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The relationship between kindergarten classroom environment and


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DOI: 10.1080/1350293X.2015.1104036

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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal

ISSN: 1350-293X (Print) 1752-1807 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/recr20

The relationship between kindergarten classroom


environment and children's engagement

Canan Aydoğan, Dale C. Farran & Gülseren Sağsöz

To cite this article: Canan Aydoğan, Dale C. Farran & Gülseren Sağsöz (2015) The relationship
between kindergarten classroom environment and children's engagement, European Early
Childhood Education Research Journal, 23:5, 604-618, DOI: 10.1080/1350293X.2015.1104036

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2015.1104036

Published online: 25 Nov 2015.

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European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 2015
Vol. 23, No. 5, 604–618, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2015.1104036

The relationship between kindergarten classroom environment


and children’s engagement
Canan Aydoğana*, Dale C. Farranb and Gülseren Sağsöza
a
Department of Education, Inonu University, Malatya, Turkey; bDepartment of Teaching
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and Learning, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA

The primary aim of the present study was to examine the way in which instructional
and emotional aspects of teacher support combined to predict children’s
engagement in learning-related activities in kindergarten classrooms that served a
socio-economically diverse population of children. Observations were conducted
on teachers and children in 45 classrooms. Results revealed that instructional and
emotional support in combination were predictive of the intensity of children’s
learning engagement. The effect of instructional practices was contingent on the
emotional tone of the classroom. The instructional practices had larger effects on
the mean level of engagement in classrooms with more positive emotional tone.
The study has critical implications for future research in terms of classroom
environments supporting children’s learning.
Keywords: learning engagement; instructional teacher support; teacher’s affective
tone; kindergarten education; young children

Over the past 30 years, the construct of engagement with the physical and social
environment has emerged as a key contributor to children’s school success (Brophy
and Good 1986; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris 2004). Several investigations con-
ducted in kindergarten and early elementary classrooms have suggested children’s
engagement in learning activities as a proximal mechanism that promotes learning
and therefore should be fostered in children (Alexander, Entwisle, and Dauber 1993;
DiPerna, Volpe, and Elliott 2005; Hughes and Kwok 2007; Ladd, Birch, and Buhs
1999; Ladd and Dinella 2009). Thus, investigating the type of classroom environments
that are more likely to engage children could provide valuable information about chil-
dren’s learning. Much research conducted in elementary classrooms has shown the
influence of classroom environment on children’s engagement in learning (e.g.
Downer, Rimm-Kaufman, and Pianta 2007; National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development Early Child Care Research Network [NICHD ECCRN] 2002).
Little is known, however, about early childhood classroom contexts that facilitate chil-
dren’s engagement. To this end, the purpose of this study is to investigate the ways in
which different aspects of the kindergarten environment complement each other to
predict children’s engagement in learning-related activities.

*Corresponding author. Email: canan.aydogan@inonu.edu.tr

© 2015 EECERA
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 605

Engagement in learning
In early childhood settings, learning occurs through play that requires children to pay
attention, to observe, to actively manipulate materials, to understand new things, and to
master them. An actively involved child can only meet these requirements. McGarity
and Butts (1984) aptly summarize the importance of engagement in learning: ‘A
student can be engaged and not achieve, but it is hard for a student to learn a task
who was not engaged while that task was being taught’ (60). This statement implies
that engagement in classroom activities may not be sufficient for learning, but may
be a necessary component (Ladd and Dinella 2009; McCormick, Noonan, and Heck
1998; McWilliam, Trivette, and Dunst 1985).
Young children are willing to learn things that are interesting, meaningful, and rel-
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evant to their lives (Bransford et al. 2000). Classrooms offering activities in which chil-
dren are interested, actively construct knowledge, and make sense of the world are,
thus, more likely to support learning (Maxwell et al. 2001). The extent to which chil-
dren are exposed to such experiences substantially varies across classrooms (Curby,
Rimm-Kaufman, and Ponitz 2009; Huffman and Speer 2000; NICHD ECCRN
2005). Given this observed variability, it is important to examine to what extent differ-
ences in opportunity are related to the level of children’s engagement in learning. The
following sections provide literature describing aspects of the classroom environment
that are related to children’s learning engagement. It is important to note is that not
all researchers investigate these associations in early childhood classroom settings,
but findings for older children (six- to eight-years-old) may inform predictions for
younger children, despite the differences between the two contexts.

