Starting school young can put child wellbeing at risk

New research has shown that the youngest pupils in each school year group could be at risk of worse mental health than their older classmates.

Starting school young is an exciting but sometimes challenging milestone for children and their families. Some children will be nearing their fifth birthday as they enter foundation classes while others will be only just four.

Now, a study led by the University of Exeter Medical School which investigated more than 2,000 children across 80 primary schools in Devon, has found that children who are younger than their peers when they start school are more likely to develop poorer mental health, as rated by parents and teachers. Overall the effect was small, however researchers believe the additional stress of keeping up with older peers could prove a “tipping point” for vulnerable children, such as those with learning difficulties or who were born prematurely.

The research team was supported by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research Programme and the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC).

The research, published in the journal Child Care, Health and Development, could have implications on parents’ decisions on whether to defer their child’s school entry for a school year, permissible under guidance introduced in 2014.

The findings could also influence how teachers interact with younger children, particularly those with additional complex needs in the class, and on assessments and teaching and support structures within classrooms.

Anna Price, of the University of Exeter Medical School, was motivated to study the issue after home schooling her own April-born son, who has pre-existing learning difficulties, and was not ready to start school aged five. She said: “Using such a large dataset was a chance to explore what’s really happening in practice for children who start school at a young age. We found that children who started younger had slightly worse well-being- however, this effect was very small and unlikely to make a difference for most. The challenge to well-being of being young for your school year might however be one struggle too many for children who face other challenges to their mental health. Our findings can help guide parents and teachers in making decisions that best support the child.”

The researchers also explored the impact of starting school early on the child’s happiness levels and behaviour. In contrast to previous research, they found no significant impact on either. The research paper noted that the schools in the study had strong support in place, such as small group learning, which may have helped improve happiness and behaviour overall.

Professor Tamsin Ford, of the University of Exeter Medical School, oversaw the research. Professor Ford, a practising child psychiatrist, said: “Being relatively younger could be the tipping point for some, but certainly not all, children. For most it would just be something for teacher’s to be aware of but for children with other needs or who were born prematurely this difference could be significant. Awareness of this issue among teachers and educators means measures can be put in place that could help to mitigate this effect and get the best outcome for children.”

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The brain mechanism behind multitasking

Although “multitasking” is a popular buzzword, research shows that only 2% of the population actually multitasks efficiently. Most of us just shift back and forth between different tasks, a process that requires our brains to refocus time and time again — and reduces overall productivity by a whopping 40%.

New Tel Aviv University research identifies a brain mechanism that enables more efficient multitasking. The key to this is “reactivating the learned memory,” a process that allows a person to more efficiently learn or engage in two tasks in close conjunction.

“The mechanism may have far-reaching implications for the improvement of learning and memory functions in daily life,” said Dr. Nitzan Censor of TAU’s School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience. “It also has clinical implications. It may support rehabilitation efforts following brain traumas that impact the motor and memory functions of patients, for example.”

The research, conducted by TAU student Jasmine Herszage, was published in Current Biology.

Training the brain

“When we learn a new task, we have great difficulty performing it and learning something else at the same time. For example, performing a motor task A (such as performing a task with one hand) can reduce performance in a second task B (such as performing a task with the other hand) conducted in close conjunction to it. This is due to interference between the two tasks, which compete for the same brain resources,” said Dr. Censor. “Our research demonstrates that the brief reactivation of a single learned memory, in appropriate conditions, enables the long-term prevention of, or immunity to, future interference in the performance of another task performed in close conjunction.”

The researchers first taught student volunteers to perform a sequence of motor finger movements with one hand, by learning to tap onto a keypad a specific string of digits appearing on a computer screen as quickly and accurately as possible. After acquiring this learned motor memory, the memory was reactivated on a different day, during which the participants were required to briefly engage with the task — this time with an addition of brief exposure to the same motor task performed with their other hand. By utilizing the memory reactivation paradigm, the subjects were able to perform the two tasks without interference.

By uniquely pairing the brief reactivation of the original memory with the exposure to a new memory, long-term immunity to future interference was created, demonstrating a prevention of interference even a month after the exposures.

“The second task is a model of a competing memory, as the same sequence is performed using the novel, untrained hand,” said Dr. Censor. “Existing research from studies on rodents showed that a reactivation of the memory of fear opened up a window of several hours in which the brain was susceptible to modifications — in which to modify memory.

“In other words, when a learned memory is reactivated by a brief cue or reminder, a unique time-window opens up. This presents an opportunity to interact with the memory and update it — degrade, stabilize or strengthen its underlying brain neural representations,” Dr. Censor said. “We utilized this knowledge to discover a mechanism that enabled long-term stabilization, and prevention of task interference in humans.

The researchers are eager to understand more about this intriguing brain mechanism. “Is it the result of hardwired circuitry in the brain, which allows different learning episodes to be integrated? And how is this circuitry represented in the brain? By functional connections between distinct brain regions? It is also essential to determine test whether the identified mechanism is relevant for other types of tasks and memories, not only motor tasks,” Dr. Censor concluded.

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‘Principal pipelines’ to develop leaders may be affordable way to improve schools

Improving school leadership by better selecting, training and evaluating principals can be an affordable option for school districts that aim to reduce turnover and improve schools, according to a new report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

The first-of-its kind study examined how six large urban school districts are investing in their leaders through a concept called “principal pipelines.” The idea is to help school districts develop a better preparation, hiring, evaluation and support system for principals to ensure they are effective. The Wallace Foundation funded the initiative.

