UNCG Research

Right from the Start

UNCG researchers look at the early years and their crucial role in healthy development


Posted on Thursday, December 15th, 2016 by UNCG Research.
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a spring 2016 UNCG Research Magazine feature

The best foot forward. It’s what we all want for our children in those first few years. But, the question is — how do we get there?

Nationally and locally, debates rage. It’s difficult to find consensus on the best way to educate our children or even prepare them to be educated. One thing we can be sure of? It’s no simple task. It will require a lot of work and collaboration to get it right.

UNCG is leading the way. Here, researchers have investigated — sometimes for years — what it takes to make sure children are healthy and ready to learn. And, now, investigators are combining their knowledge, resources, and networks to meet these challenges directly.

Faculty and staff, from the UNCG Department of Human Development and Family Studies to the UNCG Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships, conduct basic research, translate research into evidence-based practice, and help create local, state, and national educational policy. As they reach out to families, help towns and cities identify and intervene with struggling children, and teach professionals vital skills for the classroom, these investigators have one goal in mind — giving every child the right start.

“We take what we glean from research and teaching and put it together to make a difference. That knowledge shouldn’t remain in the academy,” says Dr. Chris Payne, director of the Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships. “It’s our mission to work for the greater good of our community.”


With over $8 million in R01 and R03 funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, the RIGHT Track study has followed its child participants from ages 2 to 19. Photo by Mike Dickens (child pictured not a participant).

The importance of emotion regulation

Calkins examines early social and emotional development

Although school carries an inherent focus on grades, academic ability isn’t the only factor determining whether a child is actually classroom-ready. Another key indicator is whether he or she can appropriately regulate emotions, says Dr. Susan Calkins. “The more structured preschool and school environments present a unique set of challenges to children — challenges that require emotional readiness.”

If you visit the Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) professor’s lab while her team collects data, you’ll observe children singing, counting, or playing games. Others might be crying and flailing fists. They’re expressing a wide range of emotional abilities, dependent on their age and experiences.

While some children control their impulses by employing various learned strategies, others lack these skills and have trouble delaying gratification or managing frustrating tasks. Their negative emotional responses indicate immature emotional readiness.

“Being able to manage emotions is critical for academic achievement, school readiness, and mental health,” Calkins explains. Without emotion regulation skills, children can’t establish positive student-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships. If they can’t express themselves or manage their feelings in age-appropriate ways, they also risk social rejection. “If children don’t master emotional regulation, they face challenges for years to come.” … read more


Dr. Esther Leerkes, center, is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

How parents help kids succeed

Leerkes examines impact of parenting on early child development 

Healthy emotion regulation is imperative for children to achieve school readiness, but of course they can’t do it alone. Parents must be involved, points out HDFS professor Esther Leerkes. And, at every step, parents must provide age-appropriate guidance or children won’t internalize the correct skills.

“The quality of parenting matters. We know that how parents respond when a child is upset can help children learn to regulate their emotions — which in turn affects their early cognitive development and school readiness,” she says. “We also know if children struggle emotionally, they are more likely to struggle academically.”

Inside Leerkes’ lab, parents and young children are completing a treasure hunt. They must find the best route for a bear to cross a body of water and reach a prize on an island. While the child’s goal is getting to the treasure, the research team’s objective is to determine how differing parenting styles affect a child’s emotional and cognitive abilities and early readiness for school.

The kids and adults are participants in the School Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) project. With over $6 million in funding over the last decade from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Leerkes and her collaborators are following over 500 children from age 4 to the first grade … read more


Illustration by Jenna Schad

Child care program quality and teacher support

HDFS researchers help NC parents make important child care choices 

In laying the foundation for school readiness and a lifetime of success, we know that quality of parent-child interactions and the home environment is critical. But quality in other child care environments, including preschools and child care centers, is just as crucial.

It’s important for parents to know what an early childhood program offers, how effective their teachers are, and where the curricula are strong. In 1999, HDFS faculty Dr. Deb Cassidy, Dr. Linda Hestenes, Dr. Sharon Mims, and Dr. Steve Hestenes began collaborating with the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education to help parents make these important choices.

Their long-running N.C. Rated License Assessment project, which has received over $50 million in funding, rates child care programs throughout the state — currently over 7,000 programs. Of these, 45 percent of child care centers and approximately 11 percent of homebased programs have earned the top, five-star rating.

The N.C. Rated License Assessment project is just one of many ways UNCG is helping improve the overall quality of child care and education statewide … read more


Redacted from “Right from the Start,” a spring 2016 Research Magazine feature by Whitney L.J. Howell.