Classroom environment
Much research in education has investigated the classroom as a context for learning.
Among many aspects, those indicating levels of instructional and emotional support
in the classroom environment are central to a discussion of what patterns of teacher pro-
vided experiences foster more children’s engagement in learning (NICHD ECCRN
2002; Perry, Donohue, and Weinstein 2007; Pianta, La Paro, and Hamre 2005;
Pianta et al. 2002).

Instructional environment
The mode of instruction (teacher-directed vs child-directed) (Morrison and Connor
2002; Perry, Donohue, and Weinstein 2007) and focus of instruction (basic skills vs
analysis-inference) (Hamre and Pianta 2007) are two dimensions (among others)
used to define instructional environment in elementary classrooms. These dimensions
have also been emphasized in the 2009 NAEYC position statement on developmentally
appropriate practices. According to the statement, the use of a blend of teacher direction
and child-centred learning characterizes a supportive learning environment. In such
contexts, teachers provide frequent and sustained opportunities for children to be
engaged in tasks that interest them, involve freedom and choice, and demand them
to use analytic and inferential thinking and problem-solving skills, and to go beyond
and make connections to the real world (NAEYC 2009).
Unfortunately, children generally experience a low-level instructional support in
both early childhood and elementary classrooms (identified on the basis of absolute
606 C. Aydoğan et al.

scores on Classroom Assessment Scoring System [CLASS]) (Hamre et al. 2007). The
reports of observational studies indicated that elementary school children were far more
likely to experience teacher-directed instruction (Morrison and Connor 2002; NICHD
ECCRN 2002) focusing on the development of basic skills than analysis-inference
skills (Curby, Rimm-Kaufman, and Ponitz 2009; Downer, Rimm-Kaufman, and
Pianta 2007; NICHD ECCRN 2005). Similarly, evidence from observations in kinder-
garten classrooms indicated that in the average classroom, children were exposed to
structured teacher-directed group activities or seatwork for the larger portion of the
observation period (Pianta et al. 2002; Varol 2012). Due to the academic demands of
the elementary curriculum, one might not be surprised with the report of instructional
environment in early elementary classrooms to be more didactic and focused more on
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the development of basic skills in reading and math. However, it is surprising to find
that kindergarten instruction that is supposed to be more play-oriented and involve
more freedom and child choice consists of teacher-directed rote learning. This indicates
that the kindergarten experience for most children is more academically oriented.

Emotional environment
Children’s emotional well-being is one of the goals of early education. Positive affect
for children, then, is a critical indicator of the ideal learning environment since it facili-
tates the learning experience (Huffman and Speer 2000). The extent to which the
teacher displays positive (warm and respectful) or negative (anger, sarcasm, and irrit-
ability) emotions toward children, how sensitive he/she is to children’s level of aca-
demic and social functioning, as well as how responsive he/she is to the needs of
children in these areas of functioning determine the level of emotional support provided
for children (La Paro, Pianta, and Stuhlman 2004; Pianta, La Paro, and Hamre 2005).
Teachers who offer high levels of emotional support are warm and respectful towards
children. Warm teachers are more likely to use positive control to maintain children’s
engagement in class activities and to deal with misbehaviour (Stipek et al. 1992).
Emotionally supportive teachers also tend to be aware of children’s level of academic
and social functioning and are responsive to their needs in these areas. Such teacher
support may serve as a resource that enables children to actively engage with their
environments, to cope more effectively with new academic and social challenges of
school, and to benefit from more instructionally rich environments (Hamre and
Pianta 2007). Given the importance of the emotional environment, students at all
grades need a warm and respectful environment for learning. Results of large scale
observational studies have indicated that children generally experience medium to
high levels of emotional support in early childhood and elementary classrooms
(Hamre et al. 2007).

