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Robert Pianta U.Va. Researcher Part of Study That Finds First-Grade Classes May Not Meet Children's Needs

April 20, 2001-- Researchers studying the effects of early child care on school readiness for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development can find no agreement on what constitutes an appropriate first-grade instructional program or educational experience. They add that students' experiences in first-grade classrooms vary so much that many programs may not address their wide-ranging needs.

Robert Pianta, the William Clay Parrish professor in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, is among 30 researchers nationwide conducting this 10-year study. He is the project's lead researcher at U.Va.

"This study took an unparalleled look at school readiness from both sides of school entry," Pianta said. "We examined the antecedent conditions of readiness before children go to school. We then made comprehensive observations of the classroom's role in that readiness."

Pianta's findings and other related research will be presented today and Friday at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Minneapolis. The research has not been through the peer-review process nor has it been published.

The researchers enrolled 1,300 children at birth in 10 cities 10 years ago throughout the United States. In Charlottesville and the other areas, parents and their newborns were recruited for the project while they were still in the hospital. Researchers studied them in several child-care arrangements, ranging from the most informal (with relatives) to the most formal (center care). The researchers have followed the children through their infant, toddler, and preschool years and now into elementary school.

The researchers observed 827 children in public and private first-grade classrooms for about three hours at the start of each school day. The researchers determined that for the first-grade program study:

    • Children in different classrooms are exposed to a very wide range of experiences and activities. Many involve a teacher leading a large group in a literacy-related activity. Across almost two hours, teachers mostly managed the classroom, including the children's involvement in academic work. During the same time, teachers were minimally involved in directly teaching academic skills.
    • Children are more engaged in an assigned activity and more positive when classrooms are rated as "more supportive" instructionally and emotionally.
    • A teacher's experience and formal education, as well as class size, do not relate meaningfully to the observed quality of the classroom environment. The researchers did find small links between a teacher's education and total years teaching first grade and the teacher's sensitivity to children's needs and providing appropriate academic instruction.

Based on these findings, it appears that educators do not agree on what makes up the proper first-grade instructional program or educational experience. The researchers concluded that first-grade experiences vary so much that, taken as a whole, these findings suggest that classrooms may not be meeting children's needs.

In related research, the positive effects of quality child care as they relate to intellectual and language development and on the development of preschool skills were apparent not only in a child's first three years, but also by the time children reach 4-1/2. In general, the relation between the quality of child care and cognitive and language skills was small to moderate.

Researchers found children receiving more language stimulation from their caregivers made higher scores on intellectual and language tests than did those with less language stimulation in child care. They also reported that children who watch more television received lower test scores in arithmetic and had smaller vocabularies and more behavior problems.

Accordingly, these findings pertaining to quality of care demonstrate that caregiver behavior -- particularly language stimulation -- are associated with children's later intellectual development and school readiness. Researchers found a link between the aspects of quality care that can be regulated -- such as adult-child ratio and provider training -- and children's intellectual development.

Finally, the study found that children 4-1/2 and older, who spent more time in child care when younger, were rated by caregivers, their mothers and kindergarten teachers as having more behavior problems than did those the same age who spent less time in child care. Researchers found the children were rated as more aggressive toward other children and more disobedient and defiant.

In February 2000, the University of Virginia received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to continue this childhood development research for another five years. This will take the children into their early teen years.

The NICHD is part of the National Institutes of Health, the biomedical research arm of the federal government. The Institute sponsors research on development before and after birth; maternal, child and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. More information about NICHD is available at www.nichd.nih.gov.

Contact: Ann Overton, (804) 924-1325

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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