Interview -Terri J Sabol

Assistant professor of human development, Northwestern University

A study has found children’s individual engagement with teachers, peers and tasks was important to the gains they made during their pre-school year, even after taking into account differences in classroom quality.

What did the study examine?

In current education policy, there is a lot of focus on teachers: what are they doing?; how can we measure their effectiveness? Yet this often misses the central role that children play in their own development. The study wanted to see the extent to which children’s individual experiences in the classroom contribute to their learning, beyond what the teacher facilitated for the classroom as a whole.

How did you conduct the research?

We directly observed classrooms using a tool designed to capture the level of emotional support, classroom organisation, and instructional support between teachers and children. We then used a separate tool designed to zoom in on children’s level of engagement (both positive and negative) in the classroom with peers, teachers and activities. We observed more than 200 low-income ethnically diverse children in about 50 classrooms using both the classroom-level and child-level tools.

What do the findings tell us about the importance of children’s engagement?

Children’s individual engagement can be a powerful predictor of how they learn and grow in pre-school classrooms. Children who were more positively engaged with teachers and peers had greater gains in their language, literacy and self-regulatory skills even after accounting for average observed classroom quality. Children who were negatively engaged in the classroom (for example, those who got into conflicts with teachers or peers) were at a comparative disadvantage in terms of their school readiness.

Children with higher levels of negative engagement performed at lower levels across nearly all of the academic, language and social outcomes measured, including lower language, literacy and self-regulatory skills.

What are the implications of the research for early years practitioners and their practice?

Interventions designed to prepare children for school should include a focus on children’s individual behaviours (both positive and negative) in the classroom. Observing children’s engagement can guide decisions about where, when and how to intervene with at-risk children, and help educators enact more useful individualised strategies in the classroom.

'Low-Income Ethnically Diverse Children’s Engagement as a Predictor Of School Readiness Above Preschool Classroom Quality’ is published in the journal Child Development.

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