Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2008

Researchers at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), as part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), have followed more than 1,000 children born in 1991. These are the children known as Generation Y – those born of the Baby Boom between 1981-1995. Earlier reports on this study have focused on child care and children’s early development. But these babies are growing up! This article reviews what researchers have learned about the youths’ experiences through sixth grade.

The Children of the NICHD SECCYD

More than 1,300 children from ten locations in the United States have participated in the NICHD SECCYD from birth. The children were born in communities in and around Little Rock, AR; Irvine, CA; Lawrence, KS; Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; Charlottesville, VA; Morganton, NC; Seattle, WA; and Madison, WI. Families were invited to participate in the study if their children were healthy at birth, and the mother was over 18 and spoke English. While these children do not represent all of Gen Y, they do embody many of the variations of experiences found throughout their peers. This group of children was diverse: 24 percent were children of color, 14 percent were children of single mothers, and 19 percent of families received some form of public assistance. About 79 percent of the children continued in the study through sixth grade. At that time, 23 percent were children of color, 20 percent of their mothers were single mothers, and 24 percent of the families were low-income. Mothers had an average of 14.4 years of education; 10 percent had not completed high school, 21 percent graduated high school, 33 percent had some post-high school training or education, and 35 percent had a four-year college degree or more.

Elementary School Experiences

The NICHD SECCYD children entered first grade in September 1997 or 1998, depending on the age-entry cutoffs in their communities and on whether they were developmentally ready for school. The NICHD SECCYD examined in detail the issue of what was the “best” age for children to enter kindergarten and found that, within the current range of age of entry cutoffs, what matters most is children’s developmental readiness, not their chronological age. While older children scored somewhat higher on some measures, overall these effects were modest compared to the importance of children’s readiness.

While the majority of children entered formal schooling ready to learn, America’s schools were not always ready to promote their learning. Children learn best in classrooms that provide strong instructional and emotional supports, and that combine high expectations with engaging activities that motivate students. However, the NICHD SECCYD found that only 15 to 20 percent of first grade classrooms provided the learning environments associated with children’s learning. While small group activities are the method of choice for many educators, 85 percent of the instructional activities in first grade classrooms were teacher-directed, large-group instruction, or individualized seatwork. In contrast to arguments for instructional opportunities that support problem solving or critical thinking, fifth graders spent 70 minutes on basic skills activities (with a correct or incorrect response) for every ten minutes on activities that stimulated reasoning or analysis. While elementary classrooms were typically emotionally warm and positive places for the NICHD SECCYD children, most did not provide the high-quality instructional opportunities needed to support children’s academic growth and performance.

One of the most important findings of the NICHD SECCYD, however, is the significance of the home environment for children’s school performance. The home shapes the early growth and development trajectories of children which prepare children to make use of their experiences in school. In addition, parents can provide knowledge and academic enrichment to children, as well as behavioral skills, such as autonomy, cooperation, and attention, that support school performance.

Additionally, after considering the role of home experiences and children’s early development, other factors were also important to children’s academic performance. Classrooms with class sizes of fewer than 18 students were characterized by higher quality instruction that tended to focus on concepts and feedback, along with more animated interactions among students. Students in classrooms that spent more time on literacy, language, and math instruction scored higher on tests of reading and math achievement. The emotional climate of the classroom was also important to reading and math development.

While schools are expected to teach academic skills, schools also teach social and behavioral skills, either directly or indirectly. Students are expected to develop positive interactions with other children and with adults, as well as self-regulation (being engaged in activities, refraining from disruptive behavior), social problem-solving skills, attention, and other competencies. In classrooms with positive climates, involved and sensitive teachers who use instructional time productively have children who are more self-reliant, attentive, and engaged. In fact, regardless of children’s prior experiences, in school or at home, current classroom climate was significant for children’s behavior. For example, in third grade classrooms with more collaborative learning activities, children had more positive interactions with their classmates.

The role of schools is particularly important for children at risk as a result of poverty, low parental education, or adjustment problems prior to school entry. Those NICHD SECCYD children whose families were always poor scored lower on measures of academic, language, and cognitive performance, and were rated by their teachers as having more adjustment problems than other children throughout the early elementary grades. However, when children whom kindergarten teachers described as having behavioral or adjustment problems were placed in first grade classrooms with high emotional and instructional support, the expected gaps in achievement did not materialize. Unfortunately, children at risk are less likely than other children to attend schools that provide this gap-closing education.

 

Implications

The youngest Gen Y children are now in middle school; the NICHD SECCYD children are in high school. These children have grown up in families experiencing the social changes of the latter part of the 20th century, including increasing numbers of two-earner families and single-mother families, and a global economy that requires complex cognitive skills as well as the capacity to work in teams and across boundaries. For the Gen Y children, as for earlier generations, families are the most important source of emotional and learning supports, especially in the early years. However, schools also matter. When schools provide smaller classes, emotionally supportive climates, collaborative and small group learning activities, and more time on literacy, language, and math instruction, children are more engaged in the classroom, have more positive interactions with adults and peers, and perform better on achievement tests. While most elementary classrooms in the NICHD SECCYD are emotionally warm and positive places for students, the majority of classrooms do not provide the instructional supports children need.

 

What Next?

Over the next year, new research from this study will address children’s friendships, adolescent romantic relationships, physical activity, puberty and adolescent health, risky behavior and aggression, school achievement, the black-white achievement gap, and other important topics. For more information about the study and these and other publications, visit http://secc.rti.org/

Recommended Further Reading:

  • Robert C. Pianta, NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2007). Developmental science and education: The NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development findings from elementary school. In R.V. Kail (ed), Advances in Child Development and Behavior. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press, Inc.
  • Nora S. Newcombe. (2007). Developmental psychology meets the Mommy Wars. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28 (5-6), 553-555.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2007). Age of entry to kindergarten and children's academic and socioemotional development. Early Education & Development, 18 (2), 337-368.
  • R.C. Pianta, J. Belsky, R. Houts, F. Morrison, NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2007). Opportunities to Learn in America's Elementary Classrooms. Science, 315 (5820), 1795-1796.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Pathways to reading: The role of oral language in the transition to reading. Developmental Psychology, 41 (2), 428-442.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Predicting individual differences in attention, memory, and planning in first graders from experiences at home, child care, and school. Developmental Psychology, 41, 99-114.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Child Care and Child Development: Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. NY, NY: Guilford Press.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Duration and developmental timing of poverty and children’s cognitive and social development from birth through third grade. Child Development, 76 (4), 795-810.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (Spring 2004). Multiple pathways to early academic achievement. Harvard Educational Review, 1-29.
  • NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2003). Social functioning in first grade: Associations with earlier home and child care predictors and with current classroom experiences. Child Development, 74, 1639-1662.