Grant to address early childhood learning gap

Grant to address early childhood learning gap
The Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has earned a $3.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant to explore whether an intervention approach that bridges living rooms and classrooms can also span the persistent achievement gap facing disadvantaged children.

            Three of the intervention's creators, CYFS director Susan Sheridan, research associate professor Lisa Knoche and faculty affiliate Carolyn Pope Edwards are leading a newly funded four-year study of its ability to help these struggling children close gaps in cognition, language skills and social-emotional maturity as they enter preschool. Called "Getting Ready," the CYFS-designed intervention aims to strengthen parent-child relationships and foster family-school partnerships that improve the educational prospects of children at risk for developmental delays.

            Disadvantaged children who enter school behind their more privileged peers traditionally fail to catch up -- and often see those peers widen the gap over time, Knoche and Sheridan said. The study will consequently gauge Getting Ready's impact on child outcomes not only throughout two years of preschool, but also before and after kindergarten.

            Because the intervention approach focuses on cultivating relationships and promoting home-school continuity, Knoche and her colleagues will also examine how Getting Ready influences parents' engagement with children and collaboration with teachers. In turn, the researchers will determine how these dynamics contribute to the intervention's effectiveness.

            The study, which received funding through June 2016, will measure these outcomes by randomly assigning families and teachers to groups that either do or do not participate in the Getting Ready intervention. Approximately 300 children deemed at risk for developmental delays will take part in the study, which will draw participants from roughly 75 rural and suburban preschools in Nebraska.

            According to Knoche, Getting Ready specifically encourages parents to engage their children with warmth, responsiveness and sensitivity by supporting their children's autonomy and actively participating in their learning. Preschool teachers periodically visit the homes of participating families to discuss expectations, provide developmental information, observe parent-child interactions, and suggest or model practices that aid learning. Participating teachers, meanwhile, receive extensive training and support from early childhood coaches.

            The intervention approach also incorporates Sheridan's Conjoint Behavioral Consultation model, in which coaches help parents and teachers collaborate to specify goals for children, assess their progress, and develop data-backed strategies that address areas of need.

            By emphasizing relationships and continuity over fixed protocols and curriculum, Getting Ready provides a versatile framework that can be implemented within the context of existing preschool programs, Knoche said.

            "Many early childhood intervention approaches target preschool classroom-based settings and focus primarily on curricular approaches to supporting outcomes for children," she said. "Few preschool intervention approaches intentionally integrate the parent-child and parent-teacher relationships as vehicles to promote positive school readiness in young children. This dual focus on multiple relationships differentiates Getting Ready from other types of early childhood interventions."

            Knoche said she believes the study will confirm that this multi-faceted approach can successfully address the root causes that have allowed the achievement gap to endure for so long.

            "Closing the achievement gap in education requires a comprehensive approach that targets multiple societal layers. Getting Ready is making strides in closing the gap by supporting parents in their role as their child's primary teacher and advocate early on in their child's educational career," she said. "Additionally, we are supporting collaboration across home and school on targeted outcomes for children who are at greatest developmental risk. The earlier we can intervene to promote positive outcomes for young children at risk, the better."

            Sheridan, Knoche and Edwards unveiled Getting Ready in 2004 with CYFS faculty affiliate Christine Marvin. Pope Edwards is a co-investigator on the current study, and Marvin serves as a training and supervision consultant. CYFS affiliate Keely Cline has been named the project director. James Bovaird, director of the CYFS Statistics and Research Methodology Unit, is serving as a co-investigator. CYFS research assistant professor Brandy Clarke is filling the role of clinical and research supervisor.