Classroom environment and children’s engagement in learning


Empirical evidence repeatedly indicates the importance of instructional and emotional
classroom components in the prediction of children’s engagement in both early child-
hood and elementary education literature. Research suggests that children are more
likely to be engaged in learning where teachers design meaningful learning activities
that follow children’s interest (De Kruif et al. 2000; McCormick, Noonan, and Heck
1998; McWilliam, Trivette, and Dunst 1985; Raspa, McWilliam, and Ridley 2001)
and foster the development of analytic and inferential thinking in children (Downer,
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 607

Rimm-Kaufman, and Pianta 2007), as well as where they form warm, sensitive, and
responsive interactions with children (NICHD ECCRN 2002; Ridley, McWilliam,
and Oates 2000). For instance, in early childhood classrooms of controlling teachers,
fewer children were actively engaged in tasks, whereas in classrooms of elaborative tea-
chers, more children demonstrated sophisticated engagement behaviour (De Kruif et al.
2000; Raspa, McWilliam, and Ridley 2001).
In a recent large scale study, Pakarinen et al. (2011) investigated the association
between instructional support (e.g. concept development, quality of feedback, and
language modelling dimensions of the CLASS) and teacher-rated task-avoidant behav-
iour of children (e.g. failure expectations, low levels of effort and persistence in aca-
demic tasks) in kindergarten. Results showed that classrooms with higher level
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instructional support had children with less task avoidant behaviour. In highly suppor-
tive classrooms, children were focused on the task at hand and showed persistence even
in more difficult tasks.
In light of the aforementioned empirical evidence, this study aims to assess the
effects of the instructional environment and the emotional tone of the classroom/
teacher on children’s learning engagement behaviour in kindergarten classrooms.
Further to that, this study intends to exceed the existing work by testing the interplay
between instructional environment and emotional tone. The interaction between
instructional and emotional support was tested in studies focusing on children’s aca-
demic achievement (e.g. Crosnoe et al. 2010). Following this analytic approach, we
investigated the effect of instruction on children’s learning engagement as a function
of teachers’ affective tone. Two hypotheses were tested. The first hypothesis was
that kindergarten classrooms with higher level instructional support and more positive
emotional tone would have higher levels of children’s engagement in learning. The
second hypothesis was that the level of instructional support offered to children
would interact with teachers’ affective tone in the prediction of children’s engagement
in learning-related activities. Kindergarten classrooms providing higher levels of
instructional support and relatively more positive emotional tone would have higher
levels of learning engagement than those offering higher levels of instructional
support, but less positive emotional tone.

Method
Participants and procedures
Participants in this study were 45 consented kindergarten teachers working at 11 inde-
pendent early childhood schools affiliated by the public school system in an eastern city
in Turkey. Schools were diverse in terms of socioeconomic status of the families they
served. The target age for the children in this study was 60 to 72 months of age. The
class size ranged from 12 to 33 children (M = 20.89, SD = 5.19). Two teachers were
male while the rest was female. Teachers had an average of 4.5 years of teaching experi-
ence, ranging from two to 27 years. Among the 45 teachers, 35 held Bachelor’s degrees,
seven held Associate degrees, and three held vocational high school degrees in child
development. Thirty-two teachers majored in Early Childhood Education, nine teachers
majored in Child Development, and one majored in Handcraft Education.
No more than six and no fewer than three classrooms were observed from any one
of the schools. Five trained data collectors observed each classroom on one day during
the spring of the 2010–2011 school year. Classrooms were observed for four hours
608 C. Aydoğan et al.

during a morning-long or an afternoon-long period. Each observation was conducted by


a single observer. Before beginning the data collection, observers were trained in data
collection procedures over the course of two weeks using five kindergarten classrooms
that were not included in the study. The reliability visits were conducted by the groups
of two observers in study classrooms. Reliability for the observation measure was cal-
culated by percent agreement (agreement/[agreement + disagreement]). The reliability
among five observers obtained in the field was 75%.

