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September 2016

Through her research, Kathleen Zadzora wants to help create a better classroom environment for children.

“Education – particularly public education – is one of our best tools to strengthen our nation,” Zadzora said. “We know that cognitive skills, intelligence, or language skills are only part of what predicts how well children will do academically. Children's social, emotional, and behavioral development make a big difference in how much children learn, how much their classmates learn, and how much teachers can focus on teaching.”

More than 4,500 Penn State students are enrolled in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) studying a wide-array of fields, each committed to the concept of improving the quality of life for others. Zadzora, who found a home in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), is one of those HHD students, and this is her story.

A doctoral student in HDFS, Zadzora’s research focuses on child development, prevention, and intervention. Currently, Zadzora is a graduate research assistant working on the Classroom Peer Ecologies Project with Scott Gest, professor of human development and family studies and professor-in-charge of the HDFS undergraduate program.

The project examines elementary school children’s relationships in the classroom. Zadzora’s work aims to understand how students experience school, not only in relationships with their peers, but also academically.

“Many different aspects influence how kids perform in school unrelated to how smart they are,” Zadzora said. “The quality of their relationships is one part of this.”

The project also involves studying how teachers view their roles as classroom managers.

“We’ve found that some teachers manage friendships in the classroom and others don’t,” Zadzora said. “They vary in their preparedness for student conflict and relationships in general. Our goal is to find ways to support teachers when it comes to managing children’s relationships.”

By better understanding teachers’ relationships with their students, as well as peer-to-peer relationships, this research could help inform programs that support a better classroom experience for students and teachers.

“I think for educators to best prepare kids to succeed, we need to support the whole child, and I hope that work my colleagues and I do can in some small way help educators in that endeavor,” Zadzora said.



Zadzora has also contributed to a wide range of other research projects at Penn State that focus on children’s relationships, including the FRIENDS Project with Karen Bierman, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Family Studies. For the project, Zadzora and colleagues implemented a “friendship group” intervention developed by researchers, with kindergarten students.

Throughout her experience at Penn State, Zadzora said she has received a lot of encouragement and assistance from HDFS faculty and advisers, who support her research projects and present her with learning and teaching opportunities, such as serving as a teaching assistant for the course HDFS 312W, Empirical Inquiry in Human Development.

Zadzora received the 2016 Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award, a recognition she says is due in part to faculty who have helped her succeed.

“This award is a tremendous honor,” Zadzora said. “I’ve been continuously amazed at the faculty I’ve assisted, and I credit them for teaching me how to be a good instructor.”

Prior to coming to Penn State, Zadzora was involved with various research projects aimed at understanding and supporting the classroom experience, including the Chicago School Readiness Project at New York University, where she received her master of arts degree in educational psychology; and the Children’s Media and Ethics Project at the University of Notre Dame, where she received bachelor of arts degrees in psychology and anthropology.

After completing her program at Penn State, the Brooklyn, New York, native plans to continue to research child development, and hopefully one day use her work to influence a non-profit organization or government policy.

In addition to HDFS, there are a variety of areas for students to study within HHD through the Departments of Biobehavioral Health, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Health Policy and Administration, Kinesiology, Nutritional Sciences, Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, and the School of Hospitality Management.