UB psychologist receives major grant for pioneering study on school readiness

Release Date: January 27, 2021

Portrait of UB psychology researcher Jamie Ostrov.
“In the end, we will have a better idea of what hurts and helps as children transition to formal school. ”
Jamie Ostrov, professor of psychology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Jamie Ostrov, a professor of psychology in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, has received $426,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to examine the factors associated with school readiness as children make the important move from pre-k to kindergarten.

The three-year study, funded by the Developmental Sciences program of the NSF, will use advanced techniques to measure the nervous system and better understand the role of early family and peer adversity in the development of school readiness.

The project is among the first to examine how positive and negative peer behaviors — like sharing, helping others and aggression — and parenting factors, such as warmth and being responsive to a child’s needs, as well as harsh and inconsistent discipline, can influence school readiness.

“We want to understand how peer experiences get under the skin and impact children’s overall well-being and adjustment to school,” says Ostrov, an expert in subtypes of aggression and victimization, and peer relationships.

“Understanding the processes that allow children that are biologically reactive to thrive is really an exciting opportunity for us to learn more about resilience, and may suggest ways that we can alter the environment to support positive development for children that may typically be at-risk for poor outcomes.”

In addition to measuring heart rate and other physical responses when participants watch a video clip of a children’s TV character being both excluded and included by peers, the researchers will assess school readiness through various domains including academics, social behavior and the participants’ ability to control and self-regulate behavior.

Ostrov’s work also breaks new ground by systematically testing “Biological Sensitivity to Context.” This important developmental theory, which considers peer and family contexts, suggests that some individuals are sensitive, or attuned, to their environment. These individuals do poorly in negative contexts but thrive in positive contexts.

The UB Social Development Lab, which Ostrov runs, has a second NIH funded project; collectively, these two grant funded studies and the corresponding data will provide researchers with new insights into the pathways of school readiness. 

“I’m excited about how these projects will help us better understand links between physiology (like the nervous system in this NSF grant), peer and family processes, and school readiness,” says Ostrov. “This work also has numerous implications for clinical interventions for young children who are often overlooked in the development of programs to reduce behavioral problems and improve school readiness.”

Ostrov will serve as the project’s principal investigator along with co-principal investigator Dianna Murray-Close, professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont and an expert in psychophysiology.

The research will begin this spring with the first of three groups consisting of about 60 participants each.

“We’re looking forward to beginning this research and working with the childcare centers and schools in the Western New York region,” says Ostrov. “But we’re also excited about the opportunity to work with teachers and families to follow these children into kindergarten.

“In the end, we will have a better idea of what hurts and helps as children transition to formal school.”

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