Measures
Instructional environment
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An observational tool was used to measure instructional classroom environment. This


instrument was created on the basis of the Narrative Record of Preschool Classroom
Observations (Farran 2003) and the Teacher Observation in Prekindergarten Class-
rooms-Building Blocks (Bilbrey et al. 2007). The instrument is used for recording nar-
rative notes about what is occurring in the classroom (i.e. what the teacher is doing and
what the children are doing). This study used data from three categories (episodes of
time, type of activity, and level of instruction) to calculate the amount of time
devoted to teacher-directed and child-directed instruction, and the focus of instruction
in a classroom.
In the category related to episodes of time, the beginning and end of each classroom
episode were recorded to track the duration of events in the classroom. A new episode of
time was started when the type of activity or the content of the activity changed. In each
time segment, one code described the Mode of Instruction. The Mode of Instruction cat-
egory consisted of eight codes that were used to identify instructional (i.e. Whole Group
with/out Teacher [WG/T], Small Group with/out Teacher [SG/T], Small Group with/out
Teacher and Centre(s) [SG/TC], Centres [C], Individual with Teacher [IT]), and non-
instructional activities (i.e. Meal [M], Transition [TRN], and Out). Codes with
‘Teacher’ indicated that the teacher was the centre of attention and was instructing the
entire group or small group of children. Codes without ‘Teacher’ and/or with ‘Centres’
showed that children were working independently or with some guidance from the
teacher or there was a choice of activities at a table or in an area. Codes of interest for
the present study reflect the mode of instruction during instructional activities.
For analysis purposes, the categorical codes for the Mode of Instruction were com-
bined with the duration of time of each episode to obtain the best estimate of daily
amount of time devoted to teacher-directed and child-directed instruction in a class-
room. The time in the episodes organized by codes indicating the occurrence of a
teacher-directed (i.e. WG, WGT, SG, SGT and IT) and child-directed activity (i.e. C,
SGC and SGCT) was added for each classroom. Then, these times were divided by
the total observation time.
Level of Instruction category characterized the instruction that was occurring. In
each classroom episode, Level of Instruction was rated on a scale of 0 to 4, with 4
being the highest level. The ratings from 1 to 4 were used if the teacher was
engaged in intentional teaching (Low Level Instruction = 1, Basic Skills Instruction
= 2, Some/Inferential Learning = 3, High/Inferential Learning = 4). In other cases, the
level of instruction was rated as None (0). Teachers in the study were observed not
to have any deliberate intentions to engage children in learning during centre time.
Instead, they only monitored children with rare interactions with them. Thus, the
level of instruction was not coded when the mode of instruction was ‘Centres.’ To
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 609

measure the focus of instruction in a classroom, the ratings of the level of instruction
were averaged across all the episodes in which the teacher was observed to be
engaged in intentional teaching.

Emotional tone
Tone/affect category in the observational tool was used to measure the emotional tone
set by the teacher in a classroom. The tone rated in each episode of time reflected the
positive or negative feel of the classroom and the interaction of the teacher towards the
children. Tone/affect was rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most positive tone/
affect (Extremely Negative = 1, Negative = 2, Flat = 3, Pleasant = 4, Vibrant = 5). To
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measure the level of emotional support in a classroom, the ratings of the teacher’s
level of tone/affect were averaged across all the episodes.

Learning engagement
Involvement category in the observational tool was a rating of how focused and
engaged the group of children were in learning-related activities. In each episode,
Involvement was rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest level of focus
and concentration (Low = 1, Medium Low = 2, Medium = 3, Medium High = 4, High
= 5). To measure the intensity levels of children’s engagement in a classroom, the
ratings of the group of children’s involvement were averaged across all the episodes
in which children were observed to be engaged in an instructional activity deliberately
designed by the teacher.

Analytic strategy
Multilevel modelling is appropriate to examine whether instructional environment and
emotional tone of the classroom predicted variation among classrooms in the level of
learning engagement with a sample of 45 classrooms nested in 11 schools. The test
of unconditional model, however, indicated non-significant between-school variability
in classroom levels of children’s engagement in learning. Since there were relatively
few classrooms per school that made it difficult to reliably estimate the two different
variance components (between-school and within-school variances). Thus, the
present study used a single level regression analysis of classes, incorporating the
between-school variance into the within-school component to model the total variance
across classrooms.
Teachers’ years of experience and level of education, class size, and socioeconomic
status of the class were examined as covariates. Among these variables, class size was
included as a covariate in the final models because it was the only variable significantly
correlated with the level of learning engagement.

