New School Readiness Intervention Emphasizes Family Support

February 4, 2010

A new Penn State study will target families of kindergarten children at risk for doing poorly in school with an innovative at-home academic and behavioral readiness intervention. The study, led by Dr. Janet Welsh, research associate in the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, received a $3-million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The results of the study will have implications for parent involvement in children’s learning.

“Children who enter grade school with cognitive and social-emotional delays are at an increased risk for reading problems, academic underachievement, and becoming disengaged or disinterested in school,” says Welsh. “Our goal in developing this intervention was to improve parent support for child learning at home, thereby fostering gains in child oral language skills, emergent literacy skills, and adaptive approaches to learning.”

The intervention, called Focus on Learning, integrates approaches that strengthen academic and behavioral skills in children. Past studies have shown that both sets of skills are important when it comes to doing well and staying engaged in school. The intervention emphasizes parental support and involvement as a way to increase learning.

Families receive a laptop for the intervention, which Welsh and her colleagues found to be the best approach for building skills into a child’s daily life. The laptop contains applications and educational games that build vocabulary and reading skills, which is one component of the intervention.

“We tried to be mindful of what parents are or are not able to do, when we designed the intervention,” says Welsh. “Oftentimes what teachers can do differs from what parents can do, because there are much different demands. Many parents have low literacy themselves; to say they need to read to their kids is not always the most effective approach.”

To address these literacy issues, the intervention was designed so that parents do not need to read word for word from the page. Instead, they will be instructed to use a technique known as “dialogic reading,” which encourages parents to engage in a discussion with their children about what is happening on each page. This technique can strengthen communication between parent and child. Additionally, the books being used were designed specifically for the intervention and contain valuable social themes, such as problems young children face at home and at school.

Poor academic performance in school has been linked to aggressive behavior in some children, so parents in the intervention will also receive coaching lessons on how to use positive discipline strategies and manage noncompliant and aggressive behavior in children.

Children’s academic progress will be monitored until they reach at least third grade, and parent support and involvement in their children’s learning will be assessed. Nearly 300 kindergarten children from York. Juniata, and Mifflin counties in Pennsylvania will be involved in the randomized evaluation of the intervention, which is funded to last until 2014.

Other key faculty members involved in the study include Dr. Karen Bierman, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, and Dr. Scott Gest, associate professor of human development and family studies.

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Editors: Janet Welsh can be reached at jaw900@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.