With $3.4M Grant, Researchers Will Examine Professional Development Impact on Preschoolers’ Behavior

Researchers will study an early childhood mental health consultation model aimed to improve teacher practice and promote young children’s success in preschool.

Audrey Breen

In preschool classrooms across the country, young children are actively learning self-regulation, behavioral and social skills. Challenging behavior occurs frequently in early childhood settings, and this is expected developmentally.

“Young children are in the throes of developing self-control and other skills,” said Amanda Williford, research associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. “Sometimes, children struggle to inhibit impulsive behavior, manage strong emotions, or sustain their attention. These behaviors don’t match the demands of a busy preschool classroom, and when a child struggles more than other children in the classroom, teachers are more likely to perceive the child as ‘disruptive’ or ‘challenging.’ Teachers repeatedly ask for more training and support to work effectively with these children.”

Williford, who serves as the associate director for early childhood at UVA’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), and colleague Jason Downer, professor and director of CASTL, were awarded a $3.4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to examine how a new early childhood mental health consultation model can support teachers to improve outcomes for preschoolers displaying disruptive behavior.

The Learning to Objectively Observe Kids, or LOOK, model utilizes individualized teacher consultation aimed at improving teachers’ capacity to understand children’s behavior in context and support their use of simple and effective strategies to improve children’s classroom engagement, as well as their self-regulation, behavior and social skills. Teachers participating in the study will work with a consultant to engage in interactive, online learning modules and guided review of videos from their own classrooms. LOOK was developed in partnership with the Monticello Area Community Action Agency (MACAA) and Miami-Dade Head Start Programs.

“The aim of LOOK is for teachers to recognize the links between their classroom practice and children’s engagement, understand children’s behavior in context, and be able to choose and implement new strategies,” Downer said.

The study will test whether teachers improve in implementing behavioral support and social-emotional teaching strategies and think differently about children’s behavior by embracing attributions that reflect the contribution of the classroom environment and responsivity to positive support (rather than perceiving behavior to be a stable, internal feature of a child).

The researchers will examine the impact of the program on children identified as displaying disruptive behaviors. But they will also examine if the program has positive “spillover” effects on children in the classrooms that were not identified as displaying disruptive behaviors.

The study is being carried out in partnership with Rebecca Shearer, associate professor at the University of Miami, who will lead data collection in Head Start preschool classrooms in Miami-Dade, Florida. It will include preschool teachers in 160 classrooms and approximately 640 children.

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