While states and school districts are grappling with a shortage of highly effective principals for all schools, there has been little information about what level of resources would be required to do so.

RAND’s report fills this gap. Researchers found that developing a pipeline to improve school leadership has been affordable for the six districts, which spent 0.4 percent of their annual budgets to better the quality of school leaders.

“Districts can likely prioritize developing better principals with the resources they have now,” said Susan Gates, one of the lead researchers on the report. “Our research found the main expense of this effort was the salaries of district staff members who helped screen, support and evaluate principals — activities that most districts are already doing, just not in a strategic way.”

The study found that the districts spent about $5.6 million annually (about $31,000 per principal) on the leadership initiative during the four years examined. Nearly half (44 percent) of that consisted of district staff salaries for the staff’s time on the effort. To put these estimates in context, the RAND study found the per-pupil costs work out to $42, compared with $608 that U.S. school districts spend on school administration, $477 on transportation and $447 on food services.

Other expenses of the new program included preparing new principals, then coaching and evaluating them and providing professional development. Most of this funding was not new grant funds provided by Wallace but drawn from existing school district funds that were reallocated from other uses.

“Our research found that principal pipelines are not a big-ticket item for these school districts,” said Julia Kaufman, the other lead researcher. “School districts can look at our research and consider the likely costs for various activities intended to improve leadership.”

Researchers found that districts spent relatively little to develop and revise job standards for principals, and then hire them — $292 per principal and $2,894 per principal, respectively.

The Wallace Foundation launched the Principal Pipeline Initiative in 2011 to determine if large urban school districts could build pipelines and whether stronger pipelines would improve schools and raise student achievement districtwide. It initially awarded grant funding of $7.5 million to $12.5 million to each district to cover part of the costs of setting up the pipelines. Districts were given additional funding of $430,000 to $1 million each to strengthen the skills of principals and supervisors.

Those districts were Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, Denver Public Schools in Colorado, Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, the New York City Department of Education and Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.

Other authors of the report, “What it Takes to Operate and Maintain Principal Pipelines: Costs and Other Resources,” are Melody Harvey, Yan Wang and Mark Barrett.

This report breaks down the various costs of better selecting, training and evaluating principals and provides average estimates based on costs from all six districts. It does not address the impact on student learning and other outcomes. RAND expects to publish a second research report in December 2018 examining those issues.

“This study is significant because it provides district leaders with clear and useful information that they haven’t had before on the costs of building a principal pipeline,” said Elizabeth Ty Wilde, senior research and evaluation officer at Wallace. “Its findings show that districts can make progress on key aspects of building principal pipelines aimed at developing effective leaders, and can cover a large percentage of those costs with existing funds.”

“The RAND study and other recent studies contain important lessons for all districts that want effective principals leading their schools,” added Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at Wallace. “Previous studies show that building principal pipelines have the potential to reduce unwanted turnover for both teachers and principals. The RAND study now shows that pipelines are affordable as well.”

 

Students of all ethnicities benefit from ethnically diverse middle schools

More than half of school-age youth in the United States are members of ethnic minority groups, yet the nation’s public schools are becoming less ethnically diverse. Recognizing these conflicting trends and the lack of research on the effects of ethnic diversity, a new study sought to determine how the diversity of middle school students and classrooms shapes students’ self-reported well-being and their views on race. The study found that in general, as the ethnic diversity of a middle school increases, students of different ethnicities have better outcomes in these areas — but class composition also plays a large role in their views.

The research was conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and appears in the journal Child Development.

“Our study is the first to show such a wide range of personal and social benefits for students of all races and ethnicities from attending ethnically diverse schools,” according to Jaana Juvonen, professor of psychology at UCLA, the study’s lead author. “When multiple ethnic groups are of relatively equal size — the hallmark of school diversity — there may be more of a balance of power, with one or more large ethnic groups less likely to exert their influence over one or more small ethnic groups.”

The researchers looked at 4,302 sixth-grade students from four ethnic groups — African American, Asian, Latino, and White — in 26 urban middle schools in California. They focused on middle schools because previous research shows that this is when race and ethnicity take on heightened meaning and adjustment problems (such as bullying) increase. The ethnic compositions of each of the schools differed, with some having two large and relatively equally sized ethnic groups, some having one clear numerical majority ethnic group, and some having four similarly sized and smaller ethnic groups. The students were from middle-income and working-class families.

The study assessed school diversity by considering both the number of ethnic groups and their relative sizes. A similar measure was used to determine the average level of ethnic diversity that each student encountered in academic courses. At the end of sixth grade, students rated how socially vulnerable (e.g., feeling unsafe, bullied, lonely) they felt at school, how close they felt to different ethnic groups, and whether their teachers treated all students fairly and equally.

Students from all four ethnic groups felt less vulnerable, reported better attitudes across ethnic groups, and believed teachers treated all students more fairly and equally in more diverse schools, the study found.

However, the findings on students’ racial views and teacher treatment depended on whether the ethnic diversity of students’ academic classes matched the diversity of their school. When students attended classes that were less diverse than their school, the benefits of school diversity for students’ racial views and their perceptions of teachers’ treatment disappeared. In contrast, being exposed in their classes to students from a range of ethnicities boosted the positive effects of school diversity on their race-related perceptions.

