Applied Psychology OPUS

Socio-emotional Interventions: The Efficacy of Socio-Emotional Interventions in Head Start Classrooms

by Lauren Scarola

         Due to current economic hardship, rates of poverty are continuously expanding, forcing families and individuals to live in less than ideal conditions. For children, the effects of these circumstances can be particularly detrimental. Specifically, growing up in poverty coincides with an environment that is harmful to children’s mental, emotional, and physical development. Currently in the United States, one in every five preschool aged children lives in poverty, revealing a significant area of concern (Bierman, Nix, Greenberg, Blair, & Domitrovich, 2008). Children who experience poverty have less accessibility to certain resources that are fundamental for their healthy development, such as nutritious meals and healthcare programs. Additionally, children who live in poverty lack accessibility to quality educational programs, which affects children’s opportunities for superior education and achievement. One resource that is profoundly affected by poverty is a child’s access to quality educational programs. Currently, available programs are generally short staffed, lacking monetary resources, skilled instructors, and do not provide children with adequate skills, impeding children’s achievement in the classroom environment (Shields et al., 2001).

        A child’s successful integration into formal schooling is dependent on their acquisition of school readiness skills. Although educational research often focuses on the development of numeracy and literacy, strong development of positive learning behaviors is crucial. Positive learning behaviors include patience, following directions, motivation, as well as regulation of behaviors and emotions. Learning behaviors aid children in their adaptation to the kindergarten environment, in which children are expected to accomplish more sophisticated goals than those of the preschool years (Blair, 2003). As learning goals must be achieved in an environment with decreased supervision and more emphasis on autonomy, positive learning behaviors are essential for children’s continued success in the classroom environment (Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007). Unfortunately 35 % of children entering kindergarten have not attained these skills, often creating a pattern of school failure throughout formal schooling (Kober, 2010).

        As a result of the documented detrimental affects of poverty on children’s academic success, federally funded programs like Head Start have been implemented in hopes to close the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers. Head Start is the nation’s largest federally sponsored early education program that serves at risk, underprivileged children by fostering the development of strong school readiness skills (Fantuzzo et al., 2007). Head Start operates on the belief that successful integration into formal schooling is achieved through the proper development of eight learning domains: language, literacy, math, science, creative arts, health, approaches to learning, and socio-emotional skills (Fantuzzo et al., 2007). Thus, classroom activities focus on the development of learning domains to enhance children’s abilities to ensure success during the integration into formal schooling.

        Despite their goals, recent research indicates that children enrolled in Head Start programs still have unmet school readiness needs, particularly in the domain of socio-emotional development (Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007). Insufficient development of socio-emotional skills leads to children lagging behind their peers in communication skills, behavior regulation, and successful classroom behaviors. Without the proper fostering of these socio-emotional skills, children enter formal schooling with maladaptive learning skills, which contribute to disparities in school performance, high school graduation rates and consequently, employment potential (Bierman, Domitrovich et al., 2008). Furthermore, the effects of these maladaptive behaviors are not only limited to the child. An interruption in class disturbs other children’s learning abilities and distracts the focus of educators, as they must disrupt their lesson to address the behavior. In fact, Head Start teachers report feeling overwhelmed and poorly equipped to handle behavior challenges such as interruptions, and implementations of socio-emotional interventions to aid in development. Interview data from a study by Quesenberry, Hemmeter, and Ostrosky (2011) denotes that educators who are not properly trained in clear programs or policies are less likely to employ classroom activities that support children’s socio-emotional development and promote advanced learning behaviors. Therefore, the literature seems to present a need for educational interventions that not only develop children’s socio-emotional skills, but also instill knowledge and confidence in teachers to implement these programs.

        Weekly volunteering in Head Start centers allows me to experience firsthand the behavioral issues that exist within the classroom. Time and time again, I watch children in the classroom struggle with skills such as behavioral regulation, following directions, and having patience. Head Start instructors use the tools they have been given to correct these behaviors and shape positive development, but if they prove unsuccessful they often do not know where to turn next. It has become apparent the degree of impact these skills have on children’s academic achievement. For example, it is impossible for a child who cannot regulate his or her behaviors to focus on a task that is designed to help him or her learn letter recognition. Without the ability to regulate behaviors and emotions, children are unprepared for learning, delaying their development not only in socio-emotional skills, but also in other domains. Noting the difficulties and frustration faced by classroom teachers, I have wondered if socio-emotional interventions designed for Head Start centers have proven effective in educating teachers on fostering preschoolers’ positive socio-emotional skills, and the results of these interventions on children’s development. To answer this question, this review article will first provide a clearer picture of the necessity and benefits of the development of strong socio-emotional skills, and will then focus on the implementation and efficacy of two Head Start interventions: The Emotion Course and The Head Start REDI (Research Based Developmentally Informed) program.