Results
Descriptive analyses
Classroom environment
Instructional environment. Descriptive statistics for the percentage of time devoted to
teacher-directed and child-directed instruction are presented in Table 1. Findings reveal
610 C. Aydoğan et al.

the following: in the average classroom, 43.5% of the four hour observation was spent
on teacher-directed instructional activities altogether, and 13.7% of the observation
period was spent on activities that enabled children to control the activity. However,
the percentage of observation time spent on each of these modes of instruction
varied a great deal across classrooms. Some classrooms spent a small portion of the
observation time on teacher-directed instructional activities while others spent a
majority of their time on this type of instructional activities. The variation across class-
rooms was also large in the percentage of observation period spent on activities led by
children, ranging from 0% to 27.9%. This indicates that in some classrooms children
had no control over the activity and their engagement in the activity.
The level of instruction was 1.48 for the average teacher. The range observed in
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mean level of instruction indicated children’s exposure to low-level to basic skills


instruction. In classrooms offering low-level instruction, children were exposed to an
activity demanded them to use fine and gross motor skills, such as playing competitive
games that involved running, cutting with scissors, working with puzzles, and building
blocks. In classrooms offering basic skills instruction, teachers directly instructed chil-
dren. They read books without asking questions or asking closed-ended factual ques-
tions. Teachers did limited or no connections between the concepts learned in the
classroom and the real world outside the classroom.
Due to small sample size in the present study, the variables indicating instructional
environment were not tested individually. The instructional environment composite
variable was formed by standardizing and then averaging the classroom scores on all
indicators of instructional environment seen in Table 1.

Emotional tone. As in Table 1, mean level of teachers’ emotional tone was 2.78. As
described earlier, the level of emotional tone the average teacher presented was close
to neutral and indicated a somewhat flat affect. Classrooms varied in the emotional
tone of the teacher; in some classrooms, teachers created an emotional environment
that was negative while in others, they provided an emotional environment that was
closer to pleasant. It is important to note that relative to the measure of instructional
focus, the variation between classrooms on emotional tone was wider.

Engagement in learning
Table 1 also displays the mean and standard deviation of the intensity of children’s
engagement in learning. The mean level of intensity in learning engagement was

Table 1. Descriptive statistics for measures of classroom environment and learning


engagement (N = 45).
Source Mean or % SD Minimum Maximum
Instructional Environment
Classroom time led by teachera 43.47% – 20.83% 71.67%
Classroom time led by childrena 13.69% – 0.00% 27.92%
Instructional focus (1–4 scale)b 1.48 0.28 1.00 2.11
Emotional Tone (1–5 scale)b 2.78 0.32 1.90 3.60
Learning Engagement (1–5 scale)b 2.98 0.43 1.92 4.00
a
Values indicate percentages of time.
b
Values indicate mean levels of ratings.
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 611

2.98 across classrooms, but ranged from 1.92 to 4.00. As described earlier, the level of
engagement in learning the group of children displayed in an average classroom indi-
cated an ordinary attention to instructional activities. In some classrooms, children
appeared not to be interested in the activity, while in others, they seemed to be relatively
intensely focused.

Correlations among measures of classroom environment and learning engagement


Table 2 presents the associations among instructional and emotional classroom environ-
ment measures and learning engagement. Stronger association was observed between the
level of classroom emotional tone and the intensity of engagement in learning. Class-
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rooms that provided more positive emotional environment had children who were
engaged in learning at a more intense level. The level of instructional teacher support
was also related to the level of learning engagement. Higher level instructional support
was associated with more intense learning engagement shared among class members. Fur-
thermore, the correlation between the level of instructional environment and the level of
emotional tone of the classroom showed a positive significant relationship. This associ-
ation indicated that teachers offering relatively higher levels of instructional support
tended to use warmer and more positive emotional tone while addressing children.

