Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Psychology (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Daryl B. Greenfield

Second Committee Member

Rebecca J. Bulotsky-Shearer

Third Committee Member

Heather Henderson

Fourth Committee Member

Daniel S. Messinger

Fifth Committee Member

Batya Elbaum


Head Start has a unique opportunity to alleviate the negative effects of poverty in young children prior to entry into formal schooling. Research has shown that early interventions are most successful when they have a comprehensive focus that is individualized to children’s needs. In order to maximize children’s early experiences in Head Start, research must identify what types of early learning experiences work best for specific groups of children. The present study employed a child-centered approach to identify profiles, or subgroups, of children displaying early patterns of peer play behaviors in an ethnically and linguistically diverse Head Start program and examined the academic trajectories of these children during one school year. Four profile groups of children were identified with most children represented in a group of children who engaged in behaviors that facilitated quality interactions with peers. Children in this profile had the highest academic skills throughout the school year. Interestingly, children in a profile characterized by a combination of play interaction skills and play disruption had the second highest academic skills throughout the year compared to children in a profile characterized by below average play interaction skills but little disruptive behavior during play. A small number of children were represented in a profile characterized by high problems interacting with peers; these children had the lowest academic skills throughout the year. The associations between the profiles of peer play behaviors and academic skills were present at the beginning of the year and remained stable across the year (i.e., all children displayed the same rates of growth). These findings have implications for future research and educational practice surrounding the utility of play in the Head Start classroom to improve academic learning.


peer play; school readiness; Head Start; preschool