The foundations of learning are laid during the first seven to eight years of life. Basic brain development does not stop at the end of preschool or the start of kindergarten, but continues at least through second grade. Another way to think about it is that children learn to read by second grade or so, and then, after that, read to learn. Thus, elementary school encompasses two critical phases in the development of children.
Less advantaged children face a higher likelihood of entering kindergarten with shortcomings in basic cognitive and social-emotional skills. They are also more likely to have underdeveloped executive function – the basic brain-based memory and thinking skills that undergird learning and support the self-regulation necessary to pay attention and follow rules in a classroom. The stress of poverty and family instability, anxiety, and lack of physical fitness can impair activity in that part of the brain where executive function is centered, leading to difficulties with learning. If nothing is done to correct for these gaps, the result can be delaying, and sometimes permanently weakening, the foundations needed for education.
Failure in elementary school is difficult to overcome later in life, making success in kindergarten through fifth grade essential for all children. Of the roughly 16,000 Sangamon County children in elementary school, an estimated 4,000 (25 percent) are less advantaged.
Reading Is Essential
The one cognitive skill children most need is the ability to read and understand what they read. Nearly all subsequent academic learning requires reading proficiency. Research provides compelling evidence that children should be able to read at grade level by the end of second or third grade in order to proceed through school at the normal pace after that. School curricula become increasingly more demanding from one grade to the next, and children who can’t read find themselves falling further and further behind.
A number of supplementary reading programs have been tested and found to be effective, to varying degrees, in the first three years of elementary school. A series of evaluations, for example, has found that Reading Recovery, a widely replicated program that used to exist in District # 186 but was suspended for budgetary reasons, can produce significant improvements in general reading achievement among struggling readers in first grade.
Recommendation 13: The school districts in Sangamon County should review and, based on the documented needs of their kindergarten, first, and second grade students, give serious consideration to adopting one of the supplementary reading interventions with substantiated evidence of effectiveness. Support for improving the reading ability of struggling young students should be a priority for funding.
The early years of grade school are also an opportunity to bolster reading among at risk students during the summer, when children are prone to lose some of what they learned during the preceding school year. Annual book fairs, in which low income children receive free books to read during the summer break, have proven to be a cost-effective way to minimize learning loss.
Recommendation 14: Local support should be generated to finance annual book fairs, through the schools, to provide free summer books for less advantaged kindergarten, first, and second grade students. This effort could build on the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, the local version of which is funded by the United Way of Central Illinois for preschool students.
The Importance of Executive Functions
Reading requires the executive functions of working memory (the amount of information held in the mind at one time) and inhibitory control (preventing irrelevant information from interfering with comprehension). Children who have difficulty reading are apt to have trouble performing these functions. This provides a strong argument for being more deliberate in trying to develop the executive functions of elementary school children. In the first years of elementary school, children respond well to games and activities with rules, which exercise executive function and self-regulation skills. Executive function and self-regulation continue to develop through the remaining years of elementary school as games and activities become more complex.
Recommendations 15: Steps should be taken to educate elementary school teachers and out-of-school professionals involved in the education and development of children about the essential role of the executive functions of the brain in learning. Teachers and other professionals should be encouraged to incorporate executive-function-promoting activities as part of what they do to help children learn.
Developing Social and Emotional Skills
The promotion of executive functions goes hand in hand with social-emotional development. Combined, they represent the ability to regulate oneself and relate appropriately to others, skills without which learning is difficult. Public schools in Sangamon County use the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program (PBIS) effectively to teach students good behavior. For students with greater needs, the MOSAIC initiative, launched in 2011 and led by the Mental Health Centers for Central Illinois, has shown promising early results in improving the identification and treatment of children with social-emotional problems.
Recommendation 16: MOSAIC represents an important commitment to the social-emotional well-being of at risk children, a commitment that should be sustained and expanded as evidence of MOSAIC’s effectiveness develops.
The development of executive functioning and self-regulation may also be an opportunity for more effective engagement of parents in their elementary school children’s education. Studies show that disadvantaged parents tend to be less optimistic about their children’s education, sending signals that may negatively influence the motivation of children to learn. When teacher and other professional interactions with parents are limited to student performance in academic subjects or classroom behavior, parents, with limited education themselves, may feel at a disadvantage. They may be less able to engage in productive discussion about steps they could be taking to support their child’s learning.
Consequently, it may be worthwhile to supplement these discussions, which are often necessary, with discussion of activities that can happen in the family, and are not dependent on the parents’ education level, to help elementary age children practice their executive function and self-regulatory skills. Such discussions may be most effective when they occur in the neighborhood or home rather than the school or agency office.
Recommendation 17: Elementary schools in the county should establish methods for more effectively engaging less advantaged parents in supporting the educational development of their children. In designing methods, thoughtful consideration should be given to what families can do to help their children develop their executive function and self-regulatory skills and to connect with parents where they are comfortable (home or neighborhood).
Out-of-School Support for Less Advantaged Children
Less advantaged children are more likely to come from families with a single parent, and it is often more difficult for these families, when acting alone, to provide the range of support that their children need to advance educationally. Mentoring, when done the right way, has been found to be effective in bolstering the efforts of disadvantaged single parents. Mentoring that fosters close, enduring relationships with children, like that done through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, can contribute to better academic performance and reduce behavior problems. Mentoring programs that fall short in cultivating strong relationships are not just less effective but can do more harm than good.
Recommendation 18: The community should get fully behind the expansion of demonstrably effective mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters, so that all local children who could benefit from a mentor have a mentor.
Much of the time, mentoring occurs outside of school, including in the period immediately after school. The after-school period is an important opportunity to reinforce positive behavior and learning. Research shows that after school programs, when well-designed and implemented in coordination with schools, can be successful in improving reading and math and promoting good behavior. In particular, one-on-one tutoring is a useful way to help elementary school students with reading, and small group instruction a useful way to help them with math. These instructional activities may be particularly effective when situated in a context which is less structured than the typical school classroom and which puts more emphasis on active learning of the kind associated with the development of executive function (e.g., reading or solving math problems as part of a game).
Springfield is home to a number of after-school programs, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers operated by Boys and Girls Clubs and the Urban League, and Compass, operated by the Family Service Center for homeless children, both in cooperation with District #186. Though not rigorously evaluated yet, these programs, which reach around 1,000 grade school students, have shown encouraging results.
Recommendation 19: Local after-school programs that have given indications of being effective should be expanded to accommodate more of the less advantaged children who could benefit from their services. A commitment should be made to helping these programs develop practices that will enable them to continue to improve in quality and effectiveness.
Collaborating on Improvement
A commitment to ongoing improvement and better results for children should not be limited to after school programs but serve as an overall goal for the K-5 period which unites parents, schools, and nonprofit organizations that work with this population.
Recommendation 20: Local stakeholders in child development during the elementary school years should have a common strategy for improving academic and behavioral outcomes for less advantaged children and a way to coordinate the activities arising from this strategy with respect to individual children. Parents, teachers, and nonprofit staff should be able to see how their various efforts to help a child learn and develop reinforce one another.