Early Social-Emotional Functioning and the School Context: Contributions to Children’s Trajectories of Behavior and Achievement

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Abenavoli, Rachel Marian
Graduate Program:
Human Development and Family Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 07, 2016
Committee Members:
  • Mark T Greenberg, Dissertation Advisor
  • Mark T Greenberg, Committee Chair
  • Scott David Gest, Committee Member
  • Karen Linn Bierman, Committee Member
  • D Wayne Osgood, Outside Member
  • social-emotional development
  • achievement
  • classroom quality
  • school context
  • developmental trajectories
  • elementary school
There is growing consensus among researchers and practitioners that children’s ability to pay attention, regulate their emotions and behavior, and get along with others is crucial to their success in the classroom, particularly during the transition to school (Blair & Raver, 2015; Denham et al., 2010; Lin et al., 2003; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2000). Although longitudinal associations between early social-emotional functioning and later behavioral and academic adjustment have been documented, how school-entry social-emotional functioning alters children’s developmental trajectories across the early school years is not well understood. It may be that initially higher-functioning children continue to develop at a faster rate than their peers across the school years, in line with the skill-begets-skill or cumulative advantage hypothesis (Heckman, 2008). Alternatively, initially lower-functioning children may show greater growth over time, as would be predicted by the catch-up hypothesis (Barnett, 2011). Moreover, these patterns of development may differ depending on the child’s context, with initially higher-functioning children showing greater growth under certain conditions and/or initially lower-functioning children showing greater growth under other conditions. This dissertation examined the contributions of children’s early social-emotional functioning and the school context to their trajectories of behavior and achievement during elementary school. Using a rich longitudinal dataset from the Family Life Project, which followed children and families in rural and small town U.S. communities, this dissertation examined: (1) how school-entry inattention, prosocial behavior, and conduct problems predicted behavior and achievement in Grade 3 and rates of change from kindergarten to Grade 3; (2) how distal factors and proximal processes in the elementary school context predicted behavior and achievement during this time period, both concurrently and cumulatively; and (3) how aspects of the school context might moderate the effect of school-entry social-emotional functioning on children’s developmental trajectories. Results of multilevel growth models indicated that school-entry social-emotional functioning had lasting effects on behavior and achievement through Grade 3, but initially lower-functioning children narrowed the gap with their higher-functioning peers over time on some outcomes (i.e., trajectories of children with high and low initial social-emotional functioning converged over time). Experiences within the school context also contributed to children’s outcomes: High-quality teacher-student interactions and teachers’ own social-emotional competence predicted higher concurrent behavior and achievement, and there was some evidence that cumulative exposure to high-quality experiences uniquely contributed to outcomes. Finally, features of the school context generally did not moderate the effects of school-entry social-emotional functioning, suggesting that variation in the school context had a surprisingly minimal impact on rates of convergence or divergence in developmental trajectories of children who differed in school-entry social-emotional functioning. This dissertation adds to a growing body of work out of the Family Life Project investigating families, schools, and child development in high-poverty rural regions (e.g., Blair et al., 2016; Broekhuizen et al., 2016; Garrett-Peters et al., 2016; Sandilos et al., 2014; Vernon-Feagans et al., 2016). Fostering early social-emotional functioning and improving classroom experiences for children are two promising policy levers through which children may be supported as they progress through school.