Early pointer to school success

Alyssa Sawyer considers the link between self-regulation in early childhood and later academic achievement.

Young boy workingUnderstanding how to improve children’s school readiness and academic outcomes is important: doing well at school is a strong predictor, not just of later academic and job success, but also of mental and physical health.

The economist James Heckman described two components as central to children’s success: cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Cognitive skills refer to intelligence, while non-cognitive skills refer to personality characteristics such as self-regulation. While both are crucial, in our recent research we were particularly interested in self-regulation skills, focusing on understanding how children’s abilities to pay attention and persist with tasks, and to regulate their emotions, affect their ability to learn and achieve at school.

Learning early

Children develop the ability to self-regulate attention and emotion early in life during the preschool years, and rapidly improve their ability to self-regulate between the ages of two and seven. However, they also differ greatly in the rate at which they develop these skills, and in how advanced they are at attending to and persisting with tasks and regulating their emotions by the time they reach school.

Previous research has found that children’s self-regulation ability at age five is associated with their academic achievement a year later, even after taking intelligence into account (Blair & Razza, 2007). Furthermore, interventions that have been found to improve children’s readiness for school appear to have this effect, in part as a result of improving children’s self-regulatory skills.

There is little information to date, however, about whether the extent of changes to self-regulation in the preschool years is important for academic achievement when children reach school. Do children who have more advanced self-regulatory skills by the time they reach school have greater academic achievement than children who show less improvement in self-regulatory skills during the preschool years?

Paying attention

We hypothesised that children who show greater improvement in their ability to self-regulate during early childhood may be more able to take advantage of educational opportunities when they commence school, and thus achieve better academically, than children who show lesser improvement in their self-regulation abilities.

We used data from over 1500 children who had participated in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, a nationally representative study of young children’s development (Sawyer et al., 2012; 2012a), and examined whether the extent of improvements to children’s task attentiveness and emotion regulation from ages two to six years affected their teacher-rated level of academic achievement at age six. We also asked parents questions such as: “Does your child go back to the same activity after an interruption?” or “Does your child respond to frustration intensely?”

Our research showed that children with greater improvement in their self-regulatory skills during early childhood had higher levels of academic achievement during their first years of schooling. We believe that these results highlight the importance of children’s development of self-regulation in early childhood for their later success at school. In particular, the ability to regulate attention in order to attend to and persist with tasks was found to effect both maths and literacy achievement.

Future work investigating the effects of enhanced preschool curriculums and interventions to improve children’s self-regulatory skills before they enter a formal schooling environment are important next steps. It may be that helping children to arrive at school with more developed self-regulatory skills may help them to be more ready and able to learn in a formal schooling environment.

Dr Alyssa Sawyer is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Discipline of Public Health, School of Population Health, University of Adelaide, Australia.

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