“Our findings also underscore the importance of class placement,” notes Sandra Graham, distinguished professor of education at UCLA, who contributed to the study. “To reap the social benefits of ethnic diversity, students need to be placed in classes that reflect the overall diversity of their school. It may not be sufficient to focus solely on increasing the overall ethnic diversity of schools, which is the goal of most policy initiatives that address racial and ethnic segregation. Equally important is whether students of different ethnic groups are exposed to one another during the school day, even in very diverse schools.”

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Positive engagement in preschool key to developmental gains

Many interventions and programs designed to improve low-income children’s lives focus on providing high-quality early-childhood education. Preschool classrooms that are emotionally supportive, well-organized, and cognitively stimulating can help boost children’s learning and development. Yet for the most part, focusing on the quality of early-childhood education has emphasized teachers, often missing the central role that children play in their own development. A new study has found that children’s individual engagement with teachers, peers, and tasks was important to the gains they made during the preschool year, even after taking into account differences in classroom quality.

The study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, Montana State University Billings, and the University of Virginia, is published in the journal Child Development.

“Children can have very different experiences in the same classroom and their individual engagement is associated with their learning gains above and beyond the average quality of classroom instruction,” explains Terri J. Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, who led the study. “It’s important to look beyond overall classroom quality and capture children’s individual experiences in classroom settings.”

The study looked at 211 low-income, racially and ethnically diverse 4-year-olds in 49 classrooms in state and federally funded preschool programs. Researchers measured the children’s engagement in the classroom by observing their positive and negative interactions with teachers, peers, and tasks (e.g., their ability to communicate with teachers, sociability and assertiveness with peers, self-reliance in tasks, conflicts with teachers and peers).

The quality of the classroom setting was also measured (e.g., the classroom climate, teachers’ sensitivity, emotional support, classroom organization), and children were assessed on measures of school readiness in the fall and the spring of their preschool year. Most previous research has examined either the effect of classroom interactions or the role of individual children’s engagement in the classroom on children’s outcomes; this study included both.

“To truly understand and support individual children’s development, it is vital that we have observational tools that capture individual children’s engagement and the overall classroom context,” notes Natalie Bohlmann, associate professor of education at Montana State University Billings, who collaborated on the study.

Children’s individual engagement was related to their developmental gains, even after accounting for emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support at the classroom level, the study found. Specifically, children’s positive engagement with teachers was related to improved literacy skills and their positive engagement with peers was related to improved language and self-regulatory skills. In addition, their positive engagement with tasks related to closer relationships with teachers.

Children who were negatively engaged in the classroom (e.g., those who got into conflicts with teachers or peers) were at a comparative disadvantage in terms of their school readiness, the study found. Children with higher levels of negative engagement performed at lower levels across nearly all of the academic, language, and social outcomes measured, including lower language, literacy, and self-regulatory skills.

“Interventions designed to prepare children for school should include a focus on children’s individual behaviors in the classroom,” adds Jason Downer, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, who was the lead investigator. “Observing children’s engagement can guide decisions about where, when, and how to intervene with at-risk children, and help educators enact more useful individualized strategies in the classroom.”

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Quality of early family relationships affects children’s mental health

The birth of a child is often a long-awaited and deeply meaningful event for the parents. However, the transition to parenthood also forces the parents to revise their interparental romantic relationship and to answer the new questions arising from parenthood. At the same time as the parents learn how to cope with the new situation, the infant undergoes one of the most intense developmental periods in human life. Previous attachment research has demonstrated the importance of the mother-infant relationship to children’s emotional development, but there is still relatively little research on the role of fathers, the marital relationship and the family as a whole.

This doctoral study in the field of psychology set out to investigate, firstly, how families change and reorganise during the transition to parenthood and, secondly, the consequences the early family relationships have on children’s emotional development in middle childhood. More specifically, the aim was to study the effects of early family relationships on children’s emotion regulation, psychological defense mechanisms, and the related biases in their social-emotional information processing (i.e. attention biases to emotional facial expressions). In all, 710 Finnish families participated in the longitudinal study conducted during pregnancy, at the child’s ages of two and twelve months and in middle childhood.

As a central result of the dissertation, seven unique family system types were identified using statistical analyses. The family system types were called cohesive (35 %), authoritarian (14 %), enmeshed (with declining 6 % and quadratic 5 % subtypes), escalating crisis (4 %), disengaged (5 %) and discrepant (15 %). Despite the uniqueness of each family type, the problematic family types predicted children’s inefficient emotion regulation in middle childhood in a similar way.

Difficulties in emotion regulation also explained why the problematic family types increased the children’s depressive symptoms indicating that family-related difficulties in managing their own negative emotions pose a risk for the children’s mental health. Furthermore, children who had grown in problematic families relied more on psychological defence mechanisms (e.g. denied their own painful emotions and blamed others instead). Family-related alterations in affect regulation were also present in the laboratory experiment: children from enmeshed families tended to direct their attention towards threat-provoking stimuli (i.e. angry facial expressions) whereas children from disengaged families tended to defensively avoid such information.

Altogether, the results support the theoretical viewpoint that children adapt their affect regulation to fit the demands of their family environment. This may be based on both psychodynamic processes and the effects of the children’s stress regulation system, which has been developed during the evolutionary process. The family as a whole is important for the development of children’s emotion regulation. Therefore, mothers and fathers as well as the interparental romantic relationship and parenting should be considered in health services directed to parents-to-be. Finally, it is noteworthy that the early family relationships accounted for at the most only 10 % of the children’s affect regulation in middle childhood. The relatively modest size of this effect corresponds to the results of previous longitudinal studies.

