School Readiness: Literature Review

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School Readiness

The heart and core of this paper is the increased emphasis on School Readiness. The paper would define the integration, Cognition and Emotion with conceptualization of Children’s functioning at School level Entry.

The character of work and society in the United States is changing. The technological nature of the information-based economy is placing increased emphasis on the active role of the individual in seeking out and applying knowledge in diverse ways. The workplace and the classroom increasingly require ready access to information and analytical and creative thinking skills that allow for self-regulated learning through goal setting, strategy use, and self-monitoring. Indeed, some see the ability of our educational institutions to enhance thinking skills and produce self-regulated learners as having broad implications for the future role of the United States in the global economy and the ongoing viability of the democratic process (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, 1997).

PART I Problem Statement

From the standpoint of research on learning, the growing emphasis on thinking skills and self-regulation signals the need for increased understanding of the ways in which young children become active seekers and appliers of knowledge (Lambert & McCombs, 1998). High levels of motivation and self-regulation are clearly associated with academic achievement independent of measured intelligence (Gottfried, 1990; Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998). The developmental origins of motivation and engaged learning during early childhood, however, are less well known. Parents’ involvement, peer-group influences, and school characteristics have all been shown to influence motivation and engagement (e.g., Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998; Grolnick & Ryan, 1989; Ryan, 2000). But children’s characteristics associated with engagement in learning, particularly those related to brain development, have been less well studied.

Part II Analysis of Policy Approaches

Recent advances in developmental neuroscience indicate the rapid growth and modification in infancy and early childhood of brain areas that subserve self-regulation, including emotion, memory, and attention (Nelson & Luciana, 2001). An important next scientific step in the study of self-regulation and engaged learning is the examination of implications of this rapid change and its determinants for functional outcomes, such as the adjustment to school (Byrnes & Fox, 1998).

To this end, I detail a central role for emotionality and emotion-related functioning in neurological development and children’s adjustment to school. I conclude by suggesting that influences on emotionality can influence the development of neurological interconnections among structures underlying emotion and higher order cognition. As such, these influences on emotionality are particularly relevant to the design and implementation of early compensatory educational programs to promote children’s school readiness (see Nelson, 2000b) and can assist in the ongoing construction of an empirical foundation on which to erect social policy designed to meet America’s foremost educational goal: ensuring that all children enter school ready to learn (Lewit & Baker, 1995; Zigler, 1998). However, although my focus is on the development of self-regulation abilities as an aspect of school readiness, only by keeping in mind that readiness is a multidimensional construct involving family, peer, school, and community levels of influence will the value of the neurodevelopmental perspective on self-regulation become apparent. Ecologically minded thinkers on readiness focus on transactional, systemic models of influences and seek to define processes at multiple levels (S. L. Kagan, 1990, 1992; Meisels, 1996; Pianta & Walsh, 1996). Within this developmental transactional approach, the study of emotionality provides an excellent framework for arraying multiple influences on readiness.

Part III- (Recent Legislation)

Whether defined as the regulation of emotion in appropriate social responding or the regulation of attention and selective strategy use in the execution of cognitive tasks, self-regulatory skills underlie many of the behaviors and attributes that are associated with successful school adjustment. Researchers have long considered intelligence to be a key predictor of success in school. Indicators of self-regulation ability, however, are independent and perhaps equally powerful predictors of school adjustment. Much of the literature on school readiness points to the importance of self-regulation (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994; Normandeau & Guay, 1998; Wentzel, Weinberger, Ford, & Feldman, 1990). Clear relations between achievement and the percentage of time that students are engaged in academic activities have been demonstrated both in elementary and in preschool regular and special education classrooms (Carta, Greenwood, & Robinson, 1987; Greenwood, 1991).

Emotionality and regulatory aspects of measures of temperament have also been implicated in school achievement in both regular and special education classrooms. Children who are temperamentally less distractible and exhibit more positively valenced and moderate levels of emotional intensity are rated by their teachers as being more teachable and achieve at higher levels academically than do children without these characteristics (Keogh, 1992; Martin, Drew, Gaddis, & Moseley, 1988; Palinsin, 1986). As well, aspects of social and cognitive self-regulation, such as those implicated in friendship and social interaction skills (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999) and in perceived control over learning (Skinner et al., 1998), point to a key role for children’s self-regulatory ability in the transition to school.

Further, data from the National Center for Education Statistics survey of kindergarten teachers’ ratings of child characteristics considered to be essential or very important to being ready to start kindergarten indicate teachers’ predominant concern for regulatory aspects of children’s behavior (Lewit & Baker, 1995). In particular, it is noteworthy that 84% of teachers endorsed that children need to be able to communicate wants, needs, and thoughts verbally, 76% endorsed the idea that children need to be enthusiastic and curious, and 60% endorsed that children need to be able to follow directions, not be disruptive of the class, and be sensitive to other children’s feelings. In contrast, only 21% of teachers endorsed the need for children to be able to use a pencil or paintbrush, and only 10% and 7%, respectively, endorsed knowing several letters of the alphabet and being able to count to 20 as being essential or very important to being ready to start kindergarten.

