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Ready. Set. Go.

December 14, 2011


Ann Masten.

Child development professor Ann Masten is researching ways to help homeless and highly mobile children get ready for kindergarten.
Photo: Dawn Villella

Helping homeless and highly mobile kids prepare for kindergarten

By Gayla Marty

At a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis, about 100 preschool children learn and play every day.

The classrooms and study space are clean and colorful. In one room, a 4-year-old completes fun, simple tasks on a computer, touching the screen to learn how it works. Upstairs, a group plays Simon Says. Down the hall, children sit quietly, practicing deep breathing.

The goal of these mental exercises is to improve what's known as executive functions, a set of skills that predict school success and resilience  in children. In an earlier time, such skills might have been called self-control. These "tools of the mind" develop along with the prefrontal regions of the brain and improve markedly between the ages of 3 and 7.

"To do well in kindergarten, you need to be able to listen to the teacher, follow instructions, and resist the temptation to get distracted, run around the room, or hit the child next to you," says University of Minnesota child development professor Ann Masten, who collaborates with the shelter staff. "To learn anything, you have to have some control over your own behavior and attention."

The staff doesn't have much time. The average stay for a family at People Serving People is only 38 days. About a third of the guests are 5 or younger—the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.

Nationwide, nearly a million schoolchildren experience homelessness each year, with many school districts reporting increases since the economic crisis began. In Minneapolis Public Schools, 8.3 percent of all enrolled children were identified as homeless or highly mobile over the course of last year. States and school districts face the task of keeping vulnerable children from falling behind.

As a group, children without permanent homes score much lower in reading and math than children with more stable housing. By sixth grade, they test no better on average in reading and math than children in third grade from stable and relatively advantaged households. Yet many children are resilient.

"There are children from recently homeless families with multiple risk factors for development who are doing well in school," says Masten. "It's astounding."

Along with executive function, parenting skills are the second factor that Masten has found to predict resilience in children. What's more, these two protective factors appear to be related and malleable.

Since the late 1980s, Masten has collaborated with community partners in research on the homeless and highly mobile population in the Twin Cities. People Serving People and Mary's Place are two of the largest family-focused shelters in the upper Midwest. Both are just minutes from the Twin Cities campus. The partnership has grown to include several of Masten's faculty colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students, and University staff, working alongside staff from local schools and community organizations.

In July Masten and fellow Institute of Child Development faculty members Philip Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson were awarded a three-year grant from the National Center for Education Research. Their task is to develop an intervention to build executive functions as a strategy for improving school readiness, learning, and early school success of homeless and other highly mobile preschoolers. Preliminary components were developed with local support from the Sauer Children's Renew Foundation.

Parents play a big role. They are learning ways to promote executive function in their children so learning doesn't stop when they leave the shelter. One popular example is taking time to play thinking games like Blink, a card game for young children that requires flexible sorting by shape or color.

Once the intervention is developed, it will be piloted at other sites. Such a fast, precision tool promises to bring relief not only to highly mobile families but to teachers, classrooms, and school districts.

"The idea is to give the children a timely boost," says Masten. "We think that if they get off to a better start, we could generate a positive cascade."

Adapted from a story by Greg Breining in CEHD Connect magazine, summer 2011. Read the full story.

Tags: College of Education and Human Development

Related Links

College of Education and Human Development

Institute of Child Development

Ann Masten

Philip Zelazo

Stephanie Carlson