Classroom environment predicting learning engagement


Observed levels of instruction and emotional tone were expected to be related to the
level of learning engagement shared among class members. It was hypothesized that
classrooms providing higher level instructional support and more positive emotional
tone would have children with more intense engagement in learning. To this end, class-
room scores on instructional support and emotional tone were combined into a single
composite variable to test their conjoint influence. A weighted global environment
score was created for each classroom. This measure took into account the independent
relationships of instructional and emotional classroom aspects with the outcome.
Indeed, scores on instructional practices and emotional tone were multiplied with the
corresponding coefficient in Model I in Table 3, and then added together to create
the composite variable for the classroom environment.
Findings showed that after controlling for the number of children in each classroom,
mean levels of learning engagement were higher in classrooms with a relatively heavier
emphasis on instruction and a more positive emotional tone (see Model II in Table 3).
Thus, the more supportive the classroom was, the higher the children’s engagement in
learning was.

Table 2. Correlations among measures of classroom environment and learning engagement


(N = 45).
Emotional tone Learning engagement
Instructional environment .31* .33*
Emotional tone .48**
*p < .05.
**p < .01.
Note: Numbers in table are Pearson Product Moment Correlations.
612 C. Aydoğan et al.

Table 3. Results for the influence of classroom environment on learning engagement.


Fixed Effects b SE β t p Adj. R2
Model I 0.295
Instructional practices 0.187 0.122 0.203 1.529 .134
Emotional tone 0.577 0.180 0.427 3.212 .003
Model II 0.312
Classroom environmenta 1.000 0.238 0.526 4.207 .000
Model III 0.341
Instructional practices 0.155 0.119 0.169 1.305 .199
Emotional tone 0.556 0.174 0.412 3.195 .003
Instruction × Emotion 0.662 0.337 0.248 1.964 .057
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Note: Numbers in table are unstandardized regression coefficients, standard errors, standardized regression
coefficients, t statistics, and significance levels. Class size is used as a covariate.
a
A weighted composite score is created to measure the global classroom environment.

Figure 1. Interaction graph for instructional environment and emotional tone.

The present study also tested whether the effect of instructional environment on
children’s learning engagement was a function of emotional tone of the classroom/
teacher. As can be seen in Model III in Table 3, the main effect of instructional environ-
ment was non-significant, but the interaction between instructional environment and
emotional tone was significant at the 0.10 level. Figure 1 was created to graphically
demonstrate the relationship between instructional practices and mean classroom
level of learning engagement in the presence of emotional tone of a classroom. A cat-
egorical variable was constructed for emotional tone, based on a median split. As can be
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 613

seen in the figure, classrooms providing relatively higher instructional support had
more intense engagement in learning when teachers’ affective tone was more positive.

Discussion
The findings obtained for this sample were consistent with the proposed hypotheses and
showed that instructional support and the emotional tone of the classroom/teacher were
associated with classroom levels of children’s engagement in learning in kindergarten.
The first finding indicated that classrooms with higher level instructional support and
more positive emotional tone had more intense engagement in learning. Emotional
tone of the teacher carried more weight in the establishment of the observed relation-
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ship. The second finding showed that the influence of instructional support on learning
engagement was statistically significant in the presence of emotional tone of the
teacher.
This study adds to the growing body of work by systematically investigating quan-
tifiable descriptive information about the nature of instructional and emotional support
children experience in kindergarten. Most importantly, this study describes the ways in
which instructional and emotional aspects of teacher support for children’s learning
complement each other to influence the intensity of children’s engagement. These find-
ings contribute to a body of work addressing a critical need for research to identify pat-
terns of teacher behaviour that foster children’s persistence and interest in learning
(Downer, Rimm-Kaufman, and Pianta 2007; Raspa, McWilliam, and Ridley 2001).