In addition, in a survey conducted by the National Center for Early Development and Learning, 46% of a nationally representative sample of kindergarten teachers indicated that over half the children in their class lacked the kinds of abilities and experiences that would enable them to function productively in the kindergarten classroom (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, & Cox, 2000). This suggests that many children are arriving at school without effective self-regulation skills. Overall, the results of these teacher surveys clearly indicate that kindergarten teachers are concerned with children’s regulatory readiness for school activities rather than with more strictly cognitive and academic aspects of readiness. The surveys suggest that teachers are concerned with being able to teach; that is, they are concerned with the capacity of each child to be attentive and responsive and to become engaged in the classroom.

Development of Regulation

Despite growing interest in self-regulation and evidence for its direct relevance to school readiness, individual differences in self-regulation and the relation of these individual differences to functional outcomes, such as the adjustment to school, have not been studied. The developing cognitive skills that, in part, form the basis for self-regulated learning are generally referred to as executive or metacognitive skills. Executive function is a construct that unites working memory, attention, and inhibitory control for the purposes of planning and executing goal-directed activity (Bell, 1998; Lyon & Krasnegor, 1996; Zelazo, Carter, Reznick, & Frye, 1997). That is, the construct combines basic cognitive processes within a goal-directed executive that marshals resources toward a desired end state.

Normative developmental study of executive function, usually in cross-sectional designs with a battery of neuropsychological assessments, indicates an age-related maturational developmental course for the construct and its component processes (Krikorian & Bartok, 1998; Luciana & Nelson, 1998; Welsh, Pennington, & Groisser, 1991). These findings support the idea that the emergence of behaviors indicative of cognitive processes involved in executive function are dependent to some extent on the development of the prefrontal cortex at ages approximately congruent with school entry (Gerstadt, Hong, & Diamond, 1994; Luciana & Nelson, 1998). As well, the finding that executive ability and general intelligence are only moderately correlated (Krikorian & Bartok, 1998; Welsh et al., 1991) further underscores that executive regulatory skill is an independent contributor to the school-adjustment process. Clinical examination of frontal lobe damage has indicated that frontal dysfunction, depending on the exact location of the deficit, leaves specific cognitive abilities and general intelligence largely intact but greatly impairs planning, self-monitoring, attention, and responsiveness to impending reward or punishment (Damasio, 1994; Eslinger, Biddle, Pennington, & Page, 1999; Tranel & Eslinger, 2000).

A longitudinal study of the development of one aspect of executive cognition, referred to as effortful or inhibitory control has demonstrated it to be an antecedent of the internalization of norms of conduct in young children (Kochanska, Murray, & Coy, 1997). When examined by a multimethod measure defined as the ability to inhibit a predominant response when instructed to engage in a subdominant response (i.e., to be told to wait to eat a cookie or to unwrap a present), effortful control has been shown to increase with age, to be stable, and to become increasingly coherent.

As well, several characteristics of children and parents have been associated with the construct of effortful control. Children’s capacity for focused attention in infancy and maternal responsiveness to children, as well as parental personality characteristics such as dependability, prudence, and self-control, have been associated with variation in effortful control (Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000). Similarly, maternal responsiveness in infancy, as assessed by a measure of the affective synchrony of the mother and child in face-to-face interaction, has been identified as a precursor of effortful control at age 24 months. Most notably, however, the interaction of mother–child affective synchrony with child negative emotionality appears to be a highly salient predictor of self-regulation. In particular, the impact of affective synchrony in mother–infant interaction on the development of effortful control is large for children exhibiting high negative emotionality in infancy. The effect of affective synchrony on effortful control for infants not characterized by negative emotionality is substantially smaller (Feldman, Greenbaum, & Yirmiya, 1999).

The role of negative emotionality in early intervention to prevent grade retention is of strong interest. Grade retention appears to be a well-intentioned educational practice that frequently has deleterious consequences for children’s academic and social success in school (Shepard & Smith, 1989). In spite of evidence indicating adverse outcomes associated with its use, the practice persists, and effective programs to prevent its occurrence are needed. The continued use of grade retention as a remedial strategy seems to reflect the lack of alternative solutions when teachers have concerns about the academic progress, maturity, and general school readiness of individual children. To the extent to which grade retention is dependent on interrelations among children’s social, emotional, and cognitive adaptation to school, it may be that early compensatory education interventions that specifically address social and emotional functioning can prevent its occurrence.