The findings of this seven-year longitudinal study shed more light on the understanding of early family dynamics and on the identification of early family related risks. The knowledge may also help to develop focused therapeutic interventions for children who have experienced early family problems and suffer from depressive symptoms. Such children may benefit from strengthening the experience of emotional security, learning more efficient emotion regulation and interventions to correct their biases in the processing of social-emotional information.

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College attendance drops after widespread job loss

When states suffer a widespread loss of jobs, the damage extends to the next generation, where college attendance drops among the poorest students, says new research from Duke University.

As a result, states marked by shuttered factories or dormant mines also show a widening gap in college attendance between rich and poor, the authors write.

Yet simple economics aren’t the only factor at play, the authors write. Poor students in economically stricken states don’t avoid college simply because they can’t afford it. Instead, widespread job losses trigger adolescent emotional problems and poor academic performance, which, in turn, puts college out of reach, say the authors, whose research is published in the June 16 issue of Science.

“Job loss has led to increased inequality in college-going not just because people lose income, but because they are stressed out,” said Duke economist Elizabeth Ananat, one of the paper’s lead authors. “Losing your job is traumatic, and even if a community is adding new jobs, jobs aren’t interchangeable.”

During the 2016 presidential race and since the November election, attention has focused on economically distressed regions where technology and globalization have obliterated jobs, and where worries run high about the next generation’s future and about growing inequality.

Some economists promote higher education as the natural remedy. According to this view, inequality will disappear as more young people choose college rather than “following their parents’ footsteps to the now-closed factory,” the authors write.

The new study tests that theory empirically, and finds it flawed.

“Our whole narrative as a country has been, creative destruction will push kids toward more profitable, growing industries,” Ananat said. “But if kids are stressed out and parents are stressed out, they may not be as nimble as we imagine people being.”

The authors compared job loss rates during middle and high school years with college attendance rates a few years later, at 19 years of age.

In states that suffered a 7 percent job loss, college attendance by the poorest youth subsequently dropped by 20 percent, even when financial aid increased. The pattern also persisted across a wide range of states, despite variations in public college tuition rates.

“Rather than clearing a path to new educational opportunities in deindustrializing areas, job destruction knocks many youth off the path to college,” the authors write.

The research points to a need for more rigorous job retraining programs, which could lessen the trauma of job loss for the whole community.

“Bringing back jobs that technology has replaced is not necessarily possible or desirable,” Ananat said. “Imagine if we had insisted on subsidizing the buggy-whip industry.”

“But that doesn’t mean we must abandon everyone to a terrifying future. Instead we could actually support people in getting new jobs.”

The new research also found that while job loss lowered college attendance among poor whites, the decline was even steeper for poor African-Americans.

Furthermore, after widespread job losses, suicide and suicide attempts among African-American youths rose by more than 2 percentage points.

“What happens with African-Americans are the same things that happen to working class white people — just worse,” Ananat said.

“Yes, there have been losers from the changing economy.” Ananat said. “But white working class people and African-American working class people are in the same boat due to job destruction. Imagine the policies we could have if folks found common ground over that.”

The research was supported by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation to Ananat and Anna Gassman-Pines, an associate professor of public policy and psychology and neuroscience at Duke. Ananat and Gassman-Pines teach at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and are faculty fellows at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.

 

Researchers refine yardstick for measuring schools

In recent years, 14 states in the U.S. have begun assessing teachers and schools using Value-Added Models, or VAMs. The idea is simple enough: A VAM looks at year-to-year changes in standardized test scores among students, and rates those students’ teachers and schools accordingly. When students are found to improve or regress, teachers and schools get the credit or the blame.

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, VAMs have generated extensive debate. Proponents say they bring accountability and useful metrics to education evaluation. Opponents say standardized tests are likely to be a misleading guide to educator quality. Although VAMs often adjust for some differences in student characteristics, educators have argued that these adjustments are inadequate. For example, a teacher with many students trying to overcome learning disabilities may be helping students improve more than a VAM will indicate.

A new study by an MIT-based team of economists has developed a novel way of evaluating and improving VAMs. By taking data from Boston schools with admissions lotteries, the scholars have used the random assignment of students to schools to see how similar groups of students fare in different classroom settings.

“Value-added models have high stakes,” says Josh Angrist, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and co-author of a new paper detailing the study. “It’s important that VAMs provide a reliable guide to school quality.”

The researchers have found that existing VAMs tend to underestimate the amount of test score improvement that actually occurs at some schools. On the other hand, the scholars say, conventional VAMs do provide a ballpark figure for improvement that should not be discounted.

“Conventional Value-Added Models are biased, but we’re able to show that the bias is modest,” says co-author Peter Hull PhD ’17, who will soon join the University of Chicago’s economics department as an assistant professor. He adds that, in Boston at least, VAMs “generate useful predictions of school quality.”

The same approach that lets the MIT team evaluate VAMs also allows them to show how the metrics may be improved. In so doing, the paper states, the new method could help “improve policy targeting relative to conventional VAMs.”

