Kindergarten Project aims to increase student success during critical first years of school

February 14, 2013

Imagine a shy kindergarten student without any prior schooling experience coming into a classroom for the first time. Experiences that first year can be incredibly important, as they shape the stage for future educational expectations and outcomes.

“Kindergarten could very well set up the way that students perceive school from that point on,” said Jodi Swanson, assistant research professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “A large proportion of children don’t experience any pre-schooling. They go from no schooling whatsoever to academic rigor.”  Download Full Image

The Kindergarten Project at Arizona State University is a comprehensive research endeavor that explores the critical role that early school experiences play in students’ lives. According to the project’s website, the goals are to integrate classroom-level research with the voices of educators, families and communities, to collaborate with legislators and teacher-training programs and to enact policy changes that support teachers in the classroom and the long-term success of students.

“We expect there’s something different about kindergarten, something that makes it unique from preschool or elementary school that has to do with locking kids in to loving learning early – or not – based on their experiences in that first formal classroom,” Swanson said.

The Kindergarten Project researches students’ early years of education by considering a variety of factors, such as teachers’ professional training and life experiences, and how learning is influenced by classroom processes such as classmates’ social skills and ability to self-regulate behavior. The project is also an outreach effort that will examine teacher needs and connect them through an online community.

Three interconnected research initiatives comprise The Kindergarten Project:

The Transition To Teaching (T3) initiative follows teachers from their undergraduate experiences in early education through their student-teaching work with a mentor teacher, to first years in their own classrooms. Approximately 530 participants receiving teacher training through the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU are current participants in the ongoing study that reports not only on teachers’ classroom experiences, but on their own lives and how influences such as temperament, stress, social support and depression affect them in the classroom.

Researchers plan to follow the teachers through their fifth year of teaching, allowing them to highlight characteristics and circumstances of highly effective teachers.

“Identifying characteristics and real-life influences that can explain why teachers vary in effectiveness is important for understanding how to help children succeed academically,” Swanson said. 

Preliminary research data from T3 indicate that teachers who report high levels of daily hassles in home, work, money or health report lower levels of coping, which predicts a lower sense of teaching efficacy (how well they perceive their own classroom success).

In addition, T3 encompasses a new diary project. Initial participants are 11 first-year teachers, who reflect on issues such as relationships with parents, sources of support at school, and high and low points of teaching for the week, across their first year in the classroom. Researchers have plans to introduce other means of measuring key variables, including physiological measures of stress and classroom happenings in real-time.

The Classroom Competence Composition (C3) initiative is based on the hypothesis that classroom configurations (e.g., collective personality characteristics, academic preparedness, behavior) influence teacher practice and children’s early learning experiences. Expanding on existing classroom research, C3 focuses on processes and mechanisms such as teacher-student and peer interactions that are harder to measure, but meaningful to a child’s experience. Researchers will examine how the composition of a class influences instructional, social and managerial interactions as well as children’s developmental and academic outcomes.

“We are moving beyond the demographic composition of the classroom and capturing the social, emotional, behavioral and personality characteristics of kindergarten students,” said Tashia Abry, assistant research professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. “Examples include children’s social skills, self-regulation, temperament and how much they like school. Data from multiple sources, including teachers, parents, students, classroom observations and school records will help paint the picture of the ways in which composition relates to teacher and child outcomes.”  

Pilot data will be collected this spring from up to 15 classrooms from sources including videotaped observations, direct assessments with children, standardized achievement tests, and teacher and family surveys. Researchers plan on tracking how teachers respond and adapt to various classroom compositions across multiple years. Findings may show if there is a “tipping point” in which some classrooms don’t realize their potential because the particular makeup of students tilts the classroom in a particular direction.

“Tipping points are likely different for different types of teachers. That’s why we’re collecting the breadth of data that we are, so we can draw conclusions based on multiple facets of teacher and child characteristics,” Abry said. “Maybe the composition of the class leads a teacher to spend a lot of time on classroom management instead of instructional activities, resulting in less learning time. We hope our findings will be a resource for schools, informing ways that classrooms can be configured to optimize success.”

The Starting School Successfully (S3) initiative aims to provide evidence-based resources – partly informed by T3 and C3 – to a wide array of kindergarten stakeholders: kindergarten teachers, school administrators, students, families and policymakers.

