August 9, 2019

4-VA Researchers Support Young Virginians’ Successful Start to Preschool

Experts have long recognized the complex interrelationship of a preschoolers’ attachment to their caregivers and successful adjustment to school.  Without a positive introduction and adaptation to the school setting, preschoolers may fall victim to bullying. Those behaviors can have a significant effect on these young students for years into the future.

For more than a dozen years, preschool peer victimization has been the research focus of Mason’s Dr. Pamela Garner, a Professor of Childhood Studies in the School of Integrative Studies.  Garner recognizes there is much to be understood about creating constructive introductions in the school setting. However, she is also keenly aware of a key flaw in the data used in the benchmark research – it is predominantly limited to students who are economically advantaged.

Garner saw an opportunity to expand knowledge about economic disadvantages by demographics in an existing exhaustive data set of more than 100 Head Start students which included personal interviews, teacher observations, and professional observations of behaviors.  Garner argued that this data could allow a deeper look into prosocial behavior, social problem-solving and friendship-building skills and other forms of peer-related social competence broken out by income level.

Many hurdles existed to analyze the data including access to advanced statistical models and the resources necessary to code and score the data.  Along with those challenges, however, she also saw an opportunity to look closer at the data by collaborating with researchers from other 4-VA institutions. One such researcher, Dr. Julie Dunsmore, a member of the faculty at Virginia Tech, provided a perfect partner for a collaborative research grant.

Several months later, with that grant in hand, Garner identified an undergrad student, Tamera Toney, who was interested in the project and would be able to handle some of the data entry and management responsibilities.  Toney worked on the project during her senior year at Mason.  Garner saw that the 4-VA funding could provide a personal and professional pathway for Toney to enhance her studies. Toney recently graduated and will return in the fall to begin her master’s work in Psychology.

Meanwhile, Garner reached out to Dunsmore.  “I was very familiar with her work, and she was familiar with mine.  We had published something together many years ago, but I’ve been wanting to work with Julie again – she has vast statistical expertise and has done some very sophisticated modeling of data.” The 4-VA grant was just the ticket to enter into this collaboration.

“This 4-VA grant allowed us to take a comprehensive look at the data and ask more complex questions about associations in parenting, peer victimization and school adjustment among low income preschoolers,” says Garner.

“The long-term outcome of this research includes a richer understanding of ways to improve or assess students’ social-behavioral competencies and teacher practices that support them,” explains Garner.  “Over time, we hope this understanding will improve student academic achievement and successful progression through school.”

Garner already sees this grant as a steppingstone to move in two important developments: publication in a major early childhood education journal (one paper has already been submitted and is under review) and, get further external funding to expand data collection and analysis.

The consequences of their work could be dramatic, as positive peer interactions and relationships at this early stage can impact a wide range of consequences much later in life – everything from forming positive health habits to attaining higher education to interactions with the criminal justice system.

Garner, Dunsmore and their teams of students at Mason and Tech agree:  the research was a heavy lift, but they are proud to be part of this important work.  Concludes Garner, “This was great work, and it was great to be able to work with Julie again. I’m confident this will lead to more collaboration – and a growing friendship – between us!”

Janette Muir, Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason, explained, “4-VA was pleased to support this social science research that impacts how we can lift up the youngest citizens in the Commonwealth.  This is a great example of the important impact we can make.”