“I didn’t really want to just study it. I wanted to do something about it.”
That’s Dawn Kriebel, Ph.D., talking about the poverty research she has been doing since she was a grad student. Kriebel, professor and chair of the Undergraduate Psychology Department, decided to do something about poverty by gathering a group of student-researchers to run a kindergarten readiness summer camp at a local Head Start program. This project was a joint venture funded by Immaculata’s Pathways enrichment grants and the Office of Sponsored Research.
In preparation for the camp, Kriebel and her students—Rebecca Viola ’16, Taylor Melfe ’16, and Marisol Alvarez ’16—interviewed parents in both English and Spanish, encouraging them to support their children’s academic development. Kriebel also distributed more than 240 used books, CDs, and puzzles she had collected for the families to read and use at home.
At the beginning of the camp, Kriebel’s student-researchers conducted a baseline assessment of the children’s knowledge of letters, sounds, rhyming, and vocabulary. The Head Start teachers taught the children vocabulary lessons and the student-researchers practiced the new words with the kids at “conversation stations.”
“The goal was to get the kids to talk about something of interest to them,” Kriebel said, adding that this is especially important for children who are learning English as a second language. They need a safe place to practice English, because that’s the language their elementary school teachers will use to teach them.
Some of the children dropped out of the camp or didn’t attend consistently, and Kriebel acknowledged that the smaller pool of participants wasn’t ideal for gathering robust data for the study. But after administering the same academic assessment to the children after the camp ended, the student-researchers were pleased to find that some of the children had improved.
Additionally, the anecdotal data Kriebel and her students gathered from both the children and their parents proved valuable in understanding families’ backgrounds and identifying learning barriers that they face. The parents were happy to receive the books Kriebel gave them, and they said they wanted to do more to help their kids learn.
“But they face a lot of obstacles,” Kriebel said. One mom said she didn’t have a car, which made it hard to go to the library to check out books. Instability can negatively affect children’s learning, Kriebel said. Poor families often move frequently, and the stress of those transitions can cause parents to be less sensitive to and responsive to their children’s needs.
If children feel their needs are not being met, they may have difficulty regulating their emotions appropriately. The link between emotional self-control and learning may not be immediately obvious, but good teachers are well aware of the connection. Kriebel references a study that asked kindergarten teachers what was most important for their students to know before starting school. Instead of talking about the importance of knowing letters, shapes, and colors, the teachers overwhelmingly chose self-control as most important. It’s hard to teach children anything if they are emotionally out of control.
Since this kindergarten readiness camp focused on academic learning, Kriebel hopes to conduct research in the future on the social and emotional benefits of attending preschool—learning to play with others, following directions, self-motivating, managing anger, and other developmental skills.
Even with this project’s emphasis on academics, Alvarez said she still had opportunities to support the children emotionally during the camp. “Those kids looked up to me and my colleagues like we were part of their school family,” she said. When one of the children—a bright, capable young girl—told Alvarez about her fear of moving up to kindergarten, Alvarez reassured her that it would be a good experience for her.
“Our work there was more than a research study. We were making a difference in the lives of those children,” Alvarez said. Participating in this research project helped her to clarify her career goals, and she is considering doing similar work after graduation.
Gaining research experience benefits all of the students, especially those who wish to continue their studies in graduate school. They learned about research ethics, confidentiality, and data analysis, and they “got out of the textbook,” as Kriebel says, putting their classroom knowledge to good use.
Kriebel hopes to continue Immaculata’s relationship with this Head Start program. In addition to the many ongoing ways the IU community is serving low-income people, Kriebel is thinking about other ways to help, possibly through doing a book drive.
“It seems small, but it’s not,” Kriebel says.
She remembers one mom and her little girl who approached the box of giveaway books and saw copies of High Five, a magazine for children ages 2 to 6.
“Mommy, I love them!” the girl said. “And I only see them at the doctor’s office.”
“Well, take them,” Kriebel said. “They are yours.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “I get to keep these?”