Putting Children's Learning in Context
What does it take to be sure that children develop robust language skills in early childhood and strong literacy skills later on? Exposure to language and literacy are, obviously, crucial, but equally important is the social and motivational context for that exposure, argues Catherine Snow, a Center-affiliated faculty member and the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). As a result, she suggests that the preparation for preschool and primary teachers needs to broaden its traditional focus on how children acquire language and literacy skills to include an understanding of why.
Language is acquired in the context of infants’ and toddlers’ caring relationships with adults, Snow says, and literacy is learned because there are exciting and engaging things to for a child to hear when they are read to by parents and caregivers. Linking language and literacy development to social-emotional development, Snow maintains, will improve children’s outcomes in both domains.
Snow, whose career has focused on language and literacy development in children from infancy through adolescence, notes the importance of relationships with trusted and responsive adults across that entire age span. “Children who are fearful, anxious, or disengaged from others,” she says, “lose out on countless opportunities to learn.”
Along with other Harvard faculty members affiliated with the Center on the Developing Child, Snow is putting research into practice for preschool teachers in Tulsa, Okla., where the Center is piloting a multi-faceted intervention model. This demonstration project is testing the feasibility of incorporating a preventive mental health initiative and enriched language and literacy experiences into an early care and education center for low-income families. Some of the work is focused specifically on helping the preschool staff enrich the language and literacy experiences of the many children who arrive at the center speaking little or no English. The program also provides a workforce development program linked to adult mental health services for the children’s parents.
When it comes to the early learning aspects of the project, Snow says the focus is on “taking well-established principles of good quality in early childhood programs and putting them together in a workable way.”
Integrating the language-development goals for children with the goals for their socio-emotional development is particularly critical in Tulsa, Snow says, where the program serves children and families in poverty. “The low-income population of Tulsa is pretty severely stressed,” says Snow, a psychologist by training. The preschool teachers need to have the tools and training, she says, “to create order and trust in the classroom, if [the teachers] are going to see any effects of their educational curriculum.”
And, to Snow, the children and their families aren’t the only ones whose mental health requires attention. The Tulsa initiative also includes attention to the mental health of the preschool teachers—a component overseen by Center-affiliated faculty member William Beardslee, who is Gardner/Monks Professor of Child Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Baer Prevention Initiatives at Children’s Hospital Boston.
“Teaching preschool is a tiring and stressful job anywhere,” Snow says. Teachers have to be responsive to the needs of many children, to ensure their safety, to engage their attention, and to intercede if there is a tantrum or a conflict. These challenges loom even larger, she says, for children living in poverty, who might be experiencing stress and conflict at home as well.
“In order to deal with very young children,” Snow continues, the teachers need to be “really emotionally responsive and empathetic, and that’s hard to do if you yourself are under stress.” To that end, the Tulsa preschool teachers’ professional development includes self-care advice, with the clear hope that, as a side benefit, they decide to stay in their jobs longer.
Snow, who also serves on the Center’s steering committee, says she hopes that the Tulsa initiative’s distinctive integration of literacy, socio-emotional attention, and teacher professional development—as well as the connections with the families of the students—can become not only a resource for Tulsa but also a resource for other early childhood programs.
Another early childhood program in which Snow is involved is Un Buen Comienzo (UBC), or “A Good Start,” a collaborative project in Santiago, Chile, which also aims to improve early childhood education through teacher professional development. UBC, which has been a grantee and is now an international partner of the Center, has a three-part mission: to improve the quality of educational offerings for four-to-six-year-olds, particularly in the area of language and literacy development; to intervene in critical health areas that improve school attendance as well as socio-emotional development; and to involve the children’s families in their education.
Snow’s involvement in the Center’s international agenda also extends to helping to lead the Global Children’s Initiative—in particular, a faculty group developing a research agenda for early childhood development in a global context. Her own research related to international issues goes back many years, to her early-career work in the Netherlands, where she studied language development and parent-child interactions among immigrant children from China, Morocco, and Turkey.
In the summer of 2009, Snow, with her fellow HGSE professors Paul Harris and Hirokazu Yoshikawa, led a conference to chart an inaugural program of international research for the Center in basic, applied, and evaluation sciences related to child development. The interdisciplinary gathering brought together experts and scholars in developmental psychology, maternal and child health, nutrition, program evaluation, and behavioral economics from every inhabited continent, including representatives from China, the Netherlands, and Turkey. The meeting has already helped the Center generate new collaborations and research projects.
When Snow thinks about the preparation and professional development of the preschool teachers in Tulsa and in Santiago, she sees many similarities. In both locations, she says, “the teachers have a lot of declarative knowledge about how to organize their practice, but making that knowledge adaptive to the actual context of the classrooms is hard.” In other words, the teachers need help figuring out how to actually implement what they know about good teaching.
Whether in Oklahoma or Chile, however, Snow says the issue is to “narrow the gap” between what research advises is best for children and the realities of daily classroom practice. Because right now, she says, “the gap is pretty wide.”
-- Millicent Lawton
Photo by Fred Field