Instructional environment
Results of the current study confirm earlier reports on the wide variability in the amount
of time spent on different types of instructional activities (Morrison and Connor 2002;
NICHD ECCRN 2002; Pianta et al. 2002; Varol 2012). In some classrooms, almost
72% of the observed time was spent on teacher-directed instructional activities. In
others, only 21% of the time was devoted to this mode of instruction. Some classrooms
offered child-directed instruction for almost 28% of the time while others spent no time
on such instruction. Thus, in some classrooms, teachers did not allow children to have
much freedom to choose their activities. However, it is known that different forms of
instruction are better suited for achieving different goals (Stipek et al. 1995), and chil-
dren with varying skills can benefit more from different forms of instruction (Perry,
Donohue, and Weinstein 2007). Some of the kindergarten teachers observed in the
present study seemed to offer a blend of teacher-directed and child-led activities in
their classrooms, while others did not.
The observed level of instruction in the present study indicated teachers’ use of low-
level to basic skills instruction. Even in the classrooms where children were engaged
more intensely, they were mostly exposed to basic skills instruction. Investigating
the focus of instruction in kindergarten classrooms, this study confirms the findings
from observations in elementary schools that children are exposed to basic skills
instruction far more than they are to analysis-inference instruction (Curby, Rimm-
Kaufman, and Ponitz 2009; NICHD ECCRN 2005).
All these findings indicate that children in early education are exposed to an instruc-
tion that is similar to that in early elementary education which requires students to
memorize and master facts so that they can successfully recall information. These prac-
tices are indicators of developmentally inappropriate practices that are responsive to
614 C. Aydoğan et al.

values of low-income and minority families (see Stipek and Ryan 1997). Proponents of
highly structured teacher-directed instruction report benefits of such instruction for
children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Gersten, Darch, and Gleason 1988; Stal-
lings 1974). This type of instruction may be successful in closing the achievement
gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers from more
advantaged backgrounds in the short-term. However, the curriculum in upper grades
asks students to synthesize, analyse, and criticize the information. Thus, in order to
close the achievement gap, teachers may feel pressure in the early grades to use explicit
teaching of basic skills; however, a merely basic-skills oriented instruction in early edu-
cation is unlikely to promote children’s success later in school.
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Emotional environment
In this study, the measure of emotional tone was used as the indicator of emotional
environment in the classroom. Although kindergarten teachers showed, on average, a
neutral affect, there was no typical teacher. The level of emotional support children
experienced varied widely as a function of the classroom they attended. In highly sup-
portive classrooms, the teachers had positive interaction with children. They showed
genuine interest and attention to children. The teachers nonverbally communicated a
positive acknowledgement or appreciation of children’s effort (e.g. looking directly
to the child, eyebrows up, nodding etc.). In classrooms where children experienced
negative tone, the teachers looked displeased and exhibited annoyance or disappoint-
ment (frowning, headshaking, negative gestures, eye rolling, sighing, etc.). They
used mild threats to establish control (e.g. ‘Be quiet or you will lose outside play’).
Emotional teacher support is presumed to influence children’s persistence and inter-
est in novel academic and social demands of school through fostering a sense of secur-
ity and confidence in children (Hamre and Pianta 2007). In the present study, some
teachers seemed to provide such support, while others did not adequately support chil-
dren’s learning.

The contribution of classroom environment to learning engagement


Classrooms with a stronger focus on instruction in conjunction with more positive affect
had children who exhibited more intense engagement in learning. This result somewhat
corroborates other findings studying children at different ages. Indeed, prior research
showed higher co-occurrence between the analysis-inference instruction and higher
amount of child engagement in learning in third grade (Downer, Rimm-Kaufman, and
Pianta 2007) and an advantage of child-led instruction over teacher-directed instruction
in levels of child engagement in child care settings (De Kruif et al. 2000; McCormick,
Noonan, and Heck 1998; McWilliam, Trivette, and Dunst 1985; Raspa, McWilliam,
and Ridley 2001). Associations between emotional support and children’s engagement
were also documented previously (NICHD ECCRN 2002; Ridley, McWilliam, and
Oates 2000). The present study exceeds this work by investigating the combined effect
of the instructional and emotional classroom environment. It is presumed that individual
measures of instructional and emotional climate each carry potentially relevant infor-
mation about the characteristics of a classroom that is not otherwise captured in one or
the other measure. Thus, in order to better understand the relationship between children’s
classroom experiences and engagement, the impacts of instructional and emotional class-
room components need to be considered together. Regarding both the instructional and
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 615

emotional teacher support as important in fostering children’s persistence and interest in


