The Importance of Understanding Context

Posted by: Lori Walls on July 8, 2011 2:27 pm

Part of being a graduate student is the task of trying to secure funding for research by writing and applying for grants. A result of the grant application process is developing a thick skin when reading the feedback rejection letters. In response to one of my recent grant applications I received comments indicating that during a period of my undergraduate studies (almost 20 years ago) I had let some of my marks slip. This resulted in the grant reviewers deeming my academic achievements as a spotty performance.  After my initial outrage I desperately wanted a chance to explain the context in which the slipping had occurred. Realizing that it was futile to explain I started to think about the influence of context on the academic and social success of the students that I currently work with and how enhancing my understanding of these factors may translate into different and more adaptive interventions.

In a recent study conducted by Dominguez, Viteiello, Fuccillo, et al. (2011) the additive and interactive effects of children’s context-specific problem behaviours and classroom quality dimensions were examined to determine their influence on  children’s approaches to learning. In this study teachers rated the problem behaviours and approaches to learning of 275 preschool children selected from an urban sample in the United States. Independent assessors conducted classroom observations to evaluate classroom quality. This study is of particular interest as it allowed “children’s needs to be addressed in a contextually and developmentally appropriate manner with the goal of promoting more successful engagement in learning opportunities” (p.177). 

Results of the study found that problem behaviours that occurred during structured learning activities such as circle time or other activities requiring explicit instruction were the strongest predictor of children’s cognitive readiness skills.  Problem behaviour in peer interactions was found to be associated with a child’s level of social competency. Problem behaviours occurring during both structured learning activities and in peer interactions were found to negatively predict variance in approaches to learning.  Additionally, Dominguez, Viteiello, Fuccillo, et al. (2011) noted that although classroom quality did not independently predict variance in approaches to learning, classroom quality observations revealed that classrooms that were rated high in emotional support appeared to mitigate the negative effects of problem behaviour. Classrooms that were rated high in providing instructional support appeared to exacerbate behaviour problems.

Results of this study suggest that teachers, school counsellors, and other school personnel involved in establishing classroom practices and interventions for students should be considering the context in which problem behaviours are taking place. If, for example, we understand that problem behaviours occurring during structured activities are related to a child’s level of cognitive readiness we can steer our reactions away from punitive approaches and implement interventions that foster cognitive readiness.

Dominguez, X., Viteiello, V., Fuccillo, J. et al.  (2011). The role of context in preschool learning: A multilevel examination of the contribution of context-specific problem behaviors and classroom process quality to low-income children’s approaches to learning. Journal of School Psychology, 49, 175-195.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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