ASU researcher nationally lauded for impacting preschool education

In her 34 years researching preschoolers, professor Jeanne Wilcox has favored studying them in real-life settings filled with unpredictable variables – a controlled chaos that she admits might put some researchers on edge.

“My focus has always been on young vulnerable kids,” said Wilcox, associate dean of research and Nadine Mathis Basha Professor of Early Childhood at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “How do we promote their growth and development and help them learn the oral language and early literacy skills that are so important for early school success?”

“I am a translational researcher, meaning that I focus on developing and testing teaching practices in real-life settings, trying to figure out what works,” she explained. “Of course, when you are working with teachers in preschools it can be challenging to try and understand all the variables that come into play. You have to have a high tolerance for messiness.”

That approach has earned Wilcox national recognition from Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. She will travel to its annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 28 to accept the Margaret B. Lindsey Award for Distinguished Research in Teacher Education.

The award recognizes an individual whose research over the last decade has made a major impact on the field of teacher education. AACTE is a national alliance of 800 educator preparation programs dedicated to professional development that enhances PK-12 student learning and an advocate in state and federal policymaking.

Throughout her career, Wilcox said her research has been devoted to promoting language and literary skills in young children at risk for school failure. Those include preschoolers coming from impoverished environments, diagnosed with a disability (speech, learning, etc.), living in at-risk environments or having limited English proficiency.

Since 1990, Wilcox has served as director of the Infant Child Research Programs in ASU’s Teachers College. The center’s research and training activities include developing innovative approaches to early intervention for vulnerable infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Other themes include researching the effectiveness of curriculum under controlled experimental conditions and the results produced from research in actual practice settings.

The Infant Child Research Programs encourages ASU students from a variety of disciplines to develop basic, applied and clinical research skills with a focus on young children either having developmental problems or at risk for them. Many students are majors in ASU’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science, where Wilcox was previously chairperson and a professor.

“Everywhere we are, there are words in print and words that are spoken,” said Wilcox. “So, in any activity, for young children, whether in preschool, at home or at play, there are endless opportunities for them to learn literacy and language skills.”

In 2010, Wilcox and her colleagues received a $4.2 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences to test the effectiveness of a preschool curriculum, Teaching Early Literacy and Language across the Curriculum (TELL), in school district preschools throughout Maricopa County. The goal of the research is to improve early literacy and language skills for preschoolers with disabilities and their typically developing peers through a systematic program of instruction and a scope and sequence of skills.

Initial data suggests that children who receive the TELL curriculum during their preschool year demonstrate improvements in language and literacy skills when compared to peers who did not. These improvements also appear to be maintained during their first months of kindergarten.

In selecting Wilcox, the AACTE Committee on Professional Preparation and Accountability said her extensive record in publishing and presentations attests to her dedication to her studies. In addition, her knowledge and expertise in teacher education research has been shared through work with various state, national and international organizations. The committee also cited the importance Wilcox places on the effective training of graduate and undergraduate students to prepare them to work with young children with special needs – placing particular emphasis on innovative teaching and teacher research to meet those needs.

At ASU, Wilcox also is a senior learning scientist in the ASU Learning Sciences Institute. Among her activities outside the university, she serves as a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and recently completed a term as its vice president for academic affairs.

Mari Koerner, dean of Teachers College, credits Wilcox with making a measurable difference in the lives of very young children experiencing language delays and reading challenges.

“Jeanne’s passion for making sure all children can be happy and successful, and then discovering ways to help them learn, defines her career,” Koerner said. “With the nation now considering greater preschool access, I have no doubt she will be among educators at the forefront of making that happen.”