learning in kindergarten, the present study echoes the findings of Downer, Rimm-
Kaufman, and Pianta’s (2007) study that showed a significant relationship between
global ratings of the instructional and emotional aspects of the classroom and children’s
on-task behaviour in third-grade classrooms.
The present study also tested the moderator role of emotional tone of the teacher
proposed in academic achievement and social skills literature (Crosnoe et al. 2010;
Stipek et al. 1992). Results revealed that the effect of instructional practices on
average learning engagement was larger in classrooms with more positive emotional
tone. On the other hand, children in less positive environments did not appear to
benefit as much as the former group from relatively higher level instructional
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support provided to them. This finding supports the claim that young children who
are dealing with the academic and social demands of schooling may feel more
secure and confident in classrooms with more positive effect, and consequently
benefit more from instructionally rich environments (Hamre and Pianta 2007; Stipek
et al. 1992). It is important to note that high emotional support is not enough to
lessen the negative influence of low level instructional support on children’ learning.
High instructional support and more positive emotional tone are both needed to
create an optimal learning environment. Findings of the present study can only
enlighten future research in considering emotional support as one of the critical indi-
cators of the learning environment and testing interactions between instructional and
emotional classroom components.

Implications for policy and practice


Teachers, educators, and policymakers need to consider the factors in the early edu-
cation system that might influence the existence of more classrooms offering high-
level instructional support for children. One factor might be related to the effectiveness
of teacher preparation programmes. Early childhood teachers take courses in foun-
dations of early childhood education, child development, individual differences
among children, and subject matter pedagogy in science, math, art, and music at the
university. Findings of this study, however, indicate that kindergarten teachers fail to
design learning activities that are relevant and meaningful to children’s lives with
more emphasis on conceptual understanding. These results might encourage educators
to think about the effectiveness of early childhood education programmes in preparing
more competent teachers. Also, policymakers need to consider the necessity of offering
ongoing professional development for in-service teachers.
Another factor might be related to the programme of early childhood education.
Early childhood teachers are increasingly pressured for having children ready for
formal schooling. They try to accomplish many things in a short period of time.
Within a morning, they schedule many activities to teach children school readiness
skills. Perhaps, because the teachers do not have adequate time, their instruction
does not involve deeper, well-designed activities. In such a pressured atmosphere, tea-
chers cannot have the opportunity to allow children to have some freedom and choice,
to have frequent involvement in active teaching, or to foster analytic-inferential think-
ing along with basic skills. They cannot be responsive and sensitive about individual
children’s needs. Results from the present study, however, suggest that children
benefit most from classroom environments in which teachers provide high-level
instructional support with a positive affective tone.
616 C. Aydoğan et al.

Limitations
One of the limitations of the present study is the use of a small sample size (N = 45)
given its focus on classroom effects. A larger sample size might have revealed stronger
effects with respect to the instructional and emotional classroom environments.
Another limitation of the study is the number of classroom observations. The data
were based on one time observations. It would be preferable to observe classrooms
for more days, thereby increasing the reliability of measurement of classroom experi-
ences. Furthermore, the same observer recorded the teacher and child behaviours
within a classroom visit, so shared source may account for some of the associations
found between instructional practices and emotional tone and learning engagement.
Finally, the level of children’s engagement was observed at the group-level. Observing
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children’s engagement at the individual-level would enable us to examine how individ-


ual children responded to the classroom experiences offered to them and to better assess
the mean level of learning engagement within a classroom.

Conclusion
The study seeks to investigate the ways in which instructional and emotional aspects of
the kindergarten classrooms contribute to children’s learning engagement behaviour.
There are several directions future research might take to extend this work. This
study has shown a new way to examine the role of classroom environment on children’s
engagement in learning, one that takes into account the interplay between instructional
and emotional aspects of the classroom. Future research might examine children’s
classroom experiences in even more depth by providing richer descriptions of teachers’
instructional practices and emotional interactions with children, as well as children’s
engagement in kindergarten classrooms. Finally, future research can build on this
essentially correlational study to determine if teachers’ instructional and emotional
behaviours can be experimentally manipulated. Are these behaviours changeable? If
so, perhaps interventions can be developed to alter these important classroom charac-
teristics to produce the kinds of learning outcomes desired for young children.

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