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Getting Ready for Pre-K and Later Life

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Professor Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

Professor Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

 Readiness for pre-K can be a strong predictor of achievement later on, finds a new study co-authored by TC’s Jeanne Brooks Gunn – but don’t give up on that rowdy toddler

How accurately does a child’s social, behavioral and academic readiness upon arriving at pre-school and kindergarten predict his or her achievement down the road?

TC faculty member Jeanne Brooks Gunn is among a 13-member international group of researchers who have sought to answer that question through a study -- “School Readiness and Later Achievement” – recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology and reported on in the New York Times.

The study found that a child’s mastery of “such early math concepts as knowledge of numbers and ordinality were the most powerful predictors of later learning,” while vocabulary, knowledge of letters, words and beginning and ending word sounds also were consistent predictors of later learning. But non-academic variables such as “externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors and social skills” were not at all predictive of later achievement.

Brooks Gunn is Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teacher’s College and the co-director of the Columbia University Institute for Child and Family Policy.

One non-academic factor did turn out to be predictive however: attention span. Children in the study who had trouble concentrating early on in their school careers were more likely to have academic trouble later on. Another intriguing discovery of the study was that early math capacity was a more powerful predictor of later reading achievement than early reading was of later math achievement.

The researchers reached their conclusions by analyzing data from six studies of children – four in the U.S., one in Great Britain and one in Canada -- conducted in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The studies followed the children from an early age through elementary school and in some cases beyond and included achievement test scores and in some cases teacher reports. The researchers were able to adjust the findings for factors like family income and family structure and to show that gender did not play a significant role.

One goal of the study was to provide an empirical basis for the theoretical assumption that children’s early academic skills and behavior are linked to their subsequent behavior and achievement. Another was to discover whether the data would support adding “domain-specific early skills to the definition of school readiness” and encourage “interventions aimed at promoting these skills prior to elementary school.”

Yet despite the predictive nature of early academic and concentration skills, the study’s author concluded they “could not attribute most of the variation in later school achievement to our collection of school entry factors, so the potential for productive interventions during the early school grades remains.”

The Times story paired the findings with a report on another important study -- this one by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and at McGill University in Montreal, Canada -- which found that the brains of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) developed normally but more slowly in some areas than did the brains of children without the condition.  This study involved 446 children ages six to 16, half with attention deficit disorder and half without.

According to the Times, the ADHD report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps to explain why so many children grow out of the diagnosis in middle school or later, often after taking stimulant medications to improve concentration in the earlier grades.

Taken together, the Times said, the findings from the two studies “could change the way scientists, teachers, and parents understand and manage children who are disruptive or emotionally withdrawn in the early years of school.” It also indicated that the findings in the study Brooks Gunn participated in “should put to rest concerns that boys and girls who are restless, disruptive or withdrawn in kindergarten are bound to suffer academically” later on.

In addition to Brooks Gunn, the authors of the school readiness study included researchers from Princeton, Northwestern, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Michigan, the University of London, the University of Montreal and the University of Quebec at Montreal.

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