Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Right From the Start

Published in the Spring 2016 University of North Carolina Greensboro Research Magazine

By Whitney L.J. Howell

The best foot forward. It’s what we all want for our children in those first few years. But, the question is — how do we get there?

Nationally and locally, debates rage. It’s difficult to find consensus on the best way to educate our children or even prepare them to be educated. One thing we can be sure of? It’s no simple task. It will require a lot of work and collaboration to get it right.

UNCG is leading the way. Here, researchers have investigated — sometimes for years — what it takes to make sure children are healthy and ready to learn. And, now, investigators are combining their knowledge, resources, and networks to meet these challenges directly.

Faculty and staff, from the UNCG Department of Human Development and Family Studies to the UNCG Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships, conduct basic research, translate research into evidence-based practice, and help create local, state, and national educational policy. As they reach out to families, help towns and cities identify and intervene with struggling children, and teach professionals vital skills for the classroom, these investigators have one goal in mind — giving every child the right start.

“We take what we glean from research and teaching and put it together to make a difference. That knowledge shouldn’t remain in the academy,” says Dr. Chris Payne, director of the Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships. “It’s our mission to work for the greater good of our community.”

The Importance of Early Social & Emotional Development

For children to maximize their educational experiences, it’s critical they come into the classroom ready to learn. That makes the first five years invaluable to healthy growth, Payne says. During that time, approximately 90 percent of brain structures develop, establishing the foundation for how a child learns and processes information.

The healthiest growth occurs, explains Payne, when children have secure relationships with their caregivers and feel free to express emotions, including fear, anger, and happiness.

Emotion Regulation

Although school carries an inherent focus on grades, academic ability isn’t the only factor determining whether a child is actually classroom-ready. Another key indicator is whether he or she can appropriately regulate emotions, says Dr. Susan Calkins. “The more structured preschool and school environments present a unique set of challenges to children — challenges that require emotional readiness.”

If you visit the Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) professor’s lab while her team collects data, you’ll observe children singing, counting, or playing games. Others might be crying and flailing fists. They’re expressing a wide range of emotional abilities, dependent on their age and experiences.

While some children control their impulses by employing various learned strategies, others lack these skills and have trouble delaying gratification or managing frustrating tasks. Their negative emotional responses indicate immature emotional readiness.

“Being able to manage emotions is critical for academic achievement, school readiness, and mental health,” Calkins explains. Without emotion regulation skills, children can’t establish positive student-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships. If they can’t express themselves or manage their feelings in ageappropriate ways, they also risk social rejection. “If children don’t master emotional regulation, they face challenges for years to come.”

To help children reach appropriate levels of emotional maturity, adults must recognize their natural responses and know how to handle them, Calkins says. To find the tools parents and caregivers need, she and her team have recruited children from more than 450 families to participate in the RIGHT Track study.

Although we can begin to understand emotion regulation by observing the behavior of and collecting information from children and their caregivers, collecting data at the physiological level also provides a key piece of the puzzle in understanding not only how emotional regulation develops but also the degree to which it impacts various areas of the child development.

In one component of the study, Calkins team attaches heart rate electrodes to each child to measure their physiological arousal and then presents them with a frustrating task. Two-year-olds are asked to open a cookie jar that was glued shut or wait to open a present, while 5-yearolds are tasked with unlocking a box using a set of keys that does not actually include the correct key.

The team watches both the child’s actions as well as the caregiver’s responses. Did the children quit or did they stick with the task? Did the parent offer guidance or withdraw from the situation? Children and parents returned to the lab for more advanced tests as they aged.

“So far, we’ve seen that children who get extremely frustrated with these tasks also experience behavior problems,” Calkins says. “These kids who lack skills to control their emotions and cope are also more likely to experience depression and academic and health issues and to engage in substance abuse and risky sexual behavior later in life.”

There are many ways children can rein in overwhelming feelings. Distractions, such as singing songs, diverting concentration, or engaging in self-soothing behaviors, can effectively control emotions.

