Readiness program improves focus, learning in preschoolers

Teacher works with students in the Kids in Transition to School program

For children entering kindergarten who aren’t quite ready for school, help is on the way.

A new study of a school preparation program developed by UO psychologist Phil Fisher and Katherine Pears of the Oregon Social Learning Center has uncovered a type of brain activity that indicates whether children, especially foster children, are responding to exercises aimed at helping them focus and learn.

Two previous studies of the Kids in Transition to School intervention program, which begins in the summer before kindergarten begins, have found improvements in reading, behavior and social-emotional skills among participants. The intervention has been used in 24 elementary schools in 13 Oregon school districts and soon will be implemented outside the state.

Long-term progress is being studied in 209 students, all with identified behavioral problems or developmental disabilities or delays known to affect school readiness. The new study — now online ahead of print in the journal Applied Neuropsychology: Child — compared 20 students who participated in the program with 21 who had not.

“The summer before kindergarten is a critical period,” said Fisher, a Philip H. Knight Chair and director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience. “In fact, summertime for low-income children and those at risk for school failure is a huge problem because a lot of services are delivered in the academic year and drop off in the summer. The key question we asked in this study was whether we could observe changes in brain function that may point to mechanisms of things critical for kids to learn.”

In the school preparation intervention, children attend two-hour sessions twice weekly for two months before kindergarten begins and then once weekly for eight sessions. They learn basic academic skills but also face scenarios that require social and emotional skills, such as learning to share and work with peers.

Parents meet for two hours every other week over four months, during which they receive parenting advice and tips for helping their children self-regulate their behavior.

For the new study, which was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, the children wore a special cap fitted with sensors to detect electrical activity in the brain as they performed a computer exercise. The task required their focus and behavioral inhibition as they identified the color of a particular circle amid subtle on-screen distractions.

With each answer, the children received feedback by way of a smiling or frowning face to show correct or incorrect responses. Results from testing done before and after the intervention period were compared.

Researchers identified brain activity in the prefrontal cortex — home to executive functioning including attention, focus and self-control — that is connected to the children’s responses to the feedback and appears to show whether the children are learning from mistakes.

“What was so interesting is that beyond correct or incorrect responses, which were roughly equivalent for both groups, there was a signature of electrophysiological activity that we saw when a mistake was made,” Fisher said. “There was momentary deflection. It’s like there was a recognition that something happened and it’s worth noting.”

The stronger the recognition of negative feedback — reflected in a blip only milliseconds long — may represent the realization for many children that more attention to a task is needed to do better, Fisher said.

However, that brief recognition was not evident in the brain’s electrical activity in foster children who did not participate in the intervention, he said.

“When we see foster kids not paying attention to the rules, as being defiant and disobedient, we often interpret that they just don’t care,” Fisher said. “This finding says something different. It suggests that the lights might be on, but nobody is home. They are doing their thing but with no change when they get corrected.”

That lack of change is seen in foster kids as they enter Kids in Transition to School but improves after completing the program.

“After 12 weeks of the interventions, it begins to change for them,” Fisher said. “Their negative response is unmuted. The program helps to turn on the antenna.”

A key to the program, Fisher said, is an emphasis on building social and emotional skills.

“The landscape of kindergarten involves doing things and interacting with other people — and making mistakes and getting feedback,” Fisher said. “We believe that once the program is in place, it really has the potential to have cascading effects in helping kids with their abilities to get along with others and to learn and succeed.”

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications