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Supportive 1st Grade Teachers Help Students Succeed, Study Finds

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Classroom teachers who give instructional and emotional support can improve academic outcomes for 1st graders who are considered at risk for school failure, concludes a University of Virginia study released Sept. 14.

For example, children whose mothers had less than a college degree achieved at the same level as children with more highly educated mothers when they were placed in 1st grade classrooms where the instruction was focused and direct and the teacher provided ongoing feedback to the students about their progress.

But if these socioeconomically at-risk students did not receive this kind of instructional attention, they scored lower on achievement measures than their peers.

The same pattern held true for children described by the researchers as “functionally at-risk,” meaning that they displayed behavioral, social, and/or academic problems in kindergarten. When these students were assigned to classrooms where teachers were more sensitive, warm, and positive—a second set of teacher traits examined—the children performed at levels nearly identical to those of children who didn’t have a history of problems in kindergarten.

“Beyond academic achievement, children’s ability to develop a strong relationship with their teachers, characterized by low levels of conflict, is a key indicator of positive school adjustment, both concurrently and in the future,” write the authors, Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and Bridget K. Hamre, a research associate there.

But when children who were functionally at-risk were assigned to classrooms where they received little to no emotional support, their scores were lower than their peers without these risks.

Nationwide Implications

The findings, which appear in the September/October issue of the journal Child Development, are significant, the researchers say, because they are drawn from “naturally occurring variation in everyday classroom interactions” instead of a specific program designed to improve the classroom environment.

“Thus, this research has implications for every school across the nation,” the authors write. “These findings provide evidence of the potential for everyday experiences in schools to greatly reduce children’s academic and social problems—to close gaps in the early school years.”

The research sample—910 children from the federal government’s long-running study on child care—is also significant.

For years, the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has produced findings on the benefits and pitfalls of various child-care arrangements from infancy through the preschool years.

For instance, the closely watched study, which has often been the topic of commentary in parenting magazines and on morning talk shows, showed that children who spent more time in center-based care displayed more behavior problems, but also made greater cognitive gains than children in other types of care.

But now those children, who enrolled in the study in 1991 shortly after they were born, are young adolescents. Therefore, new research from this sample will provide greater understanding of how children’s early experiences in life relate to experiences in school.

Mr. Pianta, however, couldn’t say for sure whether the children in 1st grade with behavior problems were the same ones who spent a lot of time in center-based child care.

Limitations of Study Noted

Thomas L. Good, a professor of education at the University of Arizona in Tucson, called the study “rigorous and important.”

“Their research is complex, well-designed, and uniquely important because it is richly grounded in observations of teacher and students’ classroom behavior that surrounds classroom tasks,” said Mr. Good, who also edits The Elementary School Journal.

There are limitations to the findings, however. Even though some children in the sample were identified to be at risk for problems in school, the overall sample in the NICHD study was not highly disadvantaged.

Indeed, one of the criticisms of the project has been that the families that have been studied for so long are not representative of the general population. More than 700 of the children are white, about 100 are African-American, and only 50 are Hispanic

“The fact that the overall sample was not highly at risk [based on race and socioeconomic status] constrains our ability to generalize findings,” the researchers acknowledge in the study. “These results need to be replicated among other high-risk groups before a more conclusive statement regarding the role of instructional and emotional support in moderating risk of school failure can be made.”

The study, its authors say, also doesn’t provide details on the specific interactions between children and their teachers that may lessen the risks of academic failure. But they suggest that it could help guide individual teachers regarding their experiences with a particular student or could be used on a broader scale in staff development.

Teacher education programs could also benefit by paying attention to these findings, Mr. Good said.

“Policymakers who are critical of teacher education programs often talk in ways that suggest that teachers need only verbal intelligence and subject-matter knowledge,” he said. “These data suggest that what teachers know, feel, and do are the critical determinants of student learning—both academic and social. Sure, subject-matter knowledge is useful, but so is a teacher’s understanding of students as social beings.”

While the findings are promising, the authors say, there is evidence that classroom quality can vary greatly within the same school. And just because a child gets a supportive and effective teacher one year doesn’t mean they’ll get one in the next grade.

“If children are not systematically exposed to high levels of classroom support across time,” the authors warn, “the effects of such positive placements are likely to be short-lived.”

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