Socio-emotional Development
        The preschool years serve as a crucial time for the development of socio-emotional skills such as regulation, pro social behavior, and positive learning behaviors (Fantuzzo et al., 2007; Izard, Trentacosta, King & Mostow, 2004). Recent research identifies behavioral and emotional regulatory skills as especially fundamental for success in a kindergarten environment (Fantuzzo et al., 2007; Raver et al., 2011). Children who have high levels of regulatory skills develop advanced learning behaviors such as following directions, attentive listening, independently attempting to problem solve, and patience. Statistically, children who are able to apply regulatory skills to classroom learning goals perform better on tests of academic achievement (Denham, 2006). These regulatory skills allow children to modify their behaviors in a manner that is conducive to learning and ultimately results in higher levels of achievement. Therefore, the development of regulatory skills is essential during this time period, as numerous studies have indicated a relation between school readiness skills and future school success (Fantuzzo et al., 2007; Izard et al., 2004; Raver et al., 2011).

        On the other hand, preschoolers who do not develop emotional and behavioral competencies are at risk for disruptive classroom and learning behaviors throughout their formal schooling experience (Domitrovich et al., 2007). In fact, disruptive behaviors established in the preschool years have been identified to remain stable across childhood and adolescence (Domitrovich et al., 2007). Behaviors such as poor attention focus, acting out in class, inability to control emotional reactions, and impatience, negatively impacts children’s engagement and positivity within the classroom environment (Izard et al., 2004). Furthermore, children’s opportunities to learn from their peers and teachers are lessened when they enter schooling with disinterest and negativity. Without highly developed regulatory skills and successful classroom involvement, children enter formal schooling unprepared for the challenges and educational demands (Raver et al., 2011). Deficits in necessary regulatory and advanced learning behaviors have been shown to continue throughout schooling and often result in children falling behind their more skilled classmates. School failure is often recurrent and places children on a cyclical pattern of low levels of academic achievement throughout formal schooling (Pyle, Boves, Greif, & Furlong, 2005), furthering the need for early intervention practices within the preschool environment.

        Head Start programs were founded as means to address significant concerns regarding lowincome preschoolers transition into formal schooling environments, as early adjustment determines much of children’s subsequent success. However, research indicates that Head Start instructors struggle with fostering socioemotional development within the classroom. As these positive behaviors are crucial for children to excel within the challenging kindergarten environment, intervention initiatives have been implemented into numerous Head Start classrooms in hopes to instill programming that successfully fosters children’s socio-emotional development (Izard et al., 2004).

Head Start Socio-emotional Interventions
        Within the past forty years, there has been an increase in the implementation of intervention programs for at risk populations, including children who experience poverty. Research strives to lesson risk factors that inhibit children’s development, while simultaneously seeking to enhance skills that foster positive growth (Domitrovich & Greenberg, 2004). Currently, much of the focus of these interventions exists within the area of education reform. However, developmental research acknowledges that there are new areas for educational improvement. Recently, research focuses on the quality of education as a means to guide the development of preventative interventions. Current directions of educational research state that providing early childhood teachers with appropriate tools and techniques is integral for continued success in fostering necessary growth (Spritz, Sanberg, Maher, & Zajdel, 2010).

        Head Start children’s underdeveloped levels of socio-emotional skills have inspired significant attention on the implementation of successful interventions to aid in socio-emotional education (Domitrovich & Greenberg, 2004). Various interventions have been established to assist in this target objective, including two of the most widely utilized Head Start socio-emotional interventions, Emotion Courses (Izard et al., 2004), and The Head Start REDI program (Bierman, Domitrovich et al., 2008).

