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Background and rationale

Children’s first years in school are fundamentally important for their later learning.

Success in the early years of school has implications for future achievement in school and beyond, as has been well documented (e.g., Doherty 1997; Kurdek and Sinclair 2000; Lonigan 2006; Snow 2006). Early school success has been linked to the abilities, behaviours and attitudes that young children bring with them as they enter school for the first time (Denton & West 2002; Ladd 2003; Lonigan 2006; Rathburn & West 2004; Rouse, Brooks-Gunn and McLanahan 2005; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2003; West, Denton & Reaney 2001). Information about where Canadian children stand on these dimensions as they begin their school careers can provide important insights for developing educational policies and practices in the country.

Dimensions of readiness to learn at school
Demographic factors in readiness to learn at school
Home environment and readiness to learn at school
The present study

Dimensions of readiness to learn at school

Defining school readiness has been controversial for many years. In 1991, the National School Readiness Task Force in the United States produced a report that redefined school readiness as a concept that goes beyond the academic, to include social and emotional components (Vernon-Feagans and Blair 2006). That report included as dimensions of school readiness not only the collection of abilities, attitudes and behaviours with which a child enters school, but also the environmental and family support available for the child; the quality and practices within schools and classrooms; and the broader society as a whole. Contemporary education researchers and policy analysts continue to develop definitions of school readiness that go beyond the skills and dispositions of children at school entry. One recent formulation of school readiness with a broad, ecological perspective identified a set of indicators of school readiness that included measures from three domains (Graue 2006): family and community support (health care and physical development, family resources, early care and education, community conditions); receptive schools (teacher training, school policies and environment, policies regarding student behaviour, classroom characteristics); and the child. Other approaches have focussed more specifically on the concept of ready schools, that is, schools that are prepared to support readiness to learn in children. Some of these approaches have emphasized different aspects of classroom social processes that promote development (e.g., Ladd, Herald and Kochel 2006). Others have taken a transactional perspective, looking at interactions and transactions among people and institutions (child, peers, teachers, parents) as critical for readiness (Dickinson 2006). The controversy over what readiness is and how to measure it continues (Vernon-Feagans and Blair 2006).

In the present report the focus is on the readiness of children to learn at school. School readiness at the level of the child has been defined in many ways. The definition used here is that of the School Readiness to Learn Project at the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University: school readiness is defined as the ability of the child to meet the task demands of school (Offord Centre for Child Studies 2004). This definition includes not only the ability to learn the material being taught, but also the ability to behave in a way that allows the child to learn.

Most jurisdictions have described readiness to learn at school in broad terms. The National Education Goals Panel (NEGP) in the United States, which was created in 1990 to assess and monitor progress towards national education goals in that country, adopted a definition that included five dimensions: health and physical development; emotional well-being and social competence; approaches to learning; communication skills; and cognition and general knowledge (NEGP 1997). This conceptualization has been used as a framework for research on school readiness by many researchers, educators and policy advisors.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education in 1993 confirmed the appropriateness of a broad definition of school readiness. The survey asked a large sample of public school kindergarten teachers how important certain characteristics were for a child to be ready for their classes (Heaviside and Farris 1993). The survey found that the teachers described school readiness in comprehensive terms. In addition to physical health, more than 84% of them rated being able to communicate needs, wants and thoughts as essential or very important, while being enthusiastic and curious was rated highly by 76%. Classroom skills like following directions, not being disruptive, sitting still, taking turns, and finishing tasks were other dimensions of school readiness that were important for teachers, while the least important domains for them were the more academic skills, like problem-solving, alphabet knowledge, and counting.

Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten (ECLS-K; Lin, Lawrence and Gorrell 2003), also conducted by NCES, supported this view of school readiness by kindergarten teachers. The study found that another sample of kindergarten teachers placed a strong emphasis on communication ability and classroom social skills, with far less focus on knowledge of colours, letters and numbers, and other more academic aspects of learning. In recent years, however, studies have found an increased focus on pre-academic skills on the part of teachers as important in school readiness (see Snow 2006).

