OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Study Links Preschool Behavior to Academic Success

11/19/2007

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study by an Oregon State University faculty member shows that preschool age children who do not master basic self-regulation skills such as paying attention and following instructions may fall behind in academic subjects including math and reading.

Megan McClelland, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at OSU, and her colleagues used a game called the Head-to-Toes Task to assess a child’s ability to listen, pay attention and regulate their own behavior. The researchers found that children’s performance on the behavioral regulation game significantly and positively predicted early literacy, vocabulary and math skills even after controlling for initial skills in those areas.

These findings contradict a recent controversial study that found weak or no association between children’s socioemotional skills – including attention – and learning. In contrast, McClelland and other leading child development experts across the country find a direct correlation between specific aspects of school readiness such as self-regulation and academic success.

“How can a child have strong reading or math skills if they can't sit still, pay attention or remember instructions?” McClelland said. “We found that the gains children made on a five-minute, self-regulation game over the preschool year predicted the gains they made in early reading, math, and vocabulary.”

The Head-to-Toes Task that McClelland and her co-authors used as a measure of behavioral regulation requires attention, working memory and inhibitory control. More than 300 preschool children were tested at two different sites in Michigan and Oregon. The study controlled for age, gender and other background variables.

Results found that every seven-point increase in behavioral regulation over the school year predicted between three weeks and 2.8 months of learning gains in vocabulary, math and literacy.

McClelland said that some of the new research pointing to the overriding importance of early math and reading skills was based on less sensitive measurement of social skills and self-regulation, compared to relatively strong measures of early achievement.

“I don’t think you can separate a child’s behavior from their achievement during the early years of school,” she said. “When you give a 5-year-old a test to assess early math skills, you might be testing their ability to sit still, pay attention and follow direction just as much as testing their math ability.”

McClelland said the Head-to-Toes Task is a strong predictor of early achievement because it does not rely on parent or teacher reports, which can often be biased. Instead, it independently assessed the child’s ability to follow multiple instructions in the game and tracked their progress over the school year.

McClelland’s findings on the link between behavioral regulation and academic skills came out in the summer edition of Developmental Psychology. Another paper that assesses the reliability and developmental trends of the Head-to-Toes Task, authored by McClelland and lead author Claire Cameron Ponitz of the University of Virginia, will be published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly in early 2008.