        The emotions course. Carrolls Izard’s program, The Emotions Course, concentrates on the importance of teaching properties of emotions, emotional expressions, and emotional functionality. The program is guided by Izard’s theory, which explains that changing children’s understanding of emotions with regards to regulation and appropriate utilization of emotions leads to a transformation in positive socialization, communication, and social practices (Izard et al., 2004). Izard argues that the significant increase of children’s abilities to understand emotions and the substantial growth of the connections between emotions, cognition, and children’s actions during the preschool years makes the attainment of regulatory and pro-social skills feasible (Izard et al.,2008). The program operates through the teaching of 22 weekly lessons that apply to the four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and fear (Izard et al., 2004). The learning process is tri-fold in that it requires the ability to label an emotional state, understand its causes and effects, and develop the skills necessary to regulate said emotion. Learning activities consist of puppet vignettes, talk about emotions, emotion expression posters, games, storybooks, and interactive reading. These hands-on lessons serve as a context for developmentally appropriate, real world applications of emotion-focused processes. After a two-hour training seminar, during which instructors are provided with necessary information and lesson agendas that they are expected to master on their own, Head Start classroom teachers lead the program’s lessons. Throughout the school year, program creators also visit Head Start classrooms twice to ensure proper implementation and to provide any necessary support. The Emotions Course seeks to educate instructors on proper implementation of emotion education in hopes to increase levels of socio-emotional skills in Head Start preschoolers.

        Before and after The Emotions Course programming, children’s levels of emotion knowledge, including the ability to label and recognize emotions as well as teacher ratings of children’s emotional expressions and behaviors, are assessed (Izard et al., 2004). Results of the intervention indicate positive development in certain domains. Specifically, children who participated in The Emotions Course developed an increased level of emotion knowledge, showing vast improvement in emotion vocabulary, labels, and recognition. However, despite the investigator’s theory that children’s emotion knowledge translates into regulated behaviors, children showed no improvement in teachers’ assessment of their emotional expression and behaviors (Izard et al., 2008; Izard et al., 2004). These findings indicate that while The Emotions Course is successful in fostering children’s development of emotion competence, this increased knowledge did not predict children’s abilities to regulate emotions and behaviors within the classroom environment, suggesting other impeding variables on children’s development exist.

        Due to the increase in children’s emotion knowledge, it is clear that the interactive lessons provide a stimulating environment that allows for the child’s comprehension of information. However, a disconnect exists between children’s level of emotion knowledge and their ability to apply learned information. Furthermore, as teachers’ satisfaction with the intervention was not assessed, it is possible that teachers felt unprepared to administer the intervention. In preparation for the implementation of the intervention, instructors were given written lesson plans; however, there was not much additional training or support from the program’s creators. Educators received two pre-training sessions and were then required to learn the lessons completely independently (Izard et al., 2004). As Head Start educators already have numerous educational mandates in place for their classroom activities, the lack of extra support may have hindered teachers’ abilities to successfully integrate The Emotions Course into their Head Start classrooms. Unfortunately, while emotion knowledge showed increased levels, the ultimate goal of improved levels of behavioral and emotional regulation were not achieved. These results seem to suggest that The Emotions Course intervention program is lacking elements that allow for children’s increased emotion knowledge to translate into regulatory functioning.

        Head Start REDI. Whereas The Emotions Course intervention does not provide the Head Start teachers with the necessary support they need, the Head Start REDI program believes that extra support for teachers is crucial to the success of intervention strategies. REDI takes into account that most Head Start teachers do not have the skills, financial resources, or assistance to integrate new learning strategies (Bierman, Nix et al., 2008). Therefore, the intervention was designed with the intention to fit seamlessly into the existing framework of the Head Start program. In addition to supplemental materials such as planning manuals and facilitator guides, educators received extensive outside training. Before implementing the program in their classrooms, teachers attended a three-day training conference, followed by a one-day refresher course halfway through the implementation of the program (Bierman, Domitrovich et al., 2008). Furthermore, mentors visited Head Start teachers weekly to provide further training and support in necessary domains. Investigators believed that this more hands-on approach would promote teacher’s abilities to apply intervention practices that support children’s socio-emotional competencies and literacy skills in the most successful manner. For the focus of this review article only the results of children’s socioemotional competencies will be addressed.

