Foundations of Learning Project


Low-income children too often begin school without the basic behavioral, emotional, and cognitive skills that they need to thrive academically — putting them at an immediate disadvantage and contributing to the large gap that develops in school achievement between low-income children and their more affluent peers. States and localities are responding by making major new investments in early childhood education and child care programs. In this climate, policymakers and program administrators face a fundamental challenge: to build and protect program quality at the same time that they expand the size of the preschool system.

Much public attention has focused on boosting the educational components of preschool. Until recently, however, less notice has been paid to a more basic challenge: dealing with children’s problem behaviors in the classroom. Preschool teachers in low-income neighborhoods report that between 15 and 20 percent of the young children in their classrooms exhibit clinically high levels of disruptive and challenging behaviors. In fact, a 2005 study from the Yale Child Study Center reported that rates of expulsion from preschool are even higher than in the later elementary years, with 10 percent of preschool teachers expelling at least one child in 2004. Disruptive children spend less time on classroom tasks, receive less instruction from teachers, grow to like school less, and attend school less often than their more emotionally well-adjusted peers. Children with behavior problems can also disrupt their peers’ chances for academic success by distracting teachers away from teaching to manage poor behavior in the classroom.

Many early education settings for low-income children are particularly ill-equipped to deal with these problems because they receive relatively low levels of training and technical assistance in this area. In addition, there are few rigorous studies about how to address children’s problem behaviors in the classrooms that provide the kind of definitive information needed to guide policy and practice for preschool education. The Foundations of Learning Project sought to address this challenge.


Agenda, Scope, and Goals

MDRC’s Foundations of Learning Project builds on the growing evidence that providing support to teachers around proactive classroom management can provide the underpinning for a high-quality and effective preschool experience. Working in partnership with preschool programs in Newark, NJ, and Chicago, IL, Foundations of Learning was a large-scale test of a model that has produced promising results in small-scale studies where it has helped to resolve the severe behavioral problems of a small but influential subset of preschool children. Early interventions to address seriously disruptive behavior in the preschool years can reduce the likelihood of later behavior problems — and the associated labeling stigma and negative consequences — when children enter elementary school.

The Foundations of Learning Project uses a two-pronged program model:

  • Professional Development: Teacher training on effective classroom management strategies that promote children’s positive behavior; and
  • Classroom Consultation: on-site clinically trained professionals who reinforce the intervention by consulting with teachers and providing individualized clinical services to children identified as being at greatest risk.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The program model was evaluated by analyzing participating preschool classrooms assigned randomly to two different research groups: one receiving teacher training plus the classroom consultation and a second serving as control-group classrooms that used their regular approach without any special enhancements. This rigorous design allowed MDRC to assess the benefits and the costs of this integrated model. Key outcome measures include assessment of children’s behavior and cognitive development in preschool, as well as their progress in elementary school. At the classroom/teacher level, key outcome measures include independent observations of classroom climate and teachers’ reported confidence about classroom management skills.

Foundations of Learning operated in 51 Newark preschool sites (26 program sites and 25 control sites) in the 2007-2008 school year, following a pilot with 17 Newark sites the previous year. In Chicago, 40 classrooms were a part of the study during the 2008-2009 school year.