Dr. Ursula Johnson
Dr. Ursula Johnson

Understanding how to provide children with an early foundation in school readiness skills is critical, as many states estimate that half of their students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, arrive at kindergarten already far behind where they need to be to succeed in school.

In order to learn more about how to best prepare young children for school success, the Administration of Children and Families, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has awarded a $2.5 million research grant to the Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Dr. Ursula Johnson, assistant professor of pediatrics with the Children’s Learning Institute, said the grant-funded research project will adapt two research-based parent and teacher interventions developed at the Children’s Learning Institute, PALS and BEECH, to examine the benefit to low-income infants’ and toddlers’ language, cognitive and social-emotional development as well as self-regulation skills.

“We will determine whether raising the quality of parent and teacher responsive behaviors across both the home and Early Head Start center-based classroom settings result in an added benefit to children’s learning and development, compared to no intervention in either setting,” Johnson said. Early Head Start is a federally funded program that serves low-income pregnant women and children from birth to age 3, a counterpart to the preschool Head Start program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Johnson is the principal investigator on the project. Dr. Bethanie Van Horne, is the co-principal investigator, and Drs. Janelle Montroy, Cathy Guttentag, Jeff Williams, and Cheng Hsien Li, will serve as co-investigators.

PALS, which stands for Play and Learning Strategies, is a preventive intervention program used to strengthen the bond between parent and child and to stimulate early language, cognitive and social development. The program is facilitated by a trained parent educator who coaches the parent(s) in using the specific techniques demonstrated via videotaped examples of real parents and children.

BEECH, which stands for Beginning Education: Early Childcare at Home, is a web-based professional development system specifically designed for home child care providers. Available in English and Spanish, BEECH includes 20 learning modules that focus on teaching providers to support the socio-emotional, cognitive, language, literacy and mathematics development of young children.

The home and school interventions adapted for this project include web-based training courses with remote coaching and in-person group meetings that help caregivers develop a responsive interactive style contingent to children’s needs and interests, along with rich language input.

More than 330 infants and toddlers from 55 Early Head Start classrooms in Houston and San Antonio will participate in this five-year study. The project’s researchers will analyze data and develop a sustainability kit to support future Early Head Start center-based programs and child care centers to easily implement the interventions in both settings.

Johnson said they expect that participation in the home and school interventions will result in greater gains in teacher and parent interactive behaviors. “These behaviors, in turn, will impact early school readiness skills,” she said. “Children who begin school with adequate school readiness skills are more likely than their less prepared peers to have later academic success, have higher levels of education and better job opportunities.”