Early Ed Watch - logo

Some New and Surprising Links Between Early Skills and Later Academic Success

DENVER -- Preliminary results unveiled yesterday from three new education studies show some surprising and complicated connections between young children's math and attention skills and their ability to do well in school. The studies also highlight how difficult it can be to draw a straight line from one skill at age 4 or 5 to strong test scores or good learning practices in later school years.

The findings, which have not yet been published, rely on data collected in national surveys of thousands of children throughout the United States. The papers were presented on the first day of the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, one of the premiere conferences for research on how children develop and learn.   

Conventional wisdom says that children who score well on reading and vocabulary tests are going to be the ones who, in later grades, are most likely to be able to focus, follow through on assignments and show other behaviors that typically lead to school achievement. But research presented by Chantelle J. Dowsett of the University of Texas at Austin showed that there was no significant link between reading skills and learning-related behaviors. Instead, the link to success in elementary school was strongest among children with strong early math scores and few reports of attention problems.

Another study showed that children who demonstrate persistent anti-social behavior -- children whose teachers who have reported problems with class disruptions year after year -- are more likely to have been arrested or jailed by the time they are 21. But among children who only experience anti-social behavior problems in their early years, there is no significant connection to later crime, according to Molly Metzger of Northwestern University.

And a third study looked at what can be expected if a child's behavior changes over time. It found that a child who shows fewer attention problems in 3rd grade than in 1st  will eventually have more success in school. Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago, the third study's lead presenter, sees that educators could make a real difference if they knew how to help children build attention skills.  "Intervention efforts to strengthen attention might strengthen achievement in the early grades," Claessens said.

Each of yesterday's studies used data from large national surveys that have been tracking children's educational, health and social outcomes over many years. The researchers employed a variety of statistical techniques to try to draw connections between children's early childhood experiences and their later successes or failures.

"Provocative" was the word used by several conference attendees to describe the research during a lively Q-and-A session after the studies were presented. The research has been guided in part by Greg J. Duncan, a professor in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University who was the lead author of a 2007 study in Developmental Psychology that raised a lot of eyebrows in the child-development community. That article looked at what types of skills in kindergarten are most strongly associated, a few years down the road, with doing well in reading and math. To the surprise of many psychologists, it found that social-emotional skills were not significantly linked to academic achievement.  Math skills, followed by reading and attention skills, won that honor instead.

Deborah Stipek, dean and professor of education at Stanford University, attended the session as a "discussant" to help make connections between the three latest studies and other recent research. She said that back in 2007, when Duncan's work first appeared, she was "stunned" to learn that social-emotional skills were not necessarily good indicators of children's later academic success. For years, researchers had thought that disruptive children would be struggling students later. What Stipek said she has come to understand is that "we don't really know what is causing what." It is looking likely, she added, that a child's ability to focus and pay attention are tied up in how they behave -- that, for example, disruptive children may be driven to act out because of they are having difficulty paying attention in class.

But Stipek stressed that more research is necessary to untangle exactly what practices in early education classrooms will be most helpful to children in their elementary school years and beyond. Data from yesterday's studies is being prepared for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and researchers say they have plans to do more number crunching on the data to help pinpoint what skill sets, in what combination, are most closely tied to a child's later success in school.