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School Readiness Study Moves Forward with More Funding, Findings
Project Focusing on Low-Income Students Sheds Light on Effect of Early Educational Environment
Feb. 14, 2019
The Dallas Project on Education Pathways has followed 407 low-income, African-American and Hispanic children since they were 2½ years old and examined the factors that affect their development of self-regulation skills, school readiness and academic achievement. A paper published last year tied the students’ self-control abilities to academic success. (iStock photo illustration)
A project conducted by researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas has entered its third round of funding in determining how various factors combine to influence the development of school readiness and success of urban minorities.
The Dallas Project on Education Pathways (DPReP), which began as the Dallas Preschool Readiness Project in 2009, is one of the nation’s first and longest longitudinal studies of childhood self-regulation development and its implications among African-American and Hispanic children.
With Dr. Margaret Caughy of the University of Georgia, Dr. Margaret Tresch Owen, Robinson Family Professor of psychology and director of UT Dallas’ Center for Children and Families, co-leads the project, which received a five-year competitive grant renewal of $2.8 million from the National Institutes of Health in 2017 to study the students’ transition into middle school.
It has followed 407 low-income, African-American and Hispanic children since they were 2½ years old and examed the factors that contribute to disparities in their development of self-regulation skills, school readiness and trajectories of academic achievement in reading and math.
“The first three years of school provide the foundation for virtually all learning that comes after. Entering school with less well-developed skills of this type — what we call behavioral self-regulation — can have a lasting impact on academic achievement if a child misses out on these foundational skills.”
Their findings thus far emphasize how factors that promote academic success begin before a child ever sets foot in a classroom. While many contextual risks associated with poverty experienced by many of the families are impediments to the children’s healthy development, family strengths have been found as well, serving to buffer risks and promote the children’s development.
Most recently, Owen and Caughy, who is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities, co-wrote a paper for the June 2018 issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology that ties the project children’s ability to listen, sit quietly and follow instructions when they enter school to their early academic achievement, along with their school’s effectiveness. Their work sheds light on how a child’s first formal educational environment will affect them.
“The first three years of school provide the foundation for virtually all learning that comes after,” Owen said. “Entering school with less well-developed skills of this type — what we call behavioral self-regulation — can have a lasting impact on academic achievement if a child misses out on these foundational skills.”
The findings also highlighted how the quality of the child’s school experiences can affect these outcomes.
“Children whose self-regulatory skills were deficient and who attended schools that were low in effectiveness, according to school standardized testing results, showed the poorest math and reading skills,” Owen said. “Those with stronger self-regulation skills when they entered school were better able to achieve, even when their school was less effective overall.” The study references the latest update of the nonprofit Children at Risk’s school performance guide, released in November.
Caughy is the lead author of this paper. Dr. Dawn Brinkley, an alumna of UT Dallas’ doctoral program in psychological sciences, is a co-author with Owen on the study publication, along with Dr. Britain Mills, an alumnus of the UT Dallas Children and Families Lab.
Prior research has shown that children exposed to poverty in early childhood are more likely to display deficits in self-regulation when entering school.
“Child development unfolds within the context of nested, interrelated settings of families, schools and communities,” Owen said. “Outcomes are reciprocally influenced not only by individual differences in children but also by characteristics of these environments. Other research as well as the findings from our longitudinal study tell us that stressed and unsupportive family environments and impoverished, resource-poor neighborhoods both contribute to poor self-regulation development in young children.”
The grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is supporting the researchers to follow these children and families as the students transition to middle school.
“The core of what we’re looking at is the degree to which disparities in achievement found so persistently among lower-income children relates to features and qualities of the early home environment, the school environment, community characteristics or particular combinations of these,” Owen said. “Ultimately, we want to identify what we can do to give all children a better chance to learn and succeed.”