The paper, “Leveraging Lotteries for School Value-Added: Testing and Estimation,” appears in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. The authors are Angrist; Hull; Parag Pathak, the Jane Berkowitz Carlton and Dennis William Carlton Professor of Microeconomics at MIT; and Christopher Walters PhD ’13, an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Boston public

The conclusion comes from an analysis of data from Boston’s public school system, covering a period from the 2006-07 through the 2013-14 academic years. The data include a sample of roughly 28,000 students at 51 different schools, including some charter and pilot schools.

The test scores of students are taken from fifth- and sixth-grade results in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), in math and English language arts. The researchers use these data to replicate conventional VAMs and develop their own “hybrid” VAM model that combines the new school-quality estimates with the older approach.

The study exploits the fact that Boston’s school system uses a centralized assignment system for students (which was designed in part by Pathak). This system uses a “lottery tie-breaking” feature to help determine which students will attend schools in high demand. Thus, an element of chance helps determine where a large portion (around 77 percent) of sixth-graders will be enrolled in middle school. This, in turn, gives the researchers the random assignment they need to derive higher-resolution comparisons of the effects schools have on student achievement.

Because the students in this pool of applications differ (on average) only in where they were offered a place, researchers can make apples-to-apples comparisons to see how the students who are admitted via lottery perform, compared to those who were not admitted. The differences in performance then reflect school quality rather than differences in ability or family background.

By contrast, when comparing two schools without use of random assignment, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that the students being evaluated are otherwise similar. In this scenario, what might look like a lack of student achievement, using a conventional VAM estimate, could result from a school having a larger number of disadvantaged students.

The study itself shows the difference created by the new VAM technique through a hypothetical scenario involving school closure and expansion: Suppose the lowest-rated Boston school were replaced by a school where students showed the average amount of improvement on test scores. In that case, the researchers find, those scores would increase by 0.24 of a standard deviation when judged by a conventional VAM method, and 0.32 of a standard deviation when using the new method. This reflects “the usefulness of conventional VAMs, despite their inability to perfectly control for student ability,” as Hull observes.

Similarly, if replacing the lowest-ranked school in the survey with a top-quintile school, student test scores would improve by 0.39 of a standard deviation using a conventional VAM, and 0.53 of a standard deviation when using the MIT team’s own VAM method.

The debate rolls on

The paper’s authors note that the findings are situated within some broader political debates about education systems in general. Charter schools are often a subject of considerable public debate, since they receive public funding but may be privately operated and staffed by nonunion teachers, in contrast to traditional public schools. Pilot schools are a hybrid model, with more room for variations in scheduling and curriculum than most public schools, but with unionized teachers.

The 14 states using test-score based VAMs for policymaking are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisana, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.

In any case, Angrist notes, the topic of school performance is a vital one for researchers to examine and for educators to evaluate. Indeed it may be more pressing, he notes, in school districts where test scores have been perennially low, and where larger disparities in school quality may exist.

“For lower-income families, this is fateful,” Angrist observes.

 

Digital games improve mental health, educational outcomes of Syrian refugee children

Digital games can effectively teach refugee children much-needed skills — including a new language, cognitive skills, and coding — while also improving their mental health, finds research by New York University, the City University of New York, and Turkey’s Bahcesehir University.

The study of Syrian refugee children, presented by researchers on June 6 at BAU International University in Washington, DC, suggests that digital games can be a cost-efficient and scalable approach to meeting the educational and psychological needs of refugee children.

“It is our hope that this study shows that even with limited resources, and even when there are language barriers, we can make a difference in the lives of children through leveraging technology,” said Selcuk Sirin, J.K. Javits professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and a Project Hope investigator.

Turkey is the top refugee-hosting country in the world, with more than three million registered Syrian refugees. An NYU-Bahcesehir research team was the first to document the educational and mental health needs of Syrian refugee children, finding that an overwhelming majority are not enrolled in school in Turkey, partly as a result of language barriers, and about half suffer from PTSD and/or depression.

In response to the educational and psychological crisis among refugee children, the NYU and Bahcesehir researchers enlisted colleagues with deep expertise in educational technology and designed an online, game-based learning intervention for refugee children named Project Hope.

“We were excited about this opportunity to apply our research findings to help address the urgent needs of refugee children, needs that could not be met with traditional, on-the-ground service delivery. Instead, we took advantage of the power of digital media,” said Jan Plass, professor of digital media and learning sciences at NYU Steinhardt and a Project Hope investigator.

The objective of Project Hope is to support Syrian refugee children in Turkey by providing them with digital game-based education opportunities to improve Turkish language proficiency, executive functions, and coding skills while decreasing their sense of despair and increasing hope.

To test the effectiveness of Project Hope, the researchers conducted a pilot study in Urfa, Turkey, a city on the border with Syria and home to the largest refugee settlement in Turkey. The study participants included 147 Syrian refugee children, ages 9 to 14. The researchers randomly assigned children to the intervention, or a waitlist or control group, with roughly 75 in each group.

Children in the intervention took part in daily two-hour sessions over four weeks, totaling 40 hours. The Project Hope curriculum includes a combination of five digital games including Minecraft, which was used to measure children’s mental health and hope; game-based programming instruction from Code.org; an executive function training game called Alien Game, designed by NYU and CUNY researchers; and Turkish language instruction using Cerego.

The refugee children completed weekly surveys to describe their satisfaction with the different games and were asked how much they liked a game, how much they learned from it, and whether they would recommend it. Overall, satisfaction was high, and children reported that they were learning from the games and would recommend them.

