New program teaches preschoolers reading skills, getting along with others

Nov 14, 2008

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies shows that it's possible to teach preschoolers the pre-reading skills they need for later school success, while at the same time fostering the socials skills necessary for making friends and avoiding conflicts with their peers.

The findings address long standing concerns on whether preschool education programs should emphasize academic achievement or social and emotional development.

"Fostering academic achievement in preschoolers need not come at the expense of healthy emotional development," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which provided much of the funding for the study. "This study shows that it's possible to do both at the same time."

The study appears in the November/December issue of Child Development and was conducted by Karen Bierman, Ph.D., distinguished professor of Psychology at Penn State University.

In recent years, education officials and researchers who study early childhood education have struggled with whether to emphasize academics in preschool programs or to instead try to advance preschoolers' social skills, explained the NICHD project officer for the study, James Griffin, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch. The current study marks the first attempt to develop a curriculum that addresses both concerns equally, Dr. Griffin added.

In the study, the researchers compared the progress of students who received a traditional Head Start curriculum to those who received a curriculum with enhancements in the areas of social and emotional learning and pre-reading skills. The new program is known as the REDI (Research-Based, Developmentally Informed) Head Start program. The researchers developed the REDI curriculum by combining a program that fosters social and emotional development (Preschool PATHS) with curriculum components that promote language development and pre-reading skills. A program of the Administration for Children and Families, Head Start fosters school readiness through the provision of comprehensive services, including education, health, mental health, parent involvement, nutrition and services to children with disabilities.

Like traditional preschool programs, the REDI program emphasizes such pre-reading skills as learning the alphabet, and learning to manipulate the sounds that letters represent. Earlier research has shown that children with such skills are more successful at learning to read than are children who lack them. The REDI program also allows ample time for teachers to read interactively with children, asking them questions and encouraging their active involvement in story telling, which builds the vocabulary and language skills needed for later school success.

In the REDI program, many of the reading sessions focus on social problems and involve fictional characters who learn to master the emotional frustrations and conflicts common among groups of preschoolers. For example, in one lesson, Twiggle the Turtle learns techniques for controlling his temper. An older turtle happens by after Twiggle has just shoved a classmate who knocked over his building blocks. The older turtle teaches Twiggle, that, instead of shoving someone, he should go into his shell, take a deep breath, say what's bothering him, and say how it makes him feel. From this, the children learn that when a conflict erupts, they stop what they're doing, cross their arms, take a deep breath, state the problem, and tell the other child how it makes them feel.

"The lesson teaches them to take a time out from their emotions, to avoid acting impulsively," Dr. Bierman said. "Stating what's bothering them, and how they feel, is the basis for self control and problem solving in stressful social situations."

Other lessons involve learning how to recognize such emotions as anger and sadness in oneself and others, sharing, and taking turns.

The study took place at 44 Head Start centers in Central Pennsylvania. Half the centers used the REDI program enhancements, half used the traditional Head Start program without the enhancements.

When compared to children in the traditional Head Start program, children in the REDI program scored higher on several tests of emotional and social development than did children in the traditional program. This included skills in recognizing emotions in others, and responding appropriately to situations involving a conflict. Moreover, parents of children in the REDI group reported fewer instances of impulsivity, aggression and attention problems than did parents of children in the traditional program.

Children in the REDI program also scored higher than children in the traditional program on several tests of pre-reading skills: vocabulary, blending letter sounds together to form words, separating words into their component letter sounds, and in naming the letters of the alphabet.

Source: NIH/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

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