Better Beginnings

How Innovations in Early Learning and Improving Self-Control Can Help Set a Course for Lifelong Success

Story by William Meiners, photos by Charles Jischke

The proud parent of most any high school valedictorian has surely been asked about the secret to his or her educational success. From Mozart in the womb to vocabulary flashcards before kindergarten, that perfect GPA may have been the end road of myriad paths. For several Purdue University researchers, particularly those from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, the exploration in early learning is about seeking the smarter starts that can pay lifelong dividends.

Though there’s not one magical formula to transform today’s toddlers into the Renaissance thinkers of 2035, there is much research that points to the benefits of building the skills of self-control and focus, and learning built on play, adult modeling and a supportive environment. As parents hope to unleash their offspring’s full potential, an effective interaction of these elements is critical in the foundational work for any of the good things to come.

Throughout the College of Health and Human Sciences, faculty researchers are now understanding more about how children learn. Their work, increasingly cross-disciplinary, continues to shape the future of early care and education. Longitudinal studies explore how the best-equipped child care environments with enthusiastic teachers can lead to better scores on standardized tests in third grade. They discover the interactive teaching strategies that can help override the disadvantages of lower socio-economics. And they’re designing new curricula that could lead to those desired outcomes.

The building blocks of play

For more than two decades at Purdue, Jim Elicker, professor of human development and family studies, has helped to measure the preschool settings where children can thrive. Ten years ago, he began working with state leaders on an independent evaluation of Indiana’s Paths to QUALITY, the quality rating and improvement system for child care early education programs. Elicker, colleagues and students have traveled throughout the state to observe and measure the validity of the rating system, which, like hotel and restaurant reviews, uses a four-star system.

In 2015, Elicker and faculty colleagues Sara Schmitt and David Purpura applied a similar research design to a longitudinal study to follow children’s outcomes from preschool through third grade. That research team is specifically reviewing Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K, the government-funded early learning program for 4-year-olds from low-income families. The assessments, completed with children in preschool and kindergarten, Elicker says, focus on learning trajectories along the way, but culminate with the students’ first standardized tests in grade three.

With the goal of helping children realize their full educational potential, Elicker knows that it’s precisely those high-quality early learning settings that could detour any children from a “predetermined course” associated with the cycle of poverty. Previous research has cited a “30 million-word gap,” which references the language children may be missing from homes without books or rich and frequent parent-child interactions, and possibly with too much television.

One longstanding debate between early childhood educators and grade school teachers revolves around the role of play versus rote instruction, as well as the right balance of play and instruction for young children. Elicker’s research could be characterized by the discovery of those optimal experiences that could lead to a formula for success.

“Children’s brain structures are organized based on their early experiences,” he says. “We used to think that brain development unfolded automatically according to a genetic map. But it really doesn’t. The brain grows and organizes itself based on what the child is doing, so early experience is really important.”

Young children are apt to opt into fun experiences. “We’ve always thought play was an important part of early childhood,” Elicker says. “Kids all over the world play, and no one tells them how to. They just do it. It’s biological and part of what it means to be human.”

Not surprisingly, some of the highest-rated early programs try to optimize learning through play. Elicker, however, points to the critical role of adults in helping to guide play.

“Sometimes it’s putting words to what they’re doing, such as telling a child he might be designing a new doorway,” he says, “Or it’s the simple encouragement of not doing it for them, but helping them puzzle something out or try something different.” 

Kids PlayingPhoto provided by Imagination Playground
"Sometimes it's putting words to what they're doing, such as telling a child he might be designing a new doorway."
- JIM ELICKER, professor of human development and family studies

In another study, Elicker and Zack Gold, a PhD student in human development and family studies, are observing how kids build confidence by building the toys they play on. Earning the Ann Hancook Award from the Purdue Cooperative Extension Specialists Association, the researchers observed how kids learn through building and play with various play materials that include big foam blocks. Kids engage in physical, social and mental play as they climb over and connect the large blue blocks provided by the toy company Imagination Playground to make structures of their own design. Through a collaboration with Sean Brophy, associate professor of engineering education, the researchers are identifying those early pathways to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, learning.

“If you look at block building as engineering, you can also see how it relates to early learning skills in math, social and physical skills,” Elicker says. “Because really successful engineers, just like young children at play, are creative people who come up with ideas using a design process. They question, brainstorm and build prototypes. And when something doesn’t work, they go back to the drawing board.”

Self-regulation and Cookie Monster modeling

Another aspect that determines how successful early learners might be in years to come centers on the concept of self-regulation. Professors Deborah Nichols and Sara Schmitt have zeroed in on what this skill is and how it can be improved.

An important component of self-regulation, referred to as executive function, has three aspects, according to these experts. It’s about working memory, or how a child holds and manipulates information in his or her mind. Secondly, there’s cognitive flexibility, which refers to maintaining or shifting focus as environments change. And finally, it’s about a child’s ability to inhibit impulses in order to finish a less desirable task.