In addition to reporting satisfaction with the games, the children also improved on all measures after the four-week intervention:

  • In an effort to improve their Turkish language proficiency, refugee children were presented with over 200 Turkish words via the adaptive learning technology platform Cerego. The researchers assessed their language after the intervention and indicated that Turkish language skills were significantly higher for the intervention group.
  • The researchers also measured children’s executive functions, or the ability to plan, monitor, and alter behaviors. These basic cognitive skills have been associated with improved health, well-being, and educational outcomes. In Project Hope, the children played Alien Game, designed to improve executive functions through rewarding short-term memory retention and quick reaction as participants learn to distinguish between different factors. The researchers measured significant improvements in children’s cognitive skills after the intervention.
  • Children also learned a critical 21st century skill as part of Project Hope: coding. Code.org uses a game-based approach for teaching the fundamentals of coding such as conditionals, algorithms, debugging, functions, nested loops, and digital citizenship. Completing a level in Code.org requires demonstrating competency in the concept being taught; on average, children in the Project Hope completed 182 levels of Code.org, writing over 1,800 lines of code.
  • Finally, research has shown that refugee children are at risk for a range of mental health issues, and often experience despair and hopelessness. The Project Hope researchers created tasks to encourage children to imagine a better future for themselves using the popular commercial game Minecraft. These structured tasks asked children to create a dream house, a dream neighborhood, and a dream school. The researchers collected measures of children’s hopelessness before and after Project Hope, and found that the intervention significantly lowered children’s sense of hopelessness.

“Play is a universal way of learning. In taking a game-based and playful approach to learning, we created an intervention that was not only effective, but also one in which the children were engaged and wanted continue doing,” said Bruce Homer, associate professor of educational psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a Project Hope investigator.

“Our pilot study shows that using game-based learning is an effective, cost-efficient way to teach refugee children important skills — and importantly, this structured environment provided distressed refugee children an outlet to imagine a better future for themselves,” said Sinem Vatanartiran, president of BAU International University and a Project Hope investigator.

Facial expressions can cause us problems in telling unfamiliar faces apart

People’s faces change from moment to moment. Even over the course of a conversation with someone, changes are seen in their expressions and in the angle of their head.

Over time there are still further changes in appearance, such as if someone grows a beard, changes their hairstyle or loses weight. When we know someone we can still recognise them easily, despite these sorts of changes.

The story is different for unfamiliar faces; for example, studies have shown that we are generally very poor at matching together two pictures of the same face.

How our visual system manages to overcome the challenge of facial changes, enabling us to recognise people, is still largely unknown. This new study, published today in the journal i-Perception, shows how facial expressions can cause problems and difficulties in terms of telling unfamiliar faces apart.

Using an identification task, participants learned the identities of two actors from naturalistic (so-called ‘ambient’) face images taken from movies.

Training was either with neutral images or their expressive counterparts, perceived expressiveness having been determined experimentally.

Expressive training responses were slower and more erroneous than were neutral training responses.

When tested with novel images of the actors that varied in expressiveness, neutrally trained participants gave slower and less accurate responses to images of high compared to low expressiveness. These findings clearly demonstrate that facial expressions impede the processing and learning of facial identity.

Because this expression-dependence is consistent with a two part model of face processing, in which changeable facial aspects and identity are coded in a common framework, it suggests that expressions are a part of facial identity representation.

Lead researcher Annabelle Redfern, from the School of Experimental Psychology, said: “Our approach was to use several hundred pictures of faces taken from movies, which meant that the images in these experiments resemble the sorts of faces that we see every day.

“We measured people’s reaction times and their accuracy at telling unfamiliar faces apart, and how this differed when the faces were very expressive compared to when they had a neutral expression.

“The differences we found point to the idea that facial expressions and facial identity are not treated separately by our brains; and instead, we may mentally store someone’s expressions along with their faces.”

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Materials provided by University of Bristol. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

 

Puberty hormones trigger changes in youthful learning

A University of California, Berkeley, study of mice reveals, for the first time, how puberty hormones might impede some aspects of flexible youthful learning.

“We have found that the onset of puberty hits something like a ‘switch’ in the brain’s frontal cortex that can reduce flexibility in some forms of learning,” said study senior author Linda Wilbrecht, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

While gleaned from young female mice, the findings, published in the June 1 issue of the journal Current Biology, may have broad educational and health implications for girls, many of whom are entering the first stage of puberty as young as age 7 and 8.

“Puberty onset is occurring earlier and earlier in girls in modern urban settings — driven by such factors as stress and the obesity epidemic — and has been associated with worse outcomes in terms of school and mental health,” said Wilbrecht, a researcher at the campus’s Center on the Developing Adolescent.

Wilbrecht and her laboratory team at UC Berkeley and UCSF discovered significant changes in neural communication in the frontal cortices of female mice after they were exposed to pubertal hormones. The changes occurred in a region of the frontal brain that is associated with learning, attention and behavioral regulation.

“To our knowledge, this study is the first to demonstrate changes in cortical neurotransmission due to hormones at puberty,” said study lead author David Piekarski, a post-doctoral researcher in Wilbrecht’s lab.

Overall, children have been found to have greater brain flexibility or “plasticity” than adults, enabling them to more easily master multiple languages and other elementary scholastic pursuits.