        Head Start REDI employs the Head Start PATHS (Promoting Alternate Thinking Strategies) social-emotion intervention to reduce children’s behavioral and emotional problems, while enhancing levels of socio-emotional competence (Bierman, Domitrovich et al., 2008). The program emphasizes the teaching of socio-emotional skills through real-life opportunities. Although the PATHS program has been used independently, creators of the Head Start REDI program wanted to examine the contribution of increased teacher training in conjunction with the goals of the PATHS program. The implementation of the program involved thirty weekly lessons focusing on basic and advanced feelings, as well as selfcontrol and problem solving, conducted during circle time in Head Start classrooms (Domitrovich et al., 2007). During these weekly lessons, educators were instructed to pair corresponding games and activities to the weekly lesson. For example, a lesson regarding fear might include a puppet vignette about classroom children’s own experiences with the emotion. The goal of the program was to foster positive socio-emotional development through five learning domains: (1) children’s awareness and communication regarding their own and others emotions, (2) teaching self control of behavior, (3) implementing problem solving skills, (4) promoting positive self-concept, and (5) creating a constructive classroom atmosphere, all of which provide children with the information, skills, and supportive environment necessary to excel (Domitrovich et al., 2007). The execution of the PATHS programs without the use of the Head Start REDI intervention have seen positive results in the development of emotion knowledge skills, much like the results of The Emotion Courses. However, there is little improvement seen in the areas of inhibitory control, attention, problem solving or behavioral regulation (Domoitrovich et al., 2007). While it is clear that PATHS is fostering children’s development of emotion knowledge skills, such as recognition and labeling, children’s application of these skills to regulation practices is lacking. Conversely, when the PATHS program is used in combination with Head Start REDI, children not only improve in emotion knowledge skills, but also within the domains of behavioral and emotional regulation (Bierman, Domitrovich et al., 2008; Bierman, Nix et al., 2008). It is this comparison that allows for interpretation of the conflicting results of socio-emotional interventions.

        Trends in the literature clearly indicate strengths and weaknesses of socio-emotional interventions for Head Start children. Each of the reviewed intervention programs noted an apparent increase in children’s levels of emotion knowledge after the utilization of the intervention. Results denote that the interactive learning process used by all three interventions proved successful for Head Start children’s comprehension of emotions. In other words, puppet shows, games, and emotions posters act as an outlet for children to interpret and act out their own and others’ emotions. Although positive results were found, each intervention reviewed also expected to discover an existent relation between the increase in emotion knowledge and high levels of socio-emotional skills. However, only the Head Start REDI program found this relation.

        As the relation between increased emotion competence and socio-emotional skills was not consistent across interventions, results indicate a need for the reevaluation of intervention practices. As a large component of the Head Start REDI program is teacher training, the argument can be made that the less extensive training provided by Emotion Courses (Izard et al., 2008) and PATHS (Domitrovich et al., 2007) are limitations of their programs. These findings are congruent with Head Start teachers’ own expressions of a greater need for training and assistance in the implementation of programming. Therefore, prevention research should focus on the development of interventions that not only foster emotion knowledge, but also teacher training and support.

        Future research might benefit from the addition of a teacher satisfaction measure for educators to indicate how successful they deem the intervention, the ease with which it was implemented, and their indicated level of support and understanding of the intervention. This lack of information for The Emotion Courses and Head Start REDI in the reviewed interventions made it impossible to assess whether or not teachers found techniques feasible and appropriate for the classroom. Additionally, further insight could be gained through studies conducted by individuals other than those researchers who developed the program. As this was the case with PATHS, REDI, and The Emotions Course, there is a possibility of investigator biases and a lacking variety of viewpoints. To ensure efficacy of future studies, researchers might consider embarking on a more in depth longitudinal study to determine longterm rates of success and satisfaction of teachers. At present time, intervention programs are predominately tested immediately after the completion of the program. Quick turnover eliminates the possibility of long-term deterioration of effects and lack of successful implementation of programming by teachers once investigators are removed from the Head Start classroom.

        Additional research should be conducted to assess the efficacy of teacher centered intervention programs in order to establish successful interventions for Head Start children. Identification of these programs might help to close the gap of school readiness between Head Start children and their more affluent peers.


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Author's Biography

Laura Scarola is a senior in the Applied Psychology program. She is a member of Dr. Gigliana Melzi’s research team, the Latino Family Involvement Project, as well as a member of the Applied Psychology Honors program. After graduating, she plans to further her research experience and pursue a graduate degree in psychology.