“The field of education is currently in a huge transition. Right now you find a lot of teachers looking for strategies and parents looking for answers to help kindergarten students succeed,” said Mary Anne Duggan, assistant research professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

Researchers are conducting an Arizona kindergarten teachers’ needs assessment, called the “Voices of Arizona Kindergarten Teachers,” to discover what teachers would benefit from in training, professional development and improving the classroom environment. Connecting people who care about kindergarten through Facebook is another facet of the project. Anyone with an interest in kindergarten can join the S3 listserv by emailing to learn about research and other news from The Kindergarten Project.

“We’re really trying to build a community of people who care about kindergarten," Duggan said. "Many kindergartens used to be half-day, and children’s social and emotional development during the transition to formal schooling was an important part of the curriculum. Now kindergarten is a full-day operation and the academic expectations are much higher for the children. Kindergarten is almost like the ‘new first grade.’

“The eventual goal is to publish a book for teachers on how to help children start school well and offer a workshop for teachers.”

Feedback thus far from teachers has been positive.

“We’ve heard, ‘I’m so glad someone is going to hear my voice. It goes back to who I am as a teacher,’” Swanson said. “Sometimes they feel like a number.”

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First-of-its-kind video game prepares future educators

February 14, 2013

Much is being made over the explosion of video games in the classroom to teach a future generation of K-12 students. But what about the future teachers who will be teaching them?

At Arizona State University, education students are reaching into their virtual future with the click of a mouse to test their teaching skills in typical school scenarios. Playing the video game is part of a first-semester course requirement for undergraduate students in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Focused on professional success, the video game is being played by 277 teaching students in 396 field experience courses at the university this semester.   Download Full Image

“This cutting-edge preparation for future teachers is the first of its kind in the nation,” said Mari Koerner, dean of Teachers College. “Our students may have grown up with technology, but using it to role play as real-life teachers is something new.

“The game is used to enhance their experiences in real classrooms. Our students practice in the virtual world, so they can be more successful in the real world.”

“Teacher Leader: Pursuit of Professionalism” is the first in a series of interactive, three-dimensional video games being designed by the Sanford Inspire Program and ASU’s Center for Games and Impact. Field experience educators and clinical staff recognized the importance of preparing novice teachers with the professional skills they need to be successful in the workplace. Content for the game is rooted in Teach For America’s professional values.

As this initial version of the game is implemented in ASU classes, educators and staff are evaluating its success. The public is invited to the official launch of the video game at 8 a.m. March 26 at ASU SkySong in Scottsdale. Those interested can register at This fall, a second video game featuring a different topic but also directed toward teacher candidates is expected to be rolled out.

An ASU student playing “Teacher Leader” first creates a student teacher avatar, selecting the color and style of hair, clothing and shoes. Next, the avatar encounters a couple of scenarios at school and the student has to respond. One scenario involves an uncomfortable situation with the student teacher’s mentor, while the other addresses being diplomatic in the teachers’ lounge. That evening, the avatar must choose how to spend time preparing for the next day’s lesson. The student is scored as he or she plays, with choices having consequences later in the game as the avatar implements the lesson plan.

“It’s a different application compared to how we normally are taught,” said Marcy Steiner, an ASU student from Peoria, Ariz. “With the video game, you can see how your decisions shape your image as a teaching professional. There are options that are good and options that are better. It really makes you think.”

During the lesson, teaching students receive immediate feedback on their performance in various situations based on four areas or competencies. The professional competencies were adapted from the Teach For America teacher preparation curriculum:

• Suspending judgment – identifying moments when they might be unfairly judging someone

• Asset-based thinking – consciously seeking out the positive aspects of a person or situation

• Locus of control – focusing on what is within their own ability to control

• Interpersonal awareness – recognizing the limits of their own perspective and trying to understand the viewpoints of others

At the same time, the course is designed so that instructors can build on lessons learned through the video game as part of their classroom instruction. Teachers also can access data on student progress and decision-making.

At the end of the game, the students receive their scores and get a chance to re-play the game so they can improve their responses, Koerner explained.

“The game-based technology allows these students to take their teaching for a test drive, even make mistakes, without causing negative consequences they might experience in a real-life situation,” she said.

The partnership that created the video game underpins a broader effort to refine best practices in teacher education. The end goal is to improve America’s public schools. Known as the Sanford Inspire Program, funding comes from entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, who invested $18.85 million in 2010 to launch the Teachers College-Teach for America partnership. The program has garnered national attention for its innovative approaches to preparing teacher candidates. More information is available at

Despite its effectiveness in readying future teachers for the classroom, the new technology will not take the place of traditional methods anytime soon, Koerner said.

“It’s not replacing, it’s not instead of,” she said. “It’s enhancing how we teach our students to become professionals.”