Asst. professor realizes research effects outside the lab

Brooke Wertman/Staff Writer 

Recently, Dr. Laura Dinehart, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University, has had many opportunities to see her name in the news. The attention and recognition is not without cause.

Her most recent research may decide the future importance of handwriting in the elementary school curriculum. Though the study is not yet complete, the results thus far have many wondering if a subject that has been pushed aside may deserve more attention.

“People always seem to either love or hate research. No one ever feels neutral about it,” said Dinehart. “I never thought I would end up doing research. I always wanted to help people, but I thought I would be counseling and work with people one-on-one.”

Dinehart had her first experiences in research while finishing up her undergraduate degree in developmental psychology at the University.

While working in the infant psychology lab, a friend noticed and commented how much Dinehart enjoyed getting the results of a study. Dinehart’s friend suggested that she should pursue research.

“I thought ‘No, no, no, I could never be one of those people who sit at a computer in an office all day,’” said Dinehart. “I decided to try it when I started my master’s, fully expecting to switch back to my original plan, but I never did.”

Dinehart continued her education and got a doctoral degree at the University of Miami before returning to the FIU to teach.

From the start, her focus has always been the developmental outcome of children from high-risk environments.

By studying children at a very high risk of doing poorly in school, she hopes to find factors that can be altered and ultimately lead them to better academic outcomes.

It was this interest that lead Dinehart to her most recent study on the connection between handwriting skills and math and reading comprehension.

“We started out studying language skills in pre-kindergarten schools. We weren’t even looking for the link we found.”

“At the same time that we were finding our results, other research was coming out stating similar findings, so it’s nice that our results are being validated,” said Dinehart.

To be clear, the study is not distinguishing between elegant and sloppy handwriting, but rather the benefits of mastering handwriting at a young age and the positive effects this mastery has later on in a child’s educational career.

The study measured the fine-motor skills of four-year-olds, including drawing, writing letters and numbers. These same children were then tested as second graders on their reading and math abilities.

Students who tested well on fine-motor skills averaged with a B in these subjects, while those who tested poorly averaged a C. “Kids don’t get grades on handwriting anymore and cursive is often not taught in schools. We’re not sure what the effects of this will be,” said Dinehart.

“It takes a lot to be able to write,” acknowledged Dinehart. “It is often overlooked by adults because it comes so easily to us. Think of learning to drive a car and all the little things you have to pay attention to and remember… learning to write can be just as complex.”

The current emphasis on technology in education doesn’t help, either. Studies show that typing a letter does not help a child to internalize it the same way writing a letter does.

One suggestion she has is to give children more of an opportunity to practice these skills.

Whether that means having a child write for 15 minutes a day or just bringing out the markers and crayons more often at home, kids with more writing and drawing opportunities will do better in the long run.

Another important study Dinehart has been involved in is the long-term benefits of high quality childcare for foster kids. Her research shows that a high quality daycare program can counterbalance a negative home environment.

“They need it the most because they are at the greatest risk and yet they are the least likely to get it,” said Dinehart. “It is an area that really needs to be examined.”

Over the years, Dinehart has realized that she has more of an opportunity to make a difference through research than working one-on-one with people. “By doing research I can influence policy and programs. I can change how people see things.”

Dr. Dinehart will be continuing her research with the hope that once the link is better defined, it will be used to improve early childhood education.

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