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Self-regulation in kindergarten predicts grade one success

by Lindsay Olivet Dec 5 / 14

Image above: The study found that having a good relationship with the teacher helps students develop the ability to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour, which in turn helps them engage in school. Adrees Latif / Reuters

Kids who can’t sit still, pay attention and control their impulses are more likely to have conflicts with their teachers, and poor student-teacher relationships can predict lower academic success in grade one, a new study has found.

The study, which looked at 338 kids in California schools, also found the opposite is true: students who are good at controlling their behaviour, attention and emotion — an ability referred to as self-regulation — tend to have a close, positive relationship with their teachers and be more engaged in school. They may have stronger literacy and numeracy skills at the end of grade one as a result.

CIFAR Global Scholar Alumna Jelena Obradović (Stanford University), Advisor Nancy Adler and Senior Fellow Thomas Boyce (both University of California, San Francisco) of the program in Child & Brain Development are co-authors on the paper in Child Development, along with Parissa Ballard (University of California) and lead author Ximena Portilla (Stanford University).

“What we are finding is that children’s current inattention and impulsivity tends to predict higher levels of conflict with teachers later on,” Obradović says. “Conflict can predict less school engagement.”

For many children, kindergarten is the first time they spend structured days in an institutional setting. Past research has shown that these early experiences — whether positive or negative — can stay with kids throughout their lives, affecting their academic achievement. This makes it crucial to understand what helps to engage them from the beginning.

Measuring engagement in the context of kindergarteners means asking kids questions about how much they like school, such as if they are cheerful at school and interested in classroom activities. Using surveys to teachers and parents, the researchers measured how early experiences in the classroom affected kids during those first months in school and afterward, when they moved on to grade one.

They found that kids who liked school at the end of kindergarten were more likely to have strong relationships with their teacher in grade one, and they were better at learning their ABCs and 123s. The authors say the study is evidence that professional development for teachers is essential to helping them build positive relationships with students, particularly for those kids who are disruptive or inattentive.

“We can train teachers to be more sensitive and supportive of these children, even though these are the children that may cause the most problems in your classroom,” Obradović says. Schools and policies must also support teachers in creating a positive classroom environment, the authors say.

However, the study also found evidence that a new teacher can present new opportunities. Students who didn’t get along with their teachers in kindergarten could have better relationships with their grade one teachers, suggesting a change could create a second chance for capturing kids’ interest in learning.

Obradović says her next goal is to understand specifically how the classroom environment influences children’s development of skills they need to focus and control their behaviour. Researchers in her lab have spent hundreds of hours studying classrooms with third, fourth and fifth graders as part of ongoing research in this area. She is also collaborating with colleagues at Aga Khan University on a school readiness project with children in Pakistan, where she first travelled as a CIFAR Global Scholar.