‘Deep Dive’ Study Aims to Map How Children’s School Readiness Skills Develop

Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, in partnership with faculty at Arizona State University and New York University, are setting out to map how children’s school readiness skills develop within the preschool classroom context. In a five-year, 2.3 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Co-Principal Investigators Amanda Williford and Jason Downer will explore how children’s classroom engagement, their executive functioning and the quality of the classroom experience are interrelated and ultimately affect children’s school readiness skills.

“This is a high-intensity, deep dive investigation that should lead to a better understanding of how these pivotal skills develop. The ultimate goal is that this study will provide knowledge to the field to develop better interventions for early childhood education, such as new curricula and better coaching models for teachers, that will support children’s school readiness” says Amanda Williford.

Williford is an assistant research professor at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) at UVA. She is the driving force behind the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Project (VKRP), which showed last year that about a third of children entering kindergarten in Virginia lack key readiness skills. “It’s safe to say that school readiness is a major challenge and a hot topic,” says Williford.

According to Williford, being ready for school is in large part about a child’s skill to engage with teachers, peers, and activities related to learning in the early childhood classroom. The new project also focuses on children’s executive functioning, which involves a set of self-control skills needed to remember, plan, organize and complete tasks.  These are the skills required to complete multi-step tasks and directions, remember rules in the moment, and refrain from acting on impulses (e.g., raising one’s hand instead of calling out in class) and are foundational to children’s learning.  Finally, the quality of the classroom experience is important. For instance, how sensitive and responsive are teachers to children in the classroom, and how much time do children spend in developmentally appropriate and stimulating learning activities?

“What we don’t have a clear picture of,” says Williford, “Is the interplay between these factors. We don’t really know how children’s individualized engagement and executive functioning interact with what is going on in the classroom to impact children’s development of school readiness skills,” says Williford. 

In order to get a better understanding of how these classroom processes affect each other, Williford and Downer will lead a team to conduct a longitudinal study in about 100 preschool classrooms with 800 preschoolers.  “This study will rely heavily on live data collection in the classroom. We have a team of at least twenty people ready to go into the classrooms and start collecting data.”

Much of the data collection will involve live observations of what is happening naturally inside of classrooms across a school year. These observations will focus both on the quality of the classroom experience, as well as how each individual child is engaged within the classroom. Data collectors will also directly assess children’s executive function and school readiness skills across language, literacy, math, and social-emotional domains.  Children will then be followed through their first year in kindergarten using a similar data collection approach.

“Because of the extensive observations and direct assessments that we will conduct over the course of the year, we will be able to examine the ‘black box’ of early childhood education classrooms with regard to understanding how children develop school readiness skills through preschool and kindergarten. With unparalleled depth and precision, repeated measures of these constructs over time will allow us to unpack the processes by which executive functioning leads to improved development of children’s school readiness skills through engagement in classroom opportunities.  That’s why I call this a deep dive. With the knowledge we gain, we should be able to develop better interventions and ultimately have a bigger impact on children’s success in their early school years. ”