Student Researcher Aims to Give Kids a Boost in School

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 Ph.D. student Sara Schmitt is finding out just how much.

“One of the primary studies I’ve been involved in here at Oregon State 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.

Games provide a way to test children's readiness for school. (Photo: Heather Turner)
Games provide a way to test children's readiness for school. (Photo: Alan Calvert)

Led by Schmitt’s mentor, Associate Professor Megan McClelland, Schmitt 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.

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

Schmitt 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 would like to create a standardized test to see how prepared children are for school. (Photo: Heather Turner)
Sara Schmitt would like to create a screening tool to see how prepared children are for school. (Photo: Alan Calvert)

The types of skills Schmitt studies include 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 a 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, Schmitt 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 Schmitt says “Sara Says,” and don’t perform it 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 adds. “What we can do with that is provide interventions for children who are really struggling with these skills.”

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

The researchers also provide parents and teachers with a list of games in hopes that parents will play with their children at home. Teachers could use the games in the classroom 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,” Schmitt says.

Ph.D. student Sara Schmitt is in the Oregon State Dept. of Human Development and Family Studies. (Photo: Heather Turner)
Ph.D. student Sara Schmitt is in the Human Development and Family Studies program at Oregon State. (Photo: Alan Calvert)

Schmitt’s graduate training is setting the stage for her future as an academic. She would like to turn this pathway of research into a faculty position at a university.

“I think Sara has enormous potential to be such a successful researcher and teacher,” McClelland 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,” Schmitt explains. “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.”