“Executive function is sometimes referred to as the air traffic control system of our brains,” says Schmitt, assistant professor of human development and family studies, “because it allows us to focus, filter distractions, multitask, remember and follow a set of instructions, and persist on challenging tasks.”

In a world with lots of moving parts and distractions galore, self-regulation is foundational in educational success. This skill is rapidly developing during the preschool years, and it is a hot topic among early childhood researchers. The good news, at least for parents who may lack the resources or knowledge to effectively teach it, is that executive function is malleable, Schmitt says, “If a child doesn’t have a strong set of self-regulation skills as they enter preschool or kindergarten, they can still learn them through intervention and effective instruction.”

For her part, Schmitt incorporates games to challenge children to use and develop executive function in early child care settings. Most are based in music and movement, teaching children to stop, think and then act. The games increase in difficulty, perhaps asking kids to dance fast to fast songs and slow to slow songs before stopping on the silence. Then kids are told to dance slow to the fast songs and fast to the slow songs. As verified by two different published studies, Schmitt says, children participating in eight weeks of these games have shown significant improvement in self-regulation and controlling their impulses.

girl with cookie
“On average, the kids who watched the Cookie Monster clip waited about 12 1/2 minutes before eating the cookie.”
- DEBORAH NICHOLS, Associate professor of human development and family studies

Nichols, associate professor of human development and family studies, examines the benefits of educational media offered by the likes of the Public Broadcasting System. In one study, she brought the Cookie Monster into the research mix in a classic test of self-regulation. One group of children watches a video of Cookie Monster using several different self-control attempts to resist cookies, while another group watches a video unrelated to practicing self-control. With some hands-on assistance by the “Waiting Game Singers,” Cookie Monster runs through a series of self-regulation strategies that include singing, pretending the cookies are fake and other distraction techniques. Then, a tray with two cookies on one side and one cookie on the other side is placed in front of the children. They’re told that if they can wait until the adult returns to the room, they can have two cookies. If they don’t want to wait, they can have only one cookie.

“On average, the kids who watched the Cookie Monster clip waited about 12 ½ minutes before eating the cookie,” Nichols says. “The other kids waited only about eight minutes, which is a pretty sizable effect.”

In her recent book, Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood: The Effects of Content and Context on Learning and Development, Nichols and co-author Rachel Barr, a Georgetown University psychology professor, share some best-practice advice on what children between 6 months and 8 years old should be watching.

“In general, we advocate using media in moderation,” says Nichols, who is now shifting focus to the dangers of background television, or television programming not designed for the child who happens to be in the same room. “The average child under 8 uses screen media 90 minutes a day, however, they are exposed to background television for nearly four hours a day. Kids under 2 are exposed to five and half hours per day. We have very clear evidence of the disruption to a child’s executive function because the noises and sound effects from the TV are pulling their attention away from whatever they were doing or playing with. Also, parents talk less when the TV is on, and this talk tends to be of lower quality.”

Nichols says the “noise pollution” of a nonstop background television, which effectively pulls children away from deep levels of sustained attention, is potentially more problematic than programs they might sit down to watch intentionally — just by the sheer volume of exposure.

Taking math literally

Could parents unwittingly be putting a fear of math into their children? David Purpura, assistant professor of human development and family studies, thinks so.
“We often stigmatize math,” he says. “Some people laugh and say they’re bad at math. No one would do that about reading. There’s a growing body of research on math anxiety that suggests it’s something likely transferred from adults to children.”

Purpura, who trained in graduate school as a reading researcher, has sharpened his focus in recent years to gain a better understanding of how math and language are related. In a 2016 study, the researchers worked with 47 Head Start preschool children, who were divided into small reading groups. Over the course of eight weeks, graduate students met with the groups three times per week, reading from books that emphasized the quantitative and spatial language concepts within the pages (words such as “more,” “most,” “fewer,” “least,” “before,” and “after.”). About half of the children proceeded with their regular curriculum. Though the first group of books did not teach general math skills, the children who were read the books outperformed their counterparts on tested math skills.

"Some people laugh and say they’re bad at math. No one would do that about reading."
- DAVID PURPURA Assistant professor of human development and family studies

Along with a nod to the benefits of a cross-disciplinary education, the math literacy project points to a classroom’s holistic approach.

“We’re not just providing them with rote learning,” Purpura says. “It’s helping them to understand the deep, rich context of what math is and how these numbers are related and build into each other to solve problems. Math really is a complex language, giving kids a vehicle to understand their world.”

The next stage in the math literacy project came to fruition this past academic year as Purpura and Schmitt worked with a professional children’s book author and an illustrator to create three books that have an engaging storyline when it comes to math language. The new books, written in both English and Spanish, also feature prompts that allow parents and teachers to engage with kids about the math concepts.

Though the jury is still out on why kids may struggle in their first classrooms, the HDFS colleagues can be optimistic about how experiential learning at the earliest levels can make for greater trajectories. And for every 4-year-old entering preschool, these researchers hope to unlock ways for all to realize their full potential.

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