While they continue to learn after puberty, their cognitive focus in adolescence is often redirected to peer relationships and more social learning. If hormonal changes start as early as second or third grade, when children are tasked with learning basic skills, a shift in brain function could be problematic, Wilbrecht said.

“We should be more thoughtful about aligning what we know about biology and education to accommodate the fact that many girls’ brains are shifting to this adolescent phase earlier than expected,” she said.

For the study, researchers induced puberty in some young female mice by injecting them with pubertal hormones such as estradiol and progesterone, and blocked puberty in others by removing their ovaries.

In measuring the electrical activity of brain cells in the frontal cortices of post-pubertal mice, they observed significant changes in the synaptic activity thought to regulate brain plasticity.

They also compared the higher-order learning strategies of pre-pubertal and post-pubertal mice by testing their ability to find Cheerios hidden in bowls of wooden shavings scented with licorice, clove, thyme or lemon.

After each mouse figured out which scent was paired with the Cheerio, that pairing was changed so the mice had to use trial and error to adapt to the change and learn the new rule.

Overall, researchers found that the post-pubertal mice had a harder time adapting to the rule changes than their pre-pubertal counterparts.

“These data demonstrate that puberty itself, not just age, plays a role in frontal cortex maturation,” the study concluded.

The study notes that future studies on male mice will be needed to determine if the present results apply to the male brain.

Josiah Boivin, a graduate student at UCSF, is a co-author on the study.

 

In utero tobacco exposure can lead to executive function issues in adolescents

Prenatal tobacco exposure is known to have negative short-term impacts including preterm birth, low birth weight and subsequent behavioral issues. However, a new study found that the negative impacts can last well into the child’s future. The results showed that exposure to as few as 10 cigarettes was associated with negative impacts on the executive function of adolescents who were exposed prenatally. Published online in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the study is the first to look at the long-term impact on students in a high school setting and demonstrates the importance of providing more evidence-based smoking cessation programs to women of childbearing age and pregnant women.

According to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking during pregnancy is common across the US, with as many as 8 percent of women having smoked at some point during pregnancy. Executive functioning includes a higher level of cognitive organization and management processes that are important for success both in school and in daily life. These skills are learned throughout childhood and include how to self-manage behavior and how best to organize and act on information.

The study included teachers filling out a Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning — Teacher Form (BRIEF-TF) once a year for the sample of students involved in the study. The teachers were not aware of the study aims, but were knowledgeable about the students. The students involved were 51 percent male and 89 percent African American and went to school in an urban community. Teachers filled out at least one BRIEF-TF for 131 adolescents, and the study controlled for demographics, substance exposures other than tobacco, early childhood exposure to lead and exposure to violence.

The findings show that only tobacco was associated with less optimal executive functioning in the classroom for the students, particularly impacting their ability to regulate their behavior.

“Because tobacco is one of the most common substances used during pregnancy — and it’s legal for adults to use — these results indicate the tremendous importance of bolstering efforts to ensure that women of child-bearing age and pregnant women have increased access to evidence-based tobacco smoking cessation programs,” said Ruth Rose-Jacobs, ScD, MS, from Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine who served as the study’s first author. “Given that as few as ten cigarettes can have a negative impact, it is imperative that we act on this and provide as much access and education as we can to help prevent these negative outcomes.”

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‘Authentic’ teachers are better at engaging with their students

Teachers who have an authentic teaching style are more positively received by their students, according to new research published in the National Communication Association’s journal, Communication Education.

To achieve a more authentic style, teachers should use time before and after class to converse with students, allow opportunity to share experiences, and view teaching as an opportunity for dialogue between themselves and their students.

However, to be truly authentic, teachers should enact such behaviors only so far as their personality and demeanor naturally allow, say study authors Professor Zac Johnson of California State University and Professor Sara LaBelle of Chapman University.

Around 300 college students were questioned about their perceptions of authentic and inauthentic teacher behavior and communication. Responses indicated that authentic teachers were seen as approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable, while inauthentic teachers were viewed as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable, and disrespectful.

Authentic teachers showed a willingness to share details of their life, and displayed elements of their humanity by telling personal stories, making jokes, and admitting mistakes. They also demonstrated care and compassion toward students by recognizing them as individuals and attending to their needs both academically and personally, for example, by emailing those absent from class due to illness to ask how they were.

According to the authors, “Our participants made it clear that a teacher’s efforts to view themselves and their students as individuals had a lasting impact. The process of teaching authentically need not be more complicated than making simple and direct statements regarding the level of concern and care that a teacher holds for their students.

“Our implication is not simply that teachers should engage in limitless amounts of self-disclosure. Rather, by making efforts to engage with students beyond their expected roles in the classroom, teachers can greatly impact students’ perceptions of them and their course.”

Students report higher levels of learning and deeper understanding in learning experiences described as authentic. Perhaps more importantly, at-risk students are positively impacted by teachers they perceive as authentic in their communication. By teaching authentically, teachers may create more meaningful experiences and deeper learning for all students in a variety of settings and across disciplines, the authors conclude.

Lead author Johnson also commented, “This research indicated that students do pay attention to the messages we send about ourselves in the classroom, and that their perception of those messages seem to play an important role in how they connect to the content of the course. Further, our findings suggest that we must attempt to be thoughtful when presenting our true self; not dishonest or antithetical to our real self, but rather cognizant of how students might perceive our actions. Overall, authentic communication appears to be a critical component of meaningful communication in multiple contexts.”