Knowing how to implement these behaviors helps a child navigate social and academic environments, says Calkins. They also help children stay focused on tasks and enhance their autonomy. When children have these skills, they can approach difficult situations without adult intervention.

Calkins’ findings are important not just for parents but for educators too. Early development of a positive teacher-student relationship can help children sidestep many of the aforementioned problems. “This is critical knowledge, especially in today’s kindergarten climate where we’re getting young children ready for a series of tasks and tests.”

Parent-Child Relationships

Healthy emotion regulation is imperative for children to achieve school readiness, but of course they can’t do it alone. Parents must be involved, points out HDFS professor Esther Leerkes. And, at every step, parents must provide age-appropriate guidance or children won’t internalize the correct skills.

“The quality of parenting matters. We know that how parents respond when a child is upset can help children learn to regulate their emotions — which in turn affects their early cognitive development and school readiness,” she says. “We also know if children struggle emotionally, they are more likely to struggle academically.”

Inside Leerkes’ lab, parents and young children are completing a treasure hunt. They must find the best route for a bear to cross a body of water and reach a prize on an island. While the child’s goal is getting to the treasure, the research team’s objective is to determine how differing parenting styles affect a child’s emotional and cognitive abilities and early readiness for school.

The kids and adults are participants in the School Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) project. With over $6 million in funding over the last decade from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Leerkes and her collaborators are following over 500 children from age 4 to the first grade.

It matters, she says, whether parents engage children in stimulating ways. The adults can choose to withdraw from the game, take it over, or engage the child and guide him or her through the process, helping them understand and make decisions.

The most successful children, she says, have emotionally supportive parents. They were involved in play and offered age-appropriate guidance, praise, and encouragement. Children faltered when parents took charge, became frustrated, or didn’t participate at all. Children were also more likely to lose interest, appear bored, or withdraw when parents pushed too hard or became negative.

Leerkes’ team also assesses the children’s physiological and neural activity as they problem solve.

For example, the team puts each child through a Stroop test. These tests tax participants by requiring them to inhibit their initial responses — a child might be required to say the word “night” when they see a picture of the sun. The researchers observe which regions of the brain are active, and they record how many picture presentations the children get right.

They’re looking to see, Leerkes says, what types of brain activity correlate to high performance levels. One day, their findings could help predict a child’s level of academic performance and perhaps even help identify children who need early interventions.

In another study with infants and toddlers, the team monitors both parents and children as children are presented with frightening or frustrating situations. Leerkes’ team has found that a younger child’s emotional control is strongly linked to the caregiver’s behavior and emotions. If parents exhibit frustration, irritation, or anxiety — identified by elevated heart rates accompanied by poor regulation — children aren’t as able to control their emotions and behavior. To minimize a child’s exposure to negativity, Leerkes suggests that parents pay attention to their own emotions while interacting with their children. Imagine your child’s perspective, she advises, and calm yourself by pausing to take deep breaths and relax when you can feel your own strong emotions rising.

When parent-child interaction is positive, everyone benefits, Leerkes says. Children develop better emotional control, and they use that skill to maintain their attention and manage their frustration, both critical for adaptive peer relationships and active engagement in school. And parents proudly watch their children succeed in school transitions.

Child Care Program Quality and Teacher Support

In laying the foundation for school readiness and a lifetime of success, we know that quality of parent-child interactions and the home environment is critical. But quality in other child care environments, including preschools and child care centers, is just as crucial.

It’s important for parents to know what an early childhood program offers, how effective their teachers are, and where the curricula are strong. In 1999, HDFS faculty Dr. Deb Cassidy, Dr. Linda Hestenes, Dr. Sharon Mims, and Dr. Steve Hestenes began collaborating with the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education to help parents make these important choices.

Their long-running N.C. Rated License Assessment project, which has received over $50 million in funding, rates child care programs throughout the state — currently over 7,000 programs. Of these, 45 percent of child care centers and approximately 11 percent of home-based programs have earned the top, five-star rating.

