We know that children who start kindergarten before they’re ready are less likely to succeed in school and later in life. We know that success in early grades is indicative of future scholastic performance. We know success in school promotes upward social mobility, equity, and economic growth. We also know that as a society we can implement policies and programs that work with children, parents, families, teachers, and schools to increase school readiness and provide every child with the opportunity to succeed. And the greater number of children that succeed in school, the better off society will be 30, 40, 50 years down the line.
Dr. Andrew Mashburn, Associate Professor in Applied Developmental Psychology at Portland State University, designs programs that promote school readiness and develops and implements methods to test the effectiveness of such programs, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Dr. Mashburn has led a number of studies or programs, including five current projects to provide analyses of the impacts of Read it Again, Minds in Motion, WINGS, the Early Kindergarten Transition (EKT) program, and Head Start. Dr. Mashburn’s studies have received funding from federal, state, and non-profit institutions. In his first year at PSU, Dr. Mashburn was awarded a Faculty Enhancement Grant that funded a study of Multnomah County’s EKT program.
EKT aims to help parents and children entering kindergarten with no previous pre-k or similar experience gain experience by providing class time for children and group meetings for parents. This is a service that, according to data in the National Institute for Early Education Research’s The State of Preschool 2011 report, is greatly needed. The report ranks Oregon 30th among the states in overall access to pre-k and Head Start programs with 78 percent of Oregon’s four-year-olds not enrolled in some federally or state funded preschool program.
“There are challenges for families,” Dr. Mashburn said, “when kids arrive for their first day in kindergarten and they’ve never had an experience like school. Parents may not know what kind of support to give their kids. The kids don’t know how to react to teachers, to other students, to a change in their routine. This program gives the kids a chance to practice being in kindergarten and the parents an opportunity to have their questions answered.”
In the summer of 2012, Dr. Mashburn and his graduate students observed, evaluated, and prepared a report on the program. Many of their recommendations have since been adopted by EKT. In 2013 Dr. Mashburn and his team went back with plans to follow participating students through their kindergarten year to measure the impacts of the program.
In another project, Dr. Mashburn is the co-Principal Investigator on a federal grant testing the impact of a cutting-edge afterschool program for children in three schools in Charleston South Carolina. The WINGS for Kids program is a social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum for children with social, economic, and academic needs.
“This is a really innovative program” Dr. Mashburn said. “It combines two approaches to helping kids: afterschool activities, which research suggests helps kids develop socially and academically, and social-emotional learning components that help kids develop social skills and positive relationships with others in school and at home. The goal is that ultimately the kids will become more engaged with other students, teachers, and learning in general, and have greater success in school.”
As with the EKT program, Dr. Mashburn and his colleagues are following the student participants, some through their kindergarten year, others through second grade.
“Because there was limited space in the program,” Dr. Mashburn said, “we have kids who were able to get in and kids who were not, this gave us the opportunity to conduct a randomized study. Our study will compare observations of those who got in with those who didn’t, looking at the development of social and emotional skills, the relationships the kids develop with their peers and teachers and their academic development as well. This will give us a sense of how the program impacts the kids, and, with the group we’re following through second grade, whether the impacts grow over time.”
While studies suggest programs that increase school readiness and promote social and emotional development, especially for children from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds, have the potential for enormous positive impact in the life of children, such programs are underfunded. According to Dr. Mashburn, the lack of funding is short sighted. Programs like WINGS, and others he is involved with such as such as Minds in Motion, EKT, Read it Again, and Head Start, which suffered a 5.27 percent reduction in its budged due to sequestration cuts, a loss that will force 57,000 children from the program’s ranks as reported by CBSNews.com, are consistently underfunded and in danger of being eliminated altogether.
A growing number of studies agree with Dr. Mashburn’s assessment that funding these programs yields positive returns. A report, “Long-Term Economic Benefits of Investing in Early Childhood Programs,” produced by the Partnership for America’s Economic Success claims investment in early childhood development programs will increase GDP, reduce crime, and improve quality of life in general for millions of Americans.
“There are many arguments in favor of implementing across the board programs to promote early childhood development and school readiness,” Dr. Mashburn said. “There are moral arguments, economic arguments. The other day I even heard an argument based on national defense. But really, the economic argument trumps them all. Programs like these are just a good investment in our future.”
When we think of school readiness, we often think of a child’s cognitive capabilities. Can little Johnny read and write? Can little Sally subtract three apples from five? According to Dr. Mashburn, perhaps one reason we think this way is because these abilities are easy to measure, easy to test, but knowing how to read, write, and do arithmetic are only a few of the factors in the complex developmental processes involved in getting ready to start school.
“I think it’s important to note other skills when talking about school readiness: can a student focus on a teacher when they need to; do they understand how to relate to other kids; can they self-regulate their emotions? I think these are competencies more related to social, economic, and behavioral outcomes.”
While a lot of Dr. Mashburn’s work focuses on the fringes of the K-12 system, in evaluating and developing evidence-based preschool and afterschool programs, his research nevertheless plays a crucial role in the success of programs that promote students’ emotional and academic success in the K-12 system. At heart it’s work that fosters emotional and academic development and looks to a more just and equitable society.