Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Classroom and Teacher Support in Kindergarten: Associations with the Behavioral and Academic Adjustment of Low-Income Students

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Classroom and Teacher Support in Kindergarten: Associations with the Behavioral and Academic Adjustment of Low-Income Students

Article excerpt

Children who grow up in poverty are at elevated risk for school adjustment difficulties at the transition into kindergarten; as many as 40% demonstrate delays in learning behaviors and emergent literacy skills, and over 20%

exhibit high rates of social difficulties and disruptive behavior problems that undermine school adjustment (Macmillan, McMorris, & Kruttschnitt, 2004; Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta & Cox, 2000). These early delays often set the stage for later difficulties, contributing to a socioeconomic gap in school attainment. Whereas learning engagement and emergent literacy skills in early elementary school predict later school success, aggression and social withdrawal at school entry predict later behavior problems and learning difficulties, as well as reduced high school graduation rates and less advantageous long-term employment (McClelland, Acock, & Morrison, 2006; Ryan, Fauth, & Brooks-Gunn, 2006).

The contexts that children experience in early childhood are influential in shaping their development (Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Kellam, Ling, Merisca, Brown, & Ialongo, 1998). The quality of parent-child interactions and the home environment play key roles in supporting the development of school readiness skills (Lengua, Honorado, & Bush, 2007), and heightened rates of family adversity associated with poverty, such as low levels of parental education and elevated family stress, often reduce support for early childhood cognitive and social-emotional development (Ritsher, Warner, Johnson, & Dohrenwend, 2001; Ryan et ah, 2006). Research suggests that features of the classroom context also influence child development in important ways. Indeed, a key goal of early childhood programs for low-income families, such as Head Start, is to provide high-quality emotional support and academic enrichment to compensate for the early adversity associated with poverty (Administration for Children and Families, 2010).

Given the importance of the child's functioning at the transition into elementary school, research has also explored features of the kindergarten context that affect student adjustment and academic progress (Bierman et ah, 2014; Kellam et ah, 1998). For example, classroom instructional practices are associated with children's academic achievement (Mashburn et ah, 2008) and high-quality instruction can reduce socioeconomic gaps in reading readiness (Lonigan, 2006). In addition, an extensive body of research has investigated aspects of classroom climate that are associated with child adjustment and attainment in elementary school. Broadly defined, classroom climate reflects the nature of children's experiences in the classroom, including the degree to which children feel safe, supported, bonded to, and motivated by the interactions they have with teachers and peers (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009). Several studies suggest that, at school entry, two features of the classroom climate are major determinants of children's classroom experiences and linked with their subsequent school adjustment: (a) the quality of the relationship they establish with the kindergarten teacher, and (b) the kindergarten teacher's capacity to create an emotionally supportive and behaviorally well-managed classroom community (Downer, Sabol, & Hamre, 2008). These two features of classroom climate (student-teacher relationship quality and classroom emotional support) appear particularly important for socioeconomically disadvantaged children who often enter school with low levels of behavioral and academic readiness (J. N. Hughes, Luo, Kwok, & Loyd, 2008; Pianta, La Paro, Payne, Cox, & Bradley, 2002; Silver, Measelle, Armstrong, & Essex, 2005).

Existing research suggests that experiencing a warm and supportive relationship with the kindergarten teacher may foster children's early learning and behavioral development in multiple ways. Emotionally, it may promote feelings of safety and security in the school context; behaviorally, it may increase child exposure to positive teacher modeling and reinforcement of appropriate child coping skills in the school setting; and, academically, it may increase teacher attention, enhancing academic support and opportunities to participate in classroom learning activities (O'Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Pianta et ah, 2002). …

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