The N.C. Rated License Assessment project is just one of many ways UNCG is helping improve the overall quality of child care and education statewide. Another example? In conjunction with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, HDFS Associate Professor Catherine Scott-Little is providing technical support for a new North Carolina K-3 assessment system. The system collects data on students from kindergarten through third grade, to help individualize their teaching and learning. Teachers, support staff, and families provide information for the assessment from observations, conversations, work samples, and more.

Teachers are better prepared and can better personalize teaching strategies when they understand how children learn. The K-3 Assessment system will arm teachers with a more complete picture of each of their students, improving their instruction and helping to meet their individual needs. With the information from the assessment Scott-Little is helping to design, teachers can more effectively target and teach to areas where high-need children need the most help.

A well-educated, prepared teaching staff is the biggest factor in achieving a five-star rating in the current N.C. Rated License guidelines. But finding the best qualified teachers to choose from can be difficult in the current environment of student loan debts and low teacher wages statewide. UNCG is taking steps to help grow our pool of highly educated teachers and to make sure they are supported and paid a living wage to keep them in the field.

HDFS Professor Deborah Cassidy has led the charge in preparing North Carolina teachers for more than two decades. Her latest focus is the EQuIPD (Education Quality Improvement & Professional Development) program. Funded by a Smart Start grant from the Guilford County Partnership for Children, EQuIPD is bringing professional development directly to existing early childhood professionals in Guilford County.

“Traditionally, early childhood professionals struggle to find the time and resources to get the continuing education and professional development they need,” says Cassidy. “Through this program, our staff brings interconnected services, such as peer coaching and training, directly to teachers and directors in early childhood settings. Together, we are implementing strategies we know have a direct impact on increasing the quality of early care and education.”

Another example of efforts in this area, says Cassidy, is UNCG’s mentoring program, which pairs teachers working in higher-quality programs with those working in lower-quality programs over a four month period. Mentors — who receive a stipend — meet regularly with mentees to discuss problems, strategies, and tactics. These conversations help identify opportunities for reaching children, as well as actions that might hamper a child’s academic progress. The connections are designed to give teachers a safe, reliable sounding board to analyze problems.

“The relationships that develop are more important than the content discussed. Being an early-education teacher can be isolating,” Cassidy says. “Having someone to discuss issues with can be invaluable.”

It’s also important, Cassidy says, for teachers to feel comfortable instructing students on complicated subject matters. To foster that confidence, UNCG supports community-training events that raise awareness of early-education topics through keynote speakers and workshops. For example, a recent session offered guidance for teaching science and math in age-appropriate ways. The hope, she said, is these sessions will enhance teachers’ abilities to create strong curricula that reach children of all readiness levels.

But having high-quality teachers who know how to reach students and who have targeted curricula that teach to every student’s needs means nothing if those teachers don’t make it into or stay in the classroom. There’s only one way to ensure high quality teachers are available, Cassidy says. Current and future educators must receive salaries that accurately reflect the time and effort that goes into the job.

To highlight this dire need, HDFS hosts Worthy Wage Day, an event that invites community leaders and politicians to work a child-care job for two hours, earning a teacher’s hourly pay — $10.97. They’re presented an honorary check during a press conference and are given the opportunity to discuss their experience.

Not only does Worthy Wage Day give community leaders a first-hand view of what teaching and caring for young children actually requires, but it also highlights the dire income insecurity experienced by many of North Carolina’s early-education teachers. Up to 45 percent receive income support. In fact, many can’t afford to enroll their own children where they work. Until this inequality is sufficiently addressed, Cassidy says, the state will continue to struggle to maintain a well-educated, dedicated, quality teacher workforce.

To read the article at its original location: http://research.uncg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/onlineUNCGResearchSpring016.pdf

 

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May 25, 2016 - Posted by | Education, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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