New Research: Why We Should Listen to Preschoolers

New Research: Why We Should Listen to Preschoolers

Terri Sabol and Andrea BusbyEarly childhood researchers assistant professor Terri Sabol (l),and research assistant Andrea Busby

Early childhood policies could be vastly improved by listening to the unexpectedly wise voices of those who stand to benefit: children as young as four years old, according to new Northwestern University research published in Translational Issues in Psychological Science. 

The study, “A critical gap in early childhood policies: Children’s meaning making,” argues that breakthroughs in technology and make it possible for researchers to measure the insights of younger children.

“Young children can and do make meaning about broad macrolevel social systems, and they can connect this meaning to themselves, which has direct implications for research on early childhood policies,” said lead author Terri Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy.

In the past, researchers rarely consulted children between the ages of 4 and 8 because they were considered unreliable narrators. Children often don’t have the necessary attention span or ability to fill out long questionnaires. Meanwhile, they may have trouble responding honestly to adults they don’t know or trust, especially for sensitive questions

But Sabol and her coauthors, Andrea Kinghorn Busby (PhD21), former research assistant at the Institute for Policy Research who is transitioning to assistant professor in the School of Family LIfe at Brigham Young University; and Marc W. Hernandez, principal research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago, developed a new measurement tool that allowed them to study whether kindergartners can understand a colleges savings account.

Their results indicated that the children understood either what college was or what they might do in college, a “first step toward assessing young children’s meaning making at scale using technology-assisted measurement tools,” they wrote.

The lack of children’s voices about their experiences related to early childhood interventions–at a time of increasing investment in public policies for young children “represents a missing link in understanding what parts of the program are working and not working and may highlight missed targets of opportunity,” they wrote. “Systematically analyzing how children make meaning of interventions and policies could be in turn shared with key stakeholders to improve the policies designed for them.”

Mounting research suggests that young children are more insightful than we previously thought, especially when interviewers use child-centric language, mirror children’s intonations, storytelling, or puppets.

The Berkeley Puppet Interview, which was developed in the 1990s, uses puppets to conduct structured and clinical interviews that assess children's perceptions of themselves, their families, and their school environments. 

Sabol’s team adapted the Berkeley Puppet Interview to digitally administer the assessment and apply it to their study of an early intervention policy, the City of Oakland’s Kindergarten to College (K2C) program.

Working with computer programmers, they developed the Childhood Assessment Tool-Electronic (CHAT-E). On a tablet, two animated characters made opposing statements, such as “school is fun” and “school is not fun.” The child would be prompted to touch the character on the screen that was most like them.

The researchers also created a new questions about college, creating a scale called the Kindergarten Student College Savings Account Scale to assess whether younger children can understand the concepts behind college and saving money. 

Despite early challenges implementing the program, 92 percent of the children were able to provide a plausible explanation for either what college was or what they might do in college. The youngsters indicated that college was a school for adults or teenagers and a place to learn that required hard work. “A place you go when you pass all the grade levels” one child said according to the study. Only a small percentage indicated that they did not understand the concept of saving money.

“Tablet assisted tech offers a promising method to assess children’s meaning making at scale while retaining the rigor of person led assessments,” they wrote. “Researchers should take advantage advances in technology couple with breakthroughs in psychological science in assessing younger children’s meaning making."







By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 6/3/21