Published May 21, 2019
Jamie Ostrov, professor in the Department of Psychology, has received a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to examine the critical developmental and educational transition children make when moving from pre-K to kindergarten.
The five-year study, funded by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, will use advanced techniques to measure stress and better understand the role of early family and peer adversity in the development of school readiness.
“We know that children who do well with this transition are able to set the stage for academic success throughout their lives,” says Ostrov, an expert in subtypes of aggression and victimization, and peer relationships. “While those children who struggle to make the transition create the beginnings of a negative legacy that’s hard to avoid.”
Previous research has examined how family adversity affects school readiness, but the current study will holistically consider the dynamic of adversity by adding peer relationships to the research picture while also testing for levels of the stress hormone cortisol through non-invasive saliva and hair analysis.
The saliva test serves as an indicator of recent stress levels, while the hair analysis provides an index of stress exposure extending months into the past.
The data will provide researchers with new insights into the pathways of school readiness.
“I’m particularly excited about testing how neuroendocrine functioning, that is the stress system, may mediate some of the links between peer and family adversity and school readiness,” says Ostrov. “We want to know if these factors are ‘getting under the skin’ of children and leading to a dysregulated stress system that might be responsible for the problems they have with this school transition.”
Ostrov, who was a member of an expert panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Education Department that developed a uniform definition of bullying, will jointly serve as the project’s principal investigator along with Dianna Murray-Close, professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont and an expert in psychophysiology.
The research results will have educational, clinical and policy implications that can inform interventions and prevention efforts for those areas with the greatest negative influence on school readiness.
“Peer relationships and peer problems that arise in pre-K can set in motion a cascade of factors that impact this positive or negative transition into school,” says Ostrov.
In addition to the stress-level testing, the researchers will assess school readiness through various domains, including academics, social behavior and executive functioning — the ability to control and self-regulate behavior.
“Within the peer domain, we’re looking at experiences of victimization, specifically, children who are hit or kicked by others or are excluded from interactions with others, as well as peer rejection and friendlessness,” says Ostrov. “With family adversity, we’ll be examining demographic risks like single-parent status and low family income, but we’ll also look at inconsistent punishment, harsh parenting strategies, guilt induction, love withdrawal threats and other aspects of that constellation of practices leading to adversity that set in motion these bad outcomes.”
The project will also examine positive peer behaviors (e.g., prosocial behavior or sharing and helping others) and supportive parenting factors (e.g., warmth and being responsive to their child’s needs) that may protect children during this important time.
Ostrov says the research will begin in the fall with the first of four groups consisting of 100 participants each.
“We’re looking forward to beginning this research and working with the child care centers and schools, many of which we have worked with for years,” he says. “But we’re also excited about the opportunity to work with school districts to follow these children into kindergarten.
“In the end, we will have a better idea of what these children require to be ready to succeed in school.”