Future Directions

Examination of emotionality within early intervention to promote school readiness and prevent grade retention provides a useful model for evaluating the role that programs to enhance social and emotional competence might play in preschool education. The study of emotionality suggests that a particularly promising direction for early intervention efforts may be the implementation in preschool and early elementary school of programs that combine interventions focusing on social and emotional competence with early compensatory education. Such programs would provide an exceptionally strong model for the promotion of school readiness and school success. As noted above, several early compensatory education interventions have demonstrated cognitive benefits to program recipients. Several school-based programs to enhance social and emotional competence have also demonstrated benefits to children’s social competence (see Eisenberg, Wentzel, & Harris, 1998, for a review).

An interesting area in which programs focusing on social competence interface with more cognitively oriented programs is problem solving related to the development of executive cognitive functioning. A particular example of the executive cognitive problem-solving approach to the promotion of prosocial behavior and social competence is the Promoting Alternative Thinking Skills (PATHS) curriculum, an intervention curriculum with demonstrated benefits to young children’s social competence, emotion regulation, and problem-solving skills in the early elementary grades (Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma, 1995).

The neurobiological approach to early childhood education and school readiness is premised on the idea that the school classroom represents a distinct context within which specific regulatory demands are made of children. Children are expected to adapt to a socially defined role for which they may or may not have been previously socialized. Differences among children in the capacity for regulation within this environment, as well as differences in supports for children’s self-regulatory attempts both within and without this environment, are important to conceptualizations of readiness that view the transition to school within an ecological framework (Meisels, 1996; Pianta, Rimm-Kaufman, & Cox, 1999). From the foregoing, it can be seen that a focus on children’s characteristics in the development of readiness does not preclude study of the influences of parents, schools, and communities. On the contrary, when viewed from the ecological contextual perspective that drives much of the research on child development, it necessitates their inclusion.

Researchers concerned with readiness over the past two decades have rightly moved from static child-focused conceptions of readiness embodied in academically oriented standardized tests of ability or aptitude. An exclusive focus on children’s cognitive skills and abilities in the assessment of readiness has proved to be of limited benefit (Pianta & Walsh, 1996). This fact has rightly led researchers to seek alternative definitions for and determinants of readiness. This recognition of readiness as a socially constructed phenomenon has led to a broadening of the research base to include a focus on schools and teachers and the development of educational policies geared toward maximizing children’s potential for success in school (Graue, 1993; NAEYC, 1990; Willer & Bredekamp, 1990).

Continued efforts to foster readiness with an eye toward the neurobiology and psychophysology of children’s emotionality and regulation may be particularly likely to yield long-term benefits. In this, measures of biologically based processes can serve as both predictors and outcomes in the evaluation of programs to promote readiness and success in school. Programs to foster regulation can use physiological and neurocognitive measures to identify individuals at high risk for poor school outcome because of negative emotional reactivity. Treatment × Risk interactions can be specified that can increase the precision with which intervention effects on outcomes are estimated.

Although-brain imaging techniques are perhaps not currently usable with children younger than seven years of age because of features of the assessment, magnetic resonance imaging and perhaps, under certain conditions, positron emission tomography could be used, along with physiological and neurocognitive assessments, as outcome measures of the efficacy of preschool interventions. Programs could demonstrate efficacy through assessments of behavioral outcomes and underlying neurobiology and physiology.

As in the studies by Fox et al. (2001) and Davidson and Rickman (1999), which indicated change over time in emotional reactivity and EEG measures of frontal asymmetry, intervention studies might demonstrate change in frontal asymmetry and emotionality in response to curricula designed to reduce stress, foster emotional competence, and enhance attention, working memory, and other components of cognitive self-regulation. As noted by Nelson (1999), neuroscientific measurement techniques and knowledge of neural plasticity and human development are now sufficiently advanced to inform the conceptualization and evaluation of interventions to promote competence and foster resilience.

PART IV Conclusion

In conclusion, the neurobiological approach to the study of readiness can now supplant nativist or idealist conceptions of readiness that focus exclusively on maturation. The maturational view, primarily associated with Arnold Gessell (1925), posited that readiness comes about through the gradual development of abilities that facilitate learning: being able to sit quietly, to focus on work, to attend, and to follow directions. Certainly, there is some maturational component to the neurodevelopmental view of readiness; however, the traditional maturational view has been fully supplanted by an epigenetic conception of relations between nature and nurture (Elman et al., 1996). Indeed, the ideas that fostered the replacement of the traditional maturational view with an epigenetic conception of development were clearly in place in Gesell’s time, most notably in the work of Myrtle McGraw (1946/1995).

Although any explicitly maturational view is and always has been unsuitable as a theoretical basis for child study, the child characteristics important for readiness that such a view purports to explain remain vital to the construct. In their modern form, however, these characteristics are now tethered to a comprehensive and ecologically sensitive framework relating neurobiological and behavioral research. Behavioral scientists, educators, and policymakers studying readiness and school adjustment should be aware of this. To this end, I have attempted to propose a conception of readiness that maintains a focus on relevant aspects of child functioning in a way that is theoretically and empirically well established and that has demonstrated or demonstrable links to family, peer, classroom, school, and community influences on readiness and school achievement.

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