Enhancing preschool children´s attention, language and communication skills: An interdisciplinary study of socio-emotional learning and computerized attention training

Hillevi Lenz Taguchi

Research area: Learning-Brain-Practice: transdisciplinary studies in communication, language and literacy in preschool

Funding source: Swedish Research Council - Vetenskapsrådet (VR)
Period: 2015-2018

Keywords

preschool learning, socio-emotional learning, attention, language skill, communication skill

Purpose and aim

The aim of the proposed project is to examine, compare and test how socio-emotional learning practices and  computer program-oriented practices in Swedish preschools affect children’s attention, social understanding, language and communication skills. These data are further correlated with “geographical socio-economic belonging” and the sex of the child.

This interdisciplinary project uses well-tried intervention methodologies from pedagogy, language skill estimations from linguistics, and cortical measurements from cognitive neuroscience. The results can – if conclusive in any one direction – have deep impact on pedagogic skills hence taught and used, as it will be one of the first evidence based studies on preschool children in Sweden.

The Swedish preschool curriculum (Lpfö10) calls for the development of children’s social and communicative competences, attention span, cooperation and problem-solving, together with the development of empathy, compassion and respect for different ways of thinking (Ibid.). Moreover, the curriculum advocates investigative learning strategies where children’s own interests and desires to learn are stimulated and documented, followed and evaluated.

The use of pedagogical documentation as a communication tool for learning and evaluation in preschool is recommended by the National Agency for Education (2012). These widely used practices in Sweden correspond in profound ways to what has been endorsed by governments in North America, U.K., Australia and New Zealand as the most efficient teaching strategies to enhance children’s academic and future development: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL applies a similar kind of ‘whole-child-perspective’ that guides the practices of investigative learning, involving social and aesthetic skills as well as democratic fostering (Katz et. al. 2013; Lenz Taguchi 2010). Social-emotional learning (SEL) practices have emerged in the intersection between social-neuroscience and education, as strategies to foster the child's self-awareness, self-management and attention skills, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. These competencies, in turn, are expected to provide a foundation for better adjustment and academic performance as reflected in more positive social behaviors, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress and improved test scores and grades (Morrison Gutman & Schoon 2013; Payton et al., 2000). There are, however, other practices in use in preschools, claiming to have the same or similar effect on some core socio-emotional skills. Among these we find computerized attention training programs for cognitive development, such as Cogmed JM (www.cogmed.com/educators). There is a substantial body of research supporting the claims that Cogmed can enhance working memory, attention and learning.
However questions have also been raised regarding the validity of the program (Shipstead et al., 2012). A critical discussion recently highlighted the potential value and output of some of the dominant approaches to learning in preschool (Eidevald 2013; Emilsson & Pramling Samuelsson 2012; Lenz Taguchi 2011). However, to validate Social-Emotional Learning practices in comparison to other methodologies claiming to have the same or similar effects on children’s socio-emotional skills, SEL needs be investigated in situ and compared to ‘competing’ practices.

The purpose of the proposed project is to address different approaches to preschool education using well-tried methodologies from pedagogy, linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. By intersecting educational and psychological knowledge acquired from practices emphasizing SEL-skills with knowledge gained from linguistic studies of language development and neurocognitive testing of attention and semantic processing, we will be in a unique position to describe, verify or dismiss specific impacts of a specific pedagogical practice.

Our hypothesis is that children who take part in the intervention practices of SEL show a higher degree of observed and tested attention, social understanding, language and communication skills than children who either participate in computer program-oriented practices or receive no intervention at all (controls). Differences in the same skills, we hypothesize, will result in different tolerances to the experimental manipulation of attention by social or non-social means and semantic demands. Furthermore, an assumption is that the difference in results will be more significant for children from preschools in disadvantaged areas (in particular for boys) than for those from schools in more socio-economic privileged areas.

The research questions are: Do children who are exposed to supervised SEL-practices specifically aimed at training basic socio-emotional skills develop attention, social understanding, communication and language skills to a significantly higher degree than children who have followed an alternative computerized attention training program or those who have not been exposed to any of these practices at all? Also, are there any differences between boys and girls and between children from different socio-economic areas?

The research design involves a two year long setup with two kinds of interventions (A) and (B) and ‘untreated’ controls (C). The study will include six preschools in a large municipality outside Stockholm with distinct socio-economic and ethnically diverse housing areas (hence GROUP X, Y).

Some 140 children aged 3-5 years and their teachers will be involved in the study. The data consists of

  1. pre and post intervention tests measuring communicative abilities in all groups,
  2. observational records of didactic practices used during intervention (or non-intervention) in all groups,
  3. event related potential (ERP) brain responses to sound stimuli recorded post intervention in a subset of children from all three groups.

Collaborators

Department of Child and Youth Studies

Department of Linguistics

www.ling.su.se

More collaborators

  • Annika Andersson, Lund University
  • Helen Neville, Eric Pakulak, and others, Brain Development Lab, University of Oregon

In Swedish

"Hjärnvägar i förskolan", Förstärkning av förskolebarns uppmärksamhets, språk och kommunikationsförmågor: En interdisciplinär studie av socio-emotionellt lärande och datoriserad uppmärksamhetsträning