Head Start REDI program teaches preschoolers tools for school-readiness

January 05, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- If you're observing a preschool class in York, Pa., you may see the following behavior: two children are playing and a disagreement ensues. Suddenly one of the children stops arguing, and hunches over with her arms crossed over her chest, as if protecting herself. Chances are, the other child will watch and do the same. What are they doing? They're acting like Twiggle the turtle.

"The theory behind Twiggle is, when you're feeling upset, you go into your shell," explains Karen Bierman. "It stops the behavior, and keeps you from acting impulsively. Then you take a deep breath and say the problem and how it makes you feel. That's the beginning of effective self-control and problem-solving."

Twiggle is just one tool preschool children are learning through Bierman's project, Head Start REDI, which has grown out of the School Readiness Initiative, developed in 2002. A collaborative effort supported by Penn State's Child Study Center (in the College of the Liberal Arts), the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development (in the College of Health and Human Development), and Head Start Programs in York, Huntingdon and Blair counties, the initiative blends an interdisciplinary group of researchers who are interested in developmental research and early elementary educational programs.

"Ten years ago, research on school readiness was piece-meal," explains Bierman. "Educational researchers tended to focus on promoting cognitive skills -- pre-reading and writing skills. Developmental psychologists and sociologists focused more on social-emotional development, and the role of the family and child-care in promoting readiness."

In 2002, the federal Interagency School Readiness Consortium was formed, led by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Focused on reducing the negative impact of poverty on school readiness, the Consortium decided that the difference of opinion regarding what defines school readiness was not useful, and began looking for early childhood programs that had a multifaceted approach. Bierman's fit the bill.

"We were able to take the Preschool PATHS curriculum, developed by colleagues in HHD to support early social-emotional development, and blend it with educational strategies focused on promoting language development and pre-reading skills," says Bierman. "So we took the best research-based practices across these domains and organized them into the Head Start REDI program. REDI stands for REsearch-based, Developmentally Informed."

The program is now being implemented in forty-four Head Start classrooms across central Pennsylvania, and features some innovative activities. Scripted reading exercises foster vocabulary acquisition, increase levels of conversation and heighten interest in books. "Sound games" build pre-reading skills. Small-group lessons focus on helping children identify emotions and form friendships. All of the activities -- and there are more than those listed here -- also help boost children's attachment to school.

Another research initiative of Bierman's is Forming Outreach Community University Systems for Engagement Model (FOCUS), created from a newly awarded grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. FOCUS represents the collaboration of an interdisciplinary faculty team working with the Child Study Center School Readiness Initiative and the Outreach system of Penn State. FOCUS's approach to enhancing school readiness is to reach out to parents and other family members, working in partnership with community teams that include school district and other community agency representatives.

"We wanted to create new engagement models in real settings to help communities with school readiness issues," she explains. "The goal is to enhance school adjustment -- socially and academically -- which really go hand in hand."

The researchers discovered that although all parents hope their children will succeed in school, they are often unsure what they can do to help. The challenge is particularly difficult for parents who themselves had a hard time in school and for families with few resources.

"When children begin kindergarten, they are faced with a completely new set of demands and expectations -- for behavior and for learning. Parental support makes a big difference," says Bierman. "We provide parents with information about what they can do to help, and we provide them with a whole set of learning activities they can use at home to support school-readiness skills."

An essential component of FOCUS is the community-university partnership model of action. The communities implementing the program -- in Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Mifflin counties -- have local teams that include school district and community representatives. A local community member serves as the team leader and organizational link with the university. The objective is to promote positive working relationships within the community, as well as between the community and university, in order to address societal issues, like school readiness, that affect everyone.

Bierman also leads another school readiness research project, Fast Track, that is designed to prevent the development of serious conduct problems among children showing risky behaviors at school entry.

"Working with the interdisciplinary team on the School Readiness Initiative is one of the best parts of my job," says Bierman. "I particularly value our school and community collaborations, which challenge us to make our research useful in the 'real world' and demonstrate to us how the work we are doing is making a real difference in the lives of children and families."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009