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The Classroom Competence Composition Study (C3) examines the ways in which the make-up of the early elementary classroom affects student outcomes and teacher practice. The influence of the classroom context, including teacher-student relationships, on student outcomes is widely acknowledged. However, much less is known about how the compositional structure of the classroom affects student development and even less is known about how the classroom composition influences teaching behavior.
As an example, a small body of existing research, as well as anecdotal knowledge, indicate that classes with a high proportion of children who have difficulty regulating themselves, paying attention, or who are not prepared to make the transition to formal schooling, present a challenge to teachers and their peers. In this classroom, child behavior may be influenced directly through modeling and social learning. Additionally, such a classroom likely affects students indirectly as teachers spend disproportionately more time managing behavior or academic issues, resulting in less time devoted to normative grade-level instruction.
Kindergarten and early elementary education is a critical period of child development. Children's classroom context and experiences with teachers in the early years have been demonstrated to affect achievement and social competence at least through middle school. This, combined with evidence pointing to the relative stability of children's behavioral and achievement trajectories over time, suggests that the experiences transpiring during early schooling set the stage for lifelong learning habits. As a result, children may be especially susceptible to the influence of their peers during this time, which could have long lasting impacts on a child's developmental trajectory.
For all of these reasons, we have developed the C3 study to answer important questions about how classroom composition influences students and teachers in the early years of formal schooling.
In spring of 2013, our research team conducted C3 data collection with 175 children and their 11 teachers from regional kindergarten classrooms. This cross-sectional data includes direct assessments of children's academic and self-regulatory capacities; teacher surveys on personal, classroom, and individual child characteristics; parent questionnaires; classroom observations; and school records. Analyses are currently underway.
Understanding the relations between classroom composition and children's academic and developmental outcomes holds the potential to yield immediate and important implications for school policy. In an era focused on standards, accountability, and test scores, a better understanding of peer effects may provide schools with "low hanging fruit" to leverage as they work to improve student's learning and behavior. In other words, simple changes in the ways schools assign students to classrooms – a relatively easy and inexpensive intervention – could reap untold rewards in the form of improved social and academic adjustment.
We are looking ahead to an expanded longitudinal data collection in approximately 80 classrooms that will also include indicators of children's social networks and salivary biomarkers of stress for both teachers and students.