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Making Preschool More Effective: Study Connects Classroom Processes to Children's Learning

A new study at the University of Virginia provides insight into how educators and policymakers can improve the quality of preschool experiences for children from low-income families.

Rachel Chapdelaine

Public preschool programs across the country aim to provide the experiences necessary for children’s academic success. Yet, while 70 percent of 4-year-olds from low-income families are enrolled in public preschool programs, almost half enter kindergarten underprepared academically and socially. 

Robust evidence shows that high-quality preschool experiences can improve children’s learning outcomes and prepare them for kindergarten, especially for children from under-served communities. However, there is great variation in the extent to which preschool programs consistently deliver high-quality experiences that are sufficient to close skill gaps at kindergarten and have lasting effects on learning, according to Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development. 

A longitudinal study led by Pianta and fellow researchers at the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) was specifically designed to provide insight into how public preschool programs can improve their impact. The Fairfax Prek to Third Grade Project (FP3) evaluates associations between observable, malleable classroom processes and children's school readiness skills — the social and academic skills necessary to be successful in kindergarten.

Early findings of the study, published recently in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, suggest that children are likely to learn more when classrooms are more educationally focused and when teachers are responsive and stimulating in their interactions. 

“For many years, we have known that pre-K is beneficial for children’s outcomes. However, we want to learn more about the combinations of active ‘ingredients’ of pre-K classroom experiences that are effective in improving outcomes for vulnerable children,” said Jessica Whittaker, a research associate professor at CASTL and an investigator on the study.

The study aims to fill this gap by focusing on the directly observable, malleable classroom processes that have been linked to student learning and development: teacher-student interactions, content and rigor of instruction and exposure to academic content. 

Importantly, these classroom processes can be adjusted and enriched by training and program policies to improve their impact on children’s early education experience. Determining which of these processes are associated with children’s learning, Whittaker said, may provide guidance for policy, program design and professional development efforts.

“With an increased understanding of the different classroom processes that benefit children, we can better design supports that increase teachers’ capacity to provide engaging and supportive environments,” said Whittaker.

The study sampled nearly the entire population of 1,500 children enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs in Fairfax, a large, diverse county in Virginia. These children came from a wide range of ethnic, racial and linguistic backgrounds and attended preschool in community-based centers, Head Start programs and classrooms within the public school system. Researchers collected data through parent and teacher surveys, direct assessments of school readiness skills and classroom observations using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System and the Behavioral Coding System.

In classrooms with higher quality teacher-student interactions, children experienced greater working memory and gains in math and teachers reported less conflict with individual students. When children spent more time in teacher-directed instructional activities and classroom routines than in free play, they experienced greater gains in literacy. 

The findings also distinguished between the quantity and quality of academic instruction. When more class time was spent on academic instruction, teachers reported feeling less close to their students, that children demonstrated somewhat lower attention and social skills, along with higher conflict and conduct problems. Yet when teachers engaged in more rigorous math instruction, children exhibited better social skills.

“The results affirm the key role of teachers and classroom experiences in the effectiveness of preschool programs and strengthen the case for greater focus and support for teachers that target a combination of key ingredients – their daily interactions with students and the instructional experiences they provide to them,” said Pianta.

Overall, early findings of the study showed small-to-moderate associations between this combination of classroom processes and children's skill levels with an effect size of 20 percent of a standard deviation. Whittaker put the magnitude of these findings into context by pointing to several large-scale evaluations that report the overall effects of schooling to be not much larger than 30 percent of a standard deviation.

“Given that the study accounts for two-thirds of the largest effect size of schooling in the field, the findings suggest that these classroom processes may account for half or more of children's learning attributable to schooling,” said Whittaker. “However, since the positive associations were not widespread or large, it also suggests that there are other factors that are important in predicting children’s outcomes.”

In fact, the strongest predictors of children’s skill growth at the end of the year were their fall assessment scores as they entered preschool and the child’s age at the time of assessment.

“This suggests that the learning that takes place at home and in programs prior to age 4 is incredibly important for success in school and is not inconsistent with recent initiatives to expand public preschool to 3-year-olds,” said Pianta.

Researchers hope the study will shift the field’s focus from whether preschool has an impact on learning to which specific aspects of preschool experiences, particularly in classrooms, are most effective in improving outcomes for low-income children. 

“This shift of focus to children’s actual classroom experience – teacher-student interactions, instructional time and activity and focus – is critical because of our ability to shape and improve these experiences through targeted professional development, better curricula and focused program designs,” said Pianta. “In turn, these moves are likely to boost the impact of pre-K on children’s learning and development.”

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