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Research: Keys to helping ‘at-risk’ children succeed
Shane Shanks, an employee at the Family Resource Center, takes care of two of the youngest children at the Family Resource Center.

Research: Keys to helping ‘at-risk’ children succeed

According to research conducted by graduate students in PSU's Department of Psychology and Counseling, all children, including so called "at risk" youngsters, perform well when given proper early childhood support.

Educators have known for a long time that a strong predictor of a young child’s early development is a combination of economic and social factors that put children “at risk.” The good news, according to research conducted by graduate students in Pittsburg State University’s Department of Psychology and Counseling, is that given the proper support, so called “at-risk” students perform as well as their peers.

The research was conducted in conjunction with the Family Resource Center, a non-profit organization that provides affordable child care and preschool services to nearly 400 children in Pittsburg, Kan. The results of the study were published this spring in Kansas Child magazine.

Monica Murnan, director of the Family Resource Center, said the work began with a Smart Start grant, using money from the state’s tobacco settlement funds. Murnan said the Center, the only nationally accredited childcare facility in the area, has always operated on the belief that all children, regardless of their social or economic status, can succeed if given support. The research, she said, was an opportunity to validate that belief and to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies and investments in staff training.

“From 2005-2009, the Center teamed with Pittsburg State University to create a graduate assistant position to help with the Smart Start project,” said Dr. Jan Smith, director of PSU’s clinical psychology program. “Graduate students were involved in assessment, data collection, and communicating with teachers. In addition, the graduate assistants provided essential training to teachers in use of the assessment tool.”

The assessment tool used to measure and track child development over the five-year period was the Assessment, Evaluation and Programming System (AEPS). The data from the AEPS testing was used to target classrooms or groups needing improvement and also to focus staff training.

The results were encouraging.

“Using assessment data to provide feedback and inform teaching activities produced highly successful outcomes,” Smith said. “Children who have been identified as at-risk often exhibit developmental delays compared to other children their age. However, AEPS assessment data revealed that this was not the case for at-risk children involved in the Center’s Smart Start efforts. During the five-year period, almost all children at the Center, including those who were identified as at-risk, met or exceeded anticipated developmental progress.”

In fact, Smith said, 95-100 percent of the children met or exceeded developmental expectations in most areas assessed.

“It is especially significant to note that many children who were in danger of experiencing developmental delays actually exceeded developmental progress typical for children their age, regardless of their socio-economic status,” Smith said.

Murnan said the research at the Center offers an important lesson for educators and lawmakers.

“The big picture of it and probably the most important lesson to take from the research,” Murnan said, “is that if you invest in the people who work on a day-to-day basis with children, it will pay off in achievement.”

Smith agreed, saying that screening, assessment and staff training all take extra dollars. “However, as the Center clearly has shown, that time and money are investments that really pay off in terms of promoting developmentally appropriate practice to further the health and wellness of our children.”

A second lesson, according to Murnan, is that the “at-risk” label should not be considered a predictor of how well a student will actually do, given the proper support.

“It’s not just about at-risk kids,” Murnan said. “I believe every kid is at risk in some way. The key is providing caring, well trained support at a developmentally and educationally critical time in children’s lives. If we do that, children succeed.”

The research proved to be valuable not only to the Center, Smith said, but also to the graduate students who worked on the project.

Ashleigh Horton, who is now a school psychologist, said she uses some of what she learned almost daily in her work for the Barton, Dade, Jasper Counties Special Education Cooperative in Missouri.

“It allowed me to become accustomed to working with children, along with becoming more familiar with assessment tools and data entry and analysis,” Horton said. “These activities have proved to be essential components of my work as a school psychologist.”

Tara York, who was a contract therapist at Youthcare of Oklahoma until recently moving to Overland Park, Kan., said the research project helped her improve her communication skills.

“I ended up doing quite a bit of parent education and this is always helpful information to have to either ease parents’ minds of where their child is developmentally or help them understand the gap between where the child is and where other children are at the same age and find appropriate resources to close the gap as much as possible,” York said.

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