaluate his/her own behavior and make corrections; and
  • demonstrate "cognitive flexibility."

Raver's description of the intervention research in the socioemotional domain clusters studies based on which of the three underlying processes the interventions are designed to effect. The research on interventions in the socioemotional domain is most consistent in the area of self-regulation and social skills. Evidence of the ability to reduce aggressive behavior in the classroom is more mixed. Further, all of the data reported represents short-term findings, with no evidence to date of longer-term benefits for school performance. Further gaps include: evidence of whether and how the various components of socioemotional functioning are inter-connected; and evidence of the relationship of children's development of self-regulatory and social relationship skills in preschool to their oral language development or to the acquisition of early literacy or math skills. As discussed above, the fact that disparate intervention strategies all appear to have impacts raises the question of the mechanisms leading to child impacts.

Impacts on Children's Self-Regulation Skills

In the area of self-regulation, Raver cites evidence that children's attentional processes can be enhanced through a variety of intervention mechanisms. For example, Raver cites three interventions as having impacts on children's self-regulatory skills:

  • Project REDI: uses small-group lessons focused on understanding emotions to help children regulate behavior and successfully negotiate social relationship; trains teachers on classroom management strategies that create a positive learning climate; uses instructional strategies in early literacy to build oral language skills and phonemic awareness that promote teacher/child interaction (scripted dialogic reading exercises to promote conversation and build vocabulary and small-group phonemic awareness activities to teach sounds and words).
  • Chicago School Readiness Project (CSRP): focuses on improving the emotional climate of the class by providing teachers with training in behavior management and in-class coaching by mental health consultants on implementing positive behavior management strategies.
  • Tools of the Mind: uses role play as a central mechanism to help children develop "self-regulatory scripts" to guide their own behavior; thematic dramatic play is the central type of role play, but roles also are used in children's work with peers in reading and other content areas.

All three of these interventions have reported impacts on children's levels of attention and focused effort and persistence, as measured through direct observations,[2] despite the fact that the three interventions use very different approaches. REDI and CSRP use the teacher as the primary change agent for helping children develop self-regulation, while Tools uses children's own role play to help children develop their own self-regulatory scripts. The fact that all three interventions report impacts on children's development of self-regulation skills and all three use multiple avenues to affect these changes underlines the importance of systematic research to isolate the most important "levers." Further, data on the long-term effects of these curricula will be crucial for understanding whether the differences in the approaches of Tools versus REDI and CSRP have ramifications for the persistence of impacts over time, once children leave supportive early childhood environments. If the children in Tools of the Mind build internal self-regulatory structures while children in REDI or CSRP are more dependent on the actions of the teacher, then it is possible that Tools will have more robust long-term impacts.

Long-term follow-up data on differences in school performance for children with stronger or weaker self-regulation at the end of preschool will also provide important information to prove or disprove the contention that self-regulation encompasses a skill set that influences learning across content areas and across ages. For the same reason, it is important that the research on these interventions includes measures of children's acquisition of skills in other curriculum areas, such as early literacy or early math at the end of preschool. (For example, in the research on Tools, children not only develop stronger attentional processes, they also score higher on standardized tests of math at the end of preschool.)

In general, the maintenance of gains in preschool may depend not only on the types of behavioral and/or attentional changes that children experience in preschool but also on the characteristics of their subsequent classroom environments in elementary school. Gains in preschool may be maintained or even enhanced if children experience classroom environments in elementary school that continue to support positive, regulated behavior.

Impacts on Children's Social Cognitions and Prosocial Skills

A second area of intervention research described by Raver focuses on the social cognitive mechanisms underlying children's ability to form and sustain positive interpersonal relationships with peers and adults in the classroom and to solve problems in social relationships. The social cognitive mechanisms include: children's knowledge of emotions  their own and other people's; knowledge of prosocial behaviors (e.g. helping, sharing, and taking turns); and the ability to generate and use more effective social problem-solving skills. In this area, the child who is ready for school:

  • Can develop a positive, engaged social relationship with the teacher;
  • Can form positive friendships with peers;
  • Can successfully solve problems that arise in social interactions with peers;
  • Demonstrates prosocial behavior in the classroom, such as helping other children, sharing, and taking turns;
  • Does not act aggressively with other children or adults.
  • Does not act disruptively in the classroom.

In the same way that self-regulatory skills are correlated with children's learning across domains, children's social skills and the quality of their relationship with teachers have been found to be correlated to their later social and academic competence in early elementary school.

Raver focuses on the results from three interventions:

  • Project REDI trains teachers to provide more emotional coaching and support in the classroom and includes a socioemotional curriculum that helps children develop emotional knowledge and accurate social attributions, and prosocial behavior strategies for interactions with peers. REDI reports significant differences for children's emotion understanding and interpersonal problem-solving, and significant gains in children's social competence (teacher rated aggression and observer-rated social competence). The project also reports significant changes in teachers' use of emotion coaching, positive classroom management and behavioral support.
  • My Teaching Partner, a web-based teacher training curriculum developed by Pianta, focused on improving teacher/student relationships to be more responsive and supportive. Results showed that intervention teachers demonstrated significantly more sensitivity, language modeling, and quality of instructional support to students.
  • CSRP also worked with teachers to establish more positive classroom environments, and there was a significant impact of the on positive classroom climate (d = .52 to d = .89). Although there was no child-focused curriculum on emotional language or self-awareness, the gains in children's behavioral self-regulation were attributed to the enhanced classroom environment.

Impacts on Children's Behavior Problems

Fewer studies have measured impacts of interventions on children's behavior problems. Project REDI, a socioemotional learning curriculum, reported significant reductions of children's aggression, as reported by teachers. Similarly, CSRP reports reductions in children's externalizing and internalizing problems as reported by teachers. Across the PCER studies, there were no effects on children's behavior problems as reported by teachers.

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