Building on theories of how children’s development unfolds, researchers and practitioners have created a new generation of classroom-based strategies that are specifically designed to improve children’s social-emotional competencies. Three basic theoretical approaches have been emphasized. In one approach, children are provided with very specific hands-on activities and lessons to build their knowledge of emotions and their ability to consider alternative solutions when faced with a conflict with a peer. In a second approach, teachers are trained in specific behavior strategies that support the social-emotional development of preschool children — for instance, praising children for socially competent behaviors and setting clear limits on children’s behavior. In a third approach, children are supported and “scaffolded” by teachers to accomplish more highly regulated classroom behavior through pretend play. However, the majority of these programs have been tested only in single cities, with programs highly motivated to take up the intervention, and with training and technical assistance provided under the direction of senior academic researchers. Never have multiple social-emotional programs been tested on a national level in the context of a federal initiative.
Head Start CARES (Classroom-based Approaches and Resources for Emotion and Social skill promotion) is a national research project sponsored by the Office of Head Start and the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families. The project is designed to test the effects of three evidence-based social-emotional program enhancements in Head Start settings. Using a group-based randomized design, this study used a lottery-like process to randomly assign 104 Head Start centers from metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas across the country to one of three differing social-emotional enhancements or to a “business as usual” comparison group. Two or more classrooms were invited to participate from each center. In each case, teachers were trained in the new approaches and then provided with coaches who helped them implement the new strategies in their classrooms. At the end of the research study, comparison group centers were given the opportunity to be trained in one of the new social-emotional approaches. This rigorously designed study on a nationally heterogeneous set of Head Start centers and classrooms will provide information that federal policymakers and Head Start programs can use to increase Head Start’s ability to improve the social-emotional skills and school readiness of preschool-aged children.
This study has the potential to dramatically improve our understanding of: (1) promising approaches to building children’s social and emotional development, (2) the processes by which the largest and most sustained effects on children’s social and emotional development are likely to occur, and (3) the features of Head Start settings and families that contribute to successful implementation of these program models.