Behavior Problems, Lack Of Social Skills Not Linked With Later Achievement

Armen Hareyan's picture

Children entering kindergarten with elementary math and reading skills are the most likely to do well in school later, even if they have various social and emotional problems, say researchers who examined data from six studies of close to 36,000 preschoolers. Children's attention-related skills also mattered, the researchers found.

These findings are reported on in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

For the first time, researchers compared results from six large-scale longitudinal studies comprising two national representations of U.S. children, two multi-site studies of U.S. children, one study focusing on children from Great Britain and one study focusing on children from Canada to assess what school-entry skills and behaviors best predicted higher teacher ratings and reading and math test scores as the children progressed through school. Children's preschool cognitive abilities and socio-demographic characteristics were held constant to rule out their influences.


From a meta-analysis of the results, economist Greg J. Duncan, PhD, of Northwestern University, and 11 co-authors found that mastering early math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and understanding the order of numbers, best predicted later success. Mastering early language and reading skills that included vocabulary, knowing letters and understanding phonetics were next in predicting later achievement. Also contributing to later achievement were children's attention-related skills, including the ability to control hyperactive behavior, to concentrate while completing a task, and to be motivated for learning. Surprisingly, difficulty getting along with classmates, aggressive or disruptive behaviors, and sad or withdrawn behaviors did not detract from later learning.

School readiness skills and behaviors were measured at school entry (around age 5) and later achievement was measured between the ages of 7 and 14. Even after controlling for children's prior cognitive ability, the authors found that early math skills were strong predictors of later math achievement and predicted later reading achievement as well as early reading skills. These and other patterns were similar for boys and girls and for children from both upper- middle-class and poor families.

The authors also found that early attention skills had a role in later achievement. But early behavior problems and lack of social skills did not affect later achievement measures in this sample. They caution that their studies were drawn from general populations and that children diagnosed with clinical levels of these problems may not conform to these patterns.

The lack of associations between social and emotional behaviors and later learning was the biggest surprise and could not be attributed to differences in the way early social and academic skills were measured, the researchers found. 'Perhaps teachers are able to ensure that a child's problem behaviors do not affect his or her achievement,' noted Duncan, but added, 'we were unable to assess whether a child's behavior problems affected the amount that classmates learned.'

The results are consistent with recommendations from expert panels of early mathematics and reading professionals to bolster the teaching of math and reading skills during the preschool years. 'Our results did not address what types of preschool curricula are most effective in promoting these school readiness skills,' said Duncan. 'But we do know that play-based, as opposed to 'drill-and-practice,' curricula designed with children's developmental needs in mind can foster academic and attention skills in ways that are engaging and fun.'