KU receives $2.8 million of grant funding to study early childhood development issues

When it comes to punishment for children as young as preschool age, a study shows that African-American students tend to receive more severe discipline than their peers.

But do those students receive harsher punishments because of implicit bias, such as unconscious racial stereotyping? And do those harsher punishments lead to poorer educational performance later on?

That’s what Brian Boyd, director of the University of Kansas Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, wants to find out.

Boyd is the principal investigator for one of two four-year research grants that Juniper Gardens recently received to study issues related to early childhood development. Both research projects, worth $1.4 million each, have the goal of improving educational outcomes for young students.

Boyd said he decided to look into implicit bias’ effects on preschool students after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a study that found a disproportionate number of African-American children were being suspended from preschool.

Although African-American children represent only 18% of preschool students, they made up 48% of preschool students who received at least one day of out-of-school suspensions, according to the 2014 Civil Rights Data Collection report from the department.

“We know there are educational disparities that exist between white students and students of color, and we know those educational disparities start early,” Boyd said. “What we are seeing are these early disparities and more punitive systems can be put in place for children of color and part of this research is to understand if implicit bias is related.”

For the study, Boyd will gather information from preschool classrooms throughout the country, using a measurement for implicit bias created by the University of North Carolina. It will also collect data on students’ educational performance to explore whether implicit bias may be affecting those outcomes.

If implicit bias does turn out to be a factor behind the disparity, the research will then focus on ways to intervene at an early time in student education and development to help counteract those biases, which could help boost educational performance for African-American students.

“That’s why we’re so excited about this grant,” Boyd said. “We have the potential to learn about what is happening early on in children’s schooling so we can start as early as possible to do something about this … We can start early in changing the classroom climate so it’s more conducive to all children.”

In the second grant, Juniper Gardens research professors Kathy Bigelow and Dale Walker will test professional development and coaching methods to help in-home education interventionists implement PC TALK, which is short for Promoting Communication Tools for Advancing Language in Kids.

PC TALK is a program that aims to help increase language-learning opportunities in everyday routines for infants and toddlers who come from households with low socio-economic status or who suffer from or are at risk to suffer from disabilities.

“It’s strategies that become embedded in the daily activities of a child’s life, like waking up in the morning, playtime, getting dressed … all of those daily routines,” she said. “When parents use these, what we find is positive child language outcomes that come from increased opportunities or interactions with the adult and the child.”

Walker said PC TALK is important to helping those students because previous Juniper Gardens research conducted in the 1980s discovered the “word gap,” which showed students who get less language learning in their early development are less likely to be ready to participate in education when they enter the school system. Walker said she later led a follow-up study that found the students with higher language learning performed better in school all the way into third grade.

“Those children who heard a lot of language across their day and had positive experiences in terms of conversation and interaction with their parents and others in their environment did really well when they entered school,” Walker said. “Other children who didn’t have those experiences were already behind in terms of vocabulary development and standardized assessments.”

With this information, Bigelow said the project aims to find new professional development methods to coach early childhood education professionals on ways to provide more language learning opportunities to these children.

“The goal is to give those professionals a toolbox to help parents use these strategies (to increase language learning),” Bigelow said. “The professional development not only teaches them how to do it, but it provides ongoing coaching.”

Walker said the research is another example of Juniper Gardens’ long history of interest in helping early language development and its importance in education and in life.

“We’re really excited about this project because it gives us the opportunity to really test and develop ways we can teach others (the techniques),” she said.

Additionally, Walker said parents who are interested in trying PC TALK tools themselves can find tips and techniques in both English and Spanish listed on the program’s website, talk.ku.edu.

Contact Dylan Lysen

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