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The ‘ideal’ teacher? It’s all in your mind

Two Concordia researchers are turning to Reddit for a more accurate picture of public perceptions of teachers and teaching.

Their initial conclusions? That our understanding of the “best” and “worst” is predicated on personal educational values — and, possibly, our understanding of gender.

“We tend to think in terms of good and bad teachers, but reality is less clear-cut,” says Sandra Chang-Kredl, assistant professor in the Department of Education. “The teacher who is good for me can be bad for someone else; it depends on the student’s values, needs and approaches to schooling.”

But, as she explains, “the representation of teachers matters. Public perceptions affect teachers at every level of education — they reinforce policies and pay levels.”

In a study recently published in Teaching and Teacher Education, Chang-Kredl and her colleague Daniela Colannino (MA 16, Child Studies) examined popular representations of teachers on the social media platform Reddit.

The two researchers analyzed 600 entries from 2009 to 2015 in which commenters discussed their “best” and “worst” teachers.

According to Chang-Kredl, Reddit encourages authentic responses from participants.

“One of the unique features of Reddit, as opposed to websites such as Facebook and Twitter, is that its users can be completely anonymous,” she notes.

“The anonymity of the forum allowed participants to say what they wanted without fear of repercussions. As a result, we were able to get an arguably more authentic and nuanced picture of the public perception of teachers.”

Chang-Kredl and Colannino sorted through the most popular (i.e. upvoted) entries on the discussion threads and coded them according to the themes that emerged.

They found that “best and worst” ratings of teachers fell into three broad categories: the teacher’s professional and personal qualities; the student’s learning outcomes; and the relationship between student and teacher.

When it came to professional qualities, “best” teachers were praised for being intelligent, engaging, dedicated, easygoing and strict but fair; “worst” teachers were described as incompetent, lacking in judgement, lazy, unfair and biased.

The personal qualities of “best” teachers can be categorized as unique, humorous, down to earth and physically attractive, while “worst” teachers were also described as unique, but negatively so, as well as bad-tempered, condescending and unattractive.

When they analyzed the Reddit data, Chang-Kredl and Colannino were surprised by trends that emerged. For instance, roughly equal numbers of teachers were praised for seemingly opposing characteristics, such as “dedicated” and “easygoing.”

“Best” and “worst” teachers were also variously lauded and criticized for displaying virtually identical behaviours — for example, “being lenient” or “chill” versus “putting in no effort.”

This finding, the researchers say, suggests that the participants’ educational values were central to their judgement of teaching style.

According to Chang-Kredl, it also challenges popular beliefs about the ideal teacher and a one-size-fits-all approach to education.

“The finding demonstrates that students have different learning styles and personalities, and respond differently to teachers based on their own needs and perspectives,” she explains.

Furthermore, the study determined that more men were described as “best” teachers, and more women as “worst” teachers.

This may in part reflect the demographic of redditors but, Chang-Kredl observes, it suggests that gender in education is a subject ripe for further investigation.

Ultimately, she hopes that the study’s conclusions will generate further research and discussion on representations of teachers in social media.

“Social media can provide an intersection between cultural representations and personal experiences, and by studying it we can arrive at more nuanced findings.”

Critical thinking can be taught

10-12-years-olds can be taught how to think critically at school, even with few teachers and limited resources. Parents can also be taught to assess claims about health effects.

These findings come from two research articles published in The Lancet.

In a randomised trial of 120 schools and over 10,000 children in Uganda, researchers evaluated the effects of a programme aimed to teach 10-12-year-old pupils how to critically assess health effect claims. In a parallel study, the effect of a podcast intended to teach over 500 parents was also evaluated.

Educational programme gave significant results

This study was the first of its kind to evaluate whether teaching primary school pupils how to critically assess health claims had any effect.

“The educational programme led to nearly 50 per cent more children passing a test where they were asked to assess treatment claims. This is a significant effect. We did not register any negative consequences of the programme but the time spent (13 hours over a 3 month period) was necessarily at the expense of other school activities,” explains Atle Fretheim, head of the Centre for Informed Health Choices at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Podcast for parents

This was also the first attempt to evaluate how podcasts can help adults who are not healthcare personnel to critically assess health claims.

“Among those who listened to the podcast, 34 per cent more people passed the test that measured their ability to critically assess health claims. This group was compared with those who were asked to listen to a series of public health information announcements about similar topics,” continues Fretheim.

May stop the spread of “fake news” and alternative facts

“In a time of rapidly spreading fake news, it is more important than ever that people are able to distinguish the truth from “alternative facts.” In addition, we need to be able to assess what is a sensible interpretation of facts, particularly when facts are used to argue for or against implementing measures. This applies to claims about what causes better or worse health, says Fretheim.

“Based on this and the results of our research, this type of education programme should be considered in other countries, including Norway,” he adds.

It is uncertain how applicable the results are to other countries but the programme was pilot tested at a school in Norway. The school chose to continue using the programme after the testing ended.

In poorer countries it is paramount that decisions and measures are knowledge-based, so that valuable resources are not wasted on ineffective measures, or even those with a negative effect.

“Even though Norway has more resources than Uganda, resources are also wasted here. Studies have shown that children and adults in Norway struggle to assess health claims,” ​​concludes Fretheim.

The studies were funded by the Research Council of Norway’s GLOBVAC-programme.

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Materials provided by Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.