Oregon State University logo

Video: HDFS student studies ways to improve children’s school readiness

“I hope to help these kids do better in school and have an overall healthy life”

Playing games may be fun and exciting for young children – but researchers have found they also can be academically beneficial.

Human Development and Family Studies PhD student Sara Schmitt is finding out just how much.

“One of the primary studies I’ve been involved in here at OSU is trying to develop a screening tool that parents, teachers and researchers can use to see how ready kids are for school in terms of their self-regulation or self-control skills,” she says.

Lead by Sara’s mentor, HDFS Associate Professor Megan McClelland, Sara has been working on two large studies. One, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, focuses on developing a screening tool for young children that will help prepare them for school entry. The other is an intervention to help children practice the skills they need to be ready for kindergarten.

Sara Schmitt“In both of those projects, Sara’s been an invaluable part of our research team,” Megan says. “She’s a graduate research assistant and has worked just unbelievably well with parents, teachers and all of our staff.”

Sara always knew she wanted to work with children in some sort of capacity, but it wasn’t until she joined an AmeriCorps team that she realized how she would do so.

“As an AmeriCorps volunteer, I worked at a homeless shelter and taught preschool classes there as well as tutored school-aged children,” she says. “It was at this point that I realized that these kids were really behind, both behaviorally and academically, and I knew that I wanted to devote my career to researching ways to help children from disadvantage.”

Her work as a volunteer was the perfect training for her current research at the child development laboratory.

“We can take this knowledge and develop interventions that we can take into the community, particularly communities that may have children at risk for poor developmental outcomes,” she says.

Sara Schmitt

The types of skills Sara studies include a children’s ability to pay attention, to persist on tasks, to remember instruction and rules, and to inhibit responses. An example of this is remembering to raise their hand rather than blurting out an answer.

“We primarily play really fun games with the kids that allow them to practice these skills,” she says.

One game they play is the red light/green light game. First, Sara asks them to play in the traditional way, where red means stop and green means go, but then she adds and changes rules. By doing so, children have to adapt, remember, pay attention and abide by the new rules.

Another game Sara plays is a variation of “Simon Says” – or in her case, “Sara Says.” In this game, children perform the action asked of them when Sara says “Sara Says,” and to not perform the action when she doesn’t say “Sara Says.” The point of this game is to help kids stop, think and then act.

“What we learn from this work is where kids are at in terms of their school readiness,” she says. “What we can do with that is provide interventions for children who are really struggling with these skills.”

In a recent study, Sara and her team of researchers played these games at a school over a course of eight weeks. They found that kids who participated in the games did better at the end of their preschool year.

Sara Schmitt

Sara and her team also provide parents and teachers with a list of games in hopes that parents will play with their children at home and teachers will use the games in the regular classroom setting as a way to prepare kids for school.

“Not only do I want to continue this pathway of research and try to figure out ways to help kids from at-risk backgrounds, but I’m also looking forward to engaging undergraduates in my work, teaching them how to work with children in school settings, how to parent in successful ways, and to promote whatever career that they want in child development,” she says.

Sara says her graduate training is setting the stage for her future as an academic and that she would like to turn this pathway of research into a faculty position in a university setting.

“I think Sara has enormous potential to be such a successful researcher and teacher,” Megan says. “She and all of our graduate students here in HDFS have just received such excellent training in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences to form a foundation for a really successful career.”

“Promoting school readiness for children at-risk not only helps them do better in school, but lays the foundation for a healthy and successful lifelong trajectory, which means the world to me,” Sara says. “I think about those homeless kids I worked with back in the AmeriCorps year and I just know that they needed so much more support than I could offer. I hope to continue to do this work and help these kids do better in school and have an overall healthy life.”