Research Spotlight: Tina Smith-Bonahue

Q & A with Tina Smith-Bonahue, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

How can professionals working in early childhood settings use authentic, culturally relevant strategies to improve outcomes for vulnerable children? My research seeks to address this question through two lines of inquiry.  One line examines how teachers and other care providers can structure authentic and play-based interactions that promote social and emotional competence and critical thinking in young children. The second line of research explores how teachers and other early childhood professionals can ensure that their work is culturally relevant through meaningful partnerships with families.

What makes your work interesting?

In the past 20 years or so, researchers, policy makers, and even the general public have become aware of the tremendous potential for early education to have a long lasting impact on high-risk children’s developmental outcomes. With this increased attention, high stakes testing and methods to ensure accountability are being applied to preschools, changing and challenging the way we think about early childhood. Similarly, state-funded preschool programs have a mandate to focus on pre-academic and school readiness skills. As a result, studies suggest that time for play is on the decline in preschool classrooms. Since years of scholarship also tell us that play is essential for children’s well-being, finding ways to ensure that play has a place in preschool classrooms has become part of my research agenda.

As more and more children, particularly children from under-resourced communities, have the opportunity to participate in structured preschool experiences, ensuring that these environments are culturally relevant and family-friendly becomes a challenge. When teachers engage families effectively as partners in their children’s learning and development, everyone benefits. But for teachers who are overwhelmed by accountability demands and the day-to-day demands that come with caring for young children, engaging families can seem like a daunting task.

What are you currently working on?

Working with colleagues and graduate students here and at another university, I’ve spent the past several years examining how helping in-service teachers make sense of the diversity among the families of the children they serve. We were also interested in identifying professional development strategies that improve teachers’ ability to engage families in meaningful ways in their classrooms. Our next projects extend this work by examining preservice teachers’ beliefs about diverse families and what kinds of pedagogical strategies best prepare them to form true partnerships with the families of the children they will serve. Of course, understanding the perspectives of professionals is only half the equation in school-family partnerships, so I’ve recently begun a project with our local Head Start to gather data from parents to determine which parent engagement strategies work well, and what barriers prevent them from partnering with their children’s teachers.

Another research team and I have been analyzing the literature on play in early childhood for the past 10 years. Based on this analysis, we will explore teachers’ understanding of the role of play in children’s learning and early education. We’ve also just completed a project examining the effectiveness of children’s literature for teaching very young children emotion vocabulary and social problem solving. We hope to learn specific strategies for using authentic literature to promote social and emotional growth in very young children with developmental disabilities.