Children's Classroom Engagement and School Readiness Gains in Prekindergarten

Children's Classroom Engagement and School Readiness Gains in Prekindergarten

Issue/Topic: P-3 Ensuring Quality; P-3 Grades 1-3; P-3 Preschool
Author(s): Barbarin, Oscar; Bryant, Donna; Burchinal, Margaret; Chien, Nina; Clifford, Richard; Early, Diane; Howes, Carollee; Pianta, Robert; Ritchie, Sharon
Organization(s): University of California, Irvine; University of California, Los Angeles; University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill; University of Virginia
Publication: Child Development
Published On: 1/1/2010

Higher quality prekindergarten programs are associated with more positive child outcomes. The environmental quality literature thus far has encouraged preschool teachers to think about the arrangement of physical space and the materials available within classrooms. The authors suggest that examining children's classroom engagement, as this study does, can provide additional information that is not available in the environmental quality assessments.

To describe patterns of children's engagement in prekindergarten classrooms and explore whether some patterns of engagement bring about greater gains for children than others and whether some are particularly beneficial for poor children.


The findings reveal substantial variation in children's classroom engagement (i.e., the number of minutes children spend on each activity during a typical program day) and four profiles of children with distinct patterns of classroom engagement: 1) a free play profile for whom class time was dominated by free-choice activities (by far the largest profile, making up 51% of the sample children); 2) an individual instruction profile for whom class time was dominated by individual teacher instruction; 3) a group instruction profile for whom class time was dominated by teacher instruction in a group format; and 4) a scaffolded learning profile for whom class time was dominated by one-on-one instruction (i.e., a teacher working with a child, building on the child's initiations, using visuals, concrete objects, and gestures to help the child learn, and eliciting responses to help the child expand his or her thoughts).

Predicting academic gains based on profile membership

1. The free play profile showed less growth across indicators of language/literacy and mathematics (e.g., naming letters, Woodcock-Johnson (WJ) letter-word identification, teacher report of language and literacy skills and number counting) compared to the other three profiles. This profile also showed less growth than the individual and group instruction profiles in writing their names, and less growth than the group instruction and scaffolded learning profiles on number counting.

2. The individual instruction profile spent much more time than any other profile in fine motor skills (17%) and letter-sound (8%) and made greater gains than the other profiles on the WJ Applied Problems. This profile also had the fewest children, which could have made the results more conservative.

3. The scaffolded learning profile spent more time than the individual and group instruction profiles on free-choice activities (29%). This suggests that free play, when accompanied by high-quality scaffolding interactions with teachers, remains a model of classroom engagement that may be conducive to children's learning.

Poverty status and children’s classroom engagement

1. Children in the free play and scaffolded profiles had smaller households and more years of maternal education than children in the other two profiles. Children fitting into the scaffolding learning profile appeared to be somewhat more privileged than children in the individual and group instruction profiles, who were more likely than the other profiles to be Latino or African American. Moreover, children in the individual learning profile were more likely to be poor compared to all other children (consistent with prior research).

2. No gender differences emerged between profiles.

3. Poor children in the free play group instruction and scaffolded learning profiles made smaller gains than their nonpoor peers. In the individual instruction profile, however, poor children actually made greater gains than nonpoor children across these measures of school readiness. These findings are consistent with prior research suggesting that teachers of low-socioeconomic status (SES) children tend to focus on developing skills in mathematics and literacy, which are often practiced in individual instruction settings.

Note: Although the results suggest that the instructional and scaffolding models of early childhood education are more beneficial than the free play model, a caveat exists: 58% of the sample was poor with an average maternal education only 12.9 years and research shows that instructional support is beneficial for at-risk children, but not necessarily for children not at risk; thus it is possible, that the finding that classroom instruction was more beneficial than free play is partially the result of having a sample of predominantly at-risk children.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

1. More quality instructional time spent with teachers, and less free play time spent without teacher guidance or scaffolding, would better prepare children for entering school.

2. Quality can be assessed in multiple ways that yield different quality ratings for the same classrooms. For example, a class might receive a relatively high Early Childhood Education Rating System-Revised (ECERS-R) score for ample materials but have low levels of teacher-child interactions and may therefore not be optimally preparing children for school.

3. Teachers, educators, and policymakers also need to consider the factors contributing to the lack of high-quality teacher-child interactions.

Research Design:
Person-centered analyses

2,751 children enrolled in public prekindergarten programs that were part of the Multi-State Study of Pre-Kindergarten and the State-Wide Early Education Programs Study

Year data is from:
2001, 2003


Data Collection and Analysis:
Analysis of the National Center for Early Development and Learning Multi-State Study of Pre-Kindergarten and the State-Wide Early Education Programs Study

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