UMMS researchers examine how preschoolers develop social, emotional skills

By Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

January 15, 2014

Carole Upshur, EdD

A research team from UMass Medical School led by Carole Upshur, EdD, is studying how children learn social, emotional and executive functioning skills in preschool, thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences.

Dr. Upshur, professor of family medicine & community health, and Melodie Wenz-Gross, PhD, research assistant professor of family medicine & community health, will conduct a four-year, $889,000 per year study following children into kindergarten to determine whether the Second Step Early Learning curriculum makes a difference in school readiness. In all, more than 60 Central Massachusetts classrooms in six local preschools and Head Start locations, and about 2,000 children and families will be involved over the four years.

The Second Step curriculum incorporates lessons on social skills development and problem solving, while simultaneously focusing on executive functioning skills such as attention, working memory, regulation of focus and problem solving. Executive functioning skills are thought to be more important to learning than even general intelligence. Second Step was developed by a Seattle non-profit that creates curricula addressing social and emotional issues, school bullying, and safe-touch programs for preschool and school-age children.

“The identification of executive functioning skills and how they regulate brain development is being studied in the field of neuroscience and represents the cutting edge of knowledge about what skills are essential to human learning,” said Upshur. “Often these skills are poorly developed in young children who have disadvantaged home environments, but the good news is they can be successfully taught. It is thought that development of such skills actually rewires the brain to function better in a learning environment.”

The current project will be the first large scale evaluation of the relatively new Second Step Early Learning curriculum nation-wide. Classrooms will be randomly assigned to use the curriculum or to continue with their regular preschool activities. Children from all classrooms will be assessed to evaluate the impact of the new curriculum.

This project grew out of an earlier National Institute of Mental Health study of the impact of a previous version of the Second Step curriculum, for which Upshur and Dr. Wenz-Gross reported a significant improvement in the quality of the classrooms as well as some positive changes in children’s behavior.

Now that Second Step curriculum includes aspects derived from the latest findings in neuroscience about brain development in young children, the UMMS team is excited to continue its research on early childhood social and behavioral development.

“We’re committed to documenting the feasibility of implementing the Second Step curriculum in a wide range of community child care programs and whether it has the anticipated impacts on improved school readiness skills for young children,” said Wenz-Gross.