Rosemary O'Connor

An image of Rosemary, a woman with long dark hair and brown eyes. She is wearing a black top and round glasses. Her hair is tied back into a ponytail.
Research Theme:

Rosie is a DPhil student in Experimental Psychology in the Attention, Brain and Cognitive Development lab. She has a BSc in Psychology and French from the University of Liverpool and an MSc in Developmental Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. She has worked directly with young children in several teaching and support roles in the past and has most recently been involved in the development and delivery of the ONE programme - a mathematics and executive function intervention programme for preschool educators. Her research interests lie at the juxtaposition of Cognitive Psychology, Education and Social Policy, with a particular focus on understanding the preschool environment and working with educators to improve outcomes for at-risk children before the onset of formal schooling.

Rosie is supervised by Professor Gaia Scerif. 

Description of proposed research

A socio-economic status related achievement gap is well-documented across many domains, included mathematical performance and executive function development. These disparities appear before the age of four and are likely to grow over the course of primary school. The proposed research project aims to gain a better understanding of the specific practices, beliefs and educator characteristics that contribute to the numeracy environment at preschool, and how this contributes to disadvantaged children's growth in mathematics and executive functions prior to formal schooling. 

An initial goal of the proposed research will be to characterize differences in the preschool numeracy environment through observations of practice and to understand how these differences relate to variation in setting type, demographics, educator characteristics and educator beliefs. This will involve reviewing and, where needed, modifying existing observation scales of preschool quality with the input and support of early years educators. Observations, interviews and questionnaires

A second goal will be to understand how setting-level and educator-level differences relate to variations in children's progress in mathematics and executive functions (EF) over the year prior to starting primary school (at age 3-4). Given that parents from low-income backgrounds are likely to rate the preschool environment as more important than the home environment for early mathematics acquisition (DeFloria & Beliakoff, 2015), and evidence that the impact of high-quality preschool contributes to mathematical development throughout schooling, and particularly for those children with a lower-quality home mathematical environment (EPPSE project, Sylva et al. 2004, 2008, 2012, 2014), this research will have a particular focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the specific practices that support better mathematical skill and knowledge development during preschool. This phase of the research will also seek to understand how child characteristics at baseline (e.g. executive functions, initial mathematics knowledge, EAL status) interact with characteristics of the learning environment at preschool to add to our understanding of what works best, for which children, and when.

Finally, the project will seek to understand whether it is possible to modify the preschool mathematical environment through a low-intensity professional development intervention. This will be made possible through collaboration with the ONE Programme: an Early Years intervention supporting educators to provide high quality mathematical activities with embedded executive function challenge, the efficacy of which is being evaluated in a large-scale randomised control trial in 2023-25. Evidence from a feasibility trial of the ONE programme (Scerif et al., in press) indicates that the benefits of the programme may be strongest for children from lower-income backgrounds. 

Whilst Early Years Education has the potential to reduce inequalities in attainment before formal schooling, inappropriate or poorly implemented approaches risk having little impact upon children's outcomes or even widening the gap. A more complete understanding of how differences in setting-level, practitioner-level and baseline child-level characteristics interact and relate to children's progress in the year prior to attending primary school has potential implications for educational policy and future intervention design.