Photo by Alexis Jenkins
Walk into any classroom at the University of Maryland’s Center for Young Children (CYC) and students ages three to five years old are exploring their world. Some may be found sitting in the play area, pretending be doctors or teachers, while others are coloring, cutting and painting at an art table. Every so often a child walks past the mirrored wall, tugging at her hair or wiping his nose. Behind the mirror, a different kind of learning is underway. College students are viewing the scene through a window, taking notes.
The CYC is a full service preschool and kindergarten that doubles as laboratory school for observation and research.
“We work closely with the faculty and students in the College of Education,” said Leslie Oppenheimer, curriculum and enrollment director. “Sometimes, classes are taught here and we provide space for classroom observations.”
Most of the kids at the CYC are children of university faculty, staff and students. When parents enroll their preschooler, they are required to sign a consent form granting permission for observations. This enables students to discreetly view uninterrupted class time. They can also eavesdrop on children’s conversations and interactions through headphones that pick up audio from various parts of the classroom
Dr. Geetha Ramani, an Assistant Professor in the College of Education, requires students in her child growth and development class to log hours of classroom observations for projects and assignments.
“The CYC is definitely a good resource,” said Ramani. “Some of my students have only had experience with older students so it’s a good opportunity."
From October to November 2014, there were over 300 observations. The CYC strives to accommodate all students.
“We can support about 10 to 15 students each morning,” she said. “Some professors ask for 30 minutes, and some ask for one to two hours; we have to balance that.”
Laboratory schools in the U.S. took root in the 1930s when John D. Rockefeller traveled to Germany and observed how much the country valued preschool education, according to the center’s director Dr. Fran Favretto. Rockefeller began giving funds to land grant institutions such as the University of Maryland to establish laboratory schools. While the school is privately funded, it remains an active part of the university community.
Besides providing future teachers a window into early childhood education, the CYC also serves as a site for a large amount of academic research conducted by faculty and graduate students from the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology and the Linguistics Department.
“We’ve had research done on temperament, motivation, conflict resolution and social competence,” said Favretto. “We try and serve as a venue for these studies.”
Researchers must first gain approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), an ethical review board that oversees research proposals involving humans. Once they have submitted this to Favretto and she approves the study, parents are sent consent forms.
“Parents are very willing to have their children participate,” Favretto said. “We are dealing with a very educated parent population so they are eager to learn and contribute to research.”
Dr. Melanie Killen, professor of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology has conducted much of her research on social and moral development at the CYC.
“At the beginning of the year the school has a parent’s night where we will have a presentation,” she said. “Often time parents will call me and ask questions; it’s a way of giving them a sense of it.”
Once Killen gets a list of children that have been given parental consent, she sends her undergraduate and graduate research assistants to conduct 20-minute interviews with the children.
“We require research assistants to conduct observations in advance so that children are familiar with them and know that they are part of the study,” Killen said. “We try and establish rapport with the children.”
Killen usually tries to sample over 100 students, and sometimes will venture to other preschools as well. Killen and her team collect and analyze the data, and share preliminary observations with parents and teachers.
“I still send a report back to the school and parents giving them an idea of what we found,” she said. “It’s important for the researchers to give information back.”
Killen says the CYC is an invaluable resource for conducting research and educating student research assistants as well.
“It’s very important for training undergraduates to learn about research methodology,” she said. “The CYC offers the opportunity to have an active community of researchers and scholars.”