Rudasill studies effects of temperament on early childhood achievement

Kathleen Rudasill
Kathleen Rudasill

Some preschoolers listen to the teacher as others tune her out. While some stay within the lines, others color outside them. Some play by themselves; others share toys. And though some sit still, others fidget endlessly.

Collectively, Kathleen Rudasill sees these routine activities as a window into the emerging personalities of young children — one that potentially offers new perspectives on helping those from difficult backgrounds reach their potential.

Rudasill, an associate professor of educational psychology, has launched a study to determine how the temperaments of disadvantaged children influence their early academic performance. She’s also exploring whether positive classroom environments can lower the risk of academic hardship that often hounds these children, many of whom come from low-income, single-parent households.

Rudasill noted that the inherent challenges of growing up in poverty often mean that children enter preschool lacking the skills of their more privileged peers. Temperaments that require more attention from teachers and caregivers, she said, only multiply the already significant developmental risk facing impoverished children.

“There are many resources in places like the [preschool] Head Start program and regular K-12 environments to support children from low-resource homes, but these kids may also be temperamentally more demanding because things are more difficult at home,” Rudasill said. “Their parents may have less time to spend with them and don’t have many resources, so these children don’t have as many support systems [as their peers]. Yet we really don’t understand much about temperament in impoverished populations.”

The study received funding from the American Educational Research Association and the National Science Foundation.

Using data that followed more than 1,200 4-year-olds from Head Start through kindergarten, Rudasill will examine how the children’s literacy and math outcomes correlate with four temperament traits: attention, impulse control, sociability and activity.

Rudasill said she anticipates that greater attention, impulse control and sociability could predict better academic scores, as these traits may contribute to children focusing on classroom activities, persisting in the face of difficult tasks, and handling potential distractions. In contrast, preschoolers who rate lower on measures of activity might adjust more easily to the rigors of the classroom and feel less overwhelmed than their higher-activity classmates, she said.

After analyzing the impact of preschool temperament on kindergarten literacy and math skills, Rudasill will turn her attention to the influence of “classroom processes” — namely, the levels of instructional and emotional support provided by Head Start teachers. Though she will examine the standalone impacts of this support, Rudasill said she’s especially interested in whether higher-quality classrooms can help overcome the potentially detrimental influences of traits such as shyness or hyperactivity.

“There is very little research looking at temperament as it plays out in the classroom,” said Rudasill, who’s conducting the one-year study with James Bovaird, director of the Statistics and Research Methodology Unit at UNL’s Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools. “We know that kids’ temperament characteristics play a role in their academic achievement and their social outcomes, but we really don’t know how the classroom may buffer or explain that mechanism.”

Learning more about these factors, Rudasill said, could serve as an important step in raising their prominence among educators.

“We’re different from the second we’re born, but we often don’t teach individuals about how this may play out in their interactions with others or their way of handling classroom situations,” said Rudasill. “My argument has been that we need to teach teachers that this is a real source of diversity in children. And we cannot simply generalize children based on characteristics such as gender or socio-economic status.”

According to Rudasill, fostering communication between parents and teachers could help both better understand — and accommodate — the role of temperament in each child’s education and development.

“A teacher isn’t going to necessarily pick up on the same things parents do, because parents see their kids in different environments,” Rudasill said. “Similarly, a teacher’s going to see a child in situations that parents never do. Opening up a dialogue could be very useful, and hopefully our research can help encourage that.”