Recent work has emphasized the importance of self-regulation for school readiness. For example, Normandeau and Guay (1998) used a scale that assessed children’s cognitive self-control, defined as the ability to plan, to evaluate, and to self-regulate one’s problem-solving activities and one’s attention to the task. They found that cognitive self-control was positively related to their achievement in the first year of school. Blair (2002) proposed a neurobiological model of the development of self-regulation in young children, and proposed that this development was directly linked to school readiness, supporting his theoretical model with examples drawn from the clinical and research literature. Self-regulation may play direct and indirect roles in school readiness. The Early Child Care Research Network of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reported on a study of attention processes in young children and the role they may play in mediating between home environment factors and school readiness (NICHD 2003a). They found that both sustained attention and self-control of impulsive behaviour in preschool children mediated the links between family environment and school readiness.

The present study is based on a framework that includes the various domains of readiness to learn at school identified by earlier researchers. This framework, which is described in more detail below, incorporates the recent focus on self-regulation, both self-regulation of impulsive behaviour and cognitive self-control of learning.

Demographic factors in readiness to learn at school

Differences in readiness to learn between girls and boys have been reported in several studies. For example, the first report of a national study of 22,000 kindergarten children in the United States, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K), found that girls outperformed boys on early reading measures, social skill indicators, fine and gross motor skills, activity and attention levels, communication skills, task persistence, and eagerness to learn (West, Denton and Germino-Hausken 2000). Income differences in readiness to learn have been well-known for over 40 years in North America. The Head Start program in the United States was founded in 1965 to promote school readiness among preschoolers in low-income families, in an attempt to bridge the known gap between children from poor families and those from more privileged home situations (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2003). The ECLS-K report cited above found important differences in school readiness linked to family risk factors that included low parent education, single parent status, and low income. Lee and Burkam (2002) found an achievement gap in reading and math for poor students at kindergarten entry, based on an independent analysis of ECLS-K data. The present study examines readiness to learn differences between girls and boys and between children from low income and higher income households, in an attempt to clarify these links among Canadian children.

Home environment and readiness to learn at school

Researchers have identified factors in the family environment of children that contribute to readiness to learn, including the nature of parent-child interactions and the degree of cognitive stimulation in the home. Children who experience positive interactions with a nurturing, involved parent have been found to have better school and social outcomes than others (e.g., Connell and Prinz 2002; NICHD 2003b; Mashburn and Pianta 2006; Pettit, Bates and Dodge 1997). For example, Pettit, Bates and Dodge (1997), in their longitudinal study of over 500 children entering kindergarten, found that their measures of parental warmth and positive involvement were linked positively with academic performance and social skills in kindergarten. Children who are read to and otherwise receive cognitive stimulation in the home also tend to succeed in the early school years (e.g., Brooks-Gunn and Markman 2005; Hill 2001; Kohl, Lengua, McMahon et al. 2000; Whitehurst, Falco, et al. 1988; Sénéchal and LeFevre 2002). Children who participate in group activities like sports, physical activities, and other learning activities are more likely to be ready for school than less active children (Manitoba Department of Health 2005).

The home environments of children may differ according to their sociodemographic situation, which may in part account for differences in readiness to learn between demographic groups. For example, parents in lower income families who experience higher levels of stress have been found to be less warm and nurturing in their parenting activities than others (Pettit, Bates and Dodge 1997). Similarly, reports based on data from the ECLS-K showed that children in higher risk households (lower income, low parent education levels) are less likely to be read to on a regular basis than others (e.g., Nord, Lennon, Liu, and Chandler 1999). Children living in lower income, higher risk neighbourhoods that have fewer community resources are less likely to be involved in early group recreational and learning activities and tend to have poorer cognitive outcomes (Manitoba Department of Health 2005). A large body of research reports on preschool interventions for low-income children that have increased readiness to learn at school among these groups (e.g., Ramey, Campbell, Burchinal, Skinner, Gardner and Ramey 2000; Reynolds and Temple 1998; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2003)These intervention studies have demonstrated that early childhood education projects can reduce the gap in readiness to learn and subsequent school achievement between disadvantaged groups and other children.The present report looks at links between home environment and readiness to learn for different demographic groups, to examine whether differences are partly explained by home environment factors.

The present study

The present study uses a comprehensive framework drawn from the research literature to study readiness to learn at school in Canadian 5-year-olds. It looks at many of the demographic variables and environmental factors that have been reported as being important for readiness to learn. The report presents an overview of readiness to learn at school in Canada, and investigates the following specific research questions:

  • Are there differences in readiness to learn between demographic groups?
  • Do home environment variables predict readiness to learn, and if so, do they explain differences between children at different income levels?
  • When do differences in readiness to learn between demographic groups develop?

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