WebMD Medical News
Daniel J. DeNoon
Louise Chang, MD
Nov. 12, 2007 -- A hotly controversial study shows that preschool math and
reading skills predict later academic success, but behavioral problems and
social skills don't.
Northwestern University economist Greg Duncan, PhD, and colleagues analyzed
data from six long-term studies of school readiness. The studies measured kids'
math and reading skills and various aspects of behavior both before entering
school at age 5 or 6 and later, during early or middle elementary school.
"The study was pretty surprising -- all six studies showed the
importance first of math skills, and second of reading skills," Duncan
tells WebMD. "But most surprising was that the association we expected
between behavior problems and lack of social skills and later learning seems to
Duncan, now president-elect of the Society for Research on Child
Development, was a member of a National Academies of Science panel that in 2000
reviewed the science of early childhood development. That panel came to a very
different conclusion. It found that school readiness depends just as much on
social and emotional skills as on thinking skills.
"I was never really convinced by the studies that show social and
emotional behaviors to be more important than cognitive skills," Duncan
In their study of the kindergarten skills that predict later academic
success, Duncan and colleagues found that math skills were by far the greatest
predictor of success. Kids who had mastered basic math skills before entering
kindergarten were much more likely than other kids to do well not only in math,
but also in reading.
Early math skills were twice as strong a predictor of academic success as
were reading skills. But like kids with good math skills, preschoolers with
good reading skills later did well in both math and reading. Math skills were
three times as strong a predictor of future success as ability to pay
attention, the only behavioral or social skill to show an effect in the Duncan
"We don't really know why behavioral variables do not affect later
achievement," Duncan says. "But for kids with a given set of reading
and math skills, it just doesn't seem that behavior problems give them a net
WebMD asked two child development experts -- both of whom recently published
studies on school readiness -- to comment on the Duncan study. Both were highly
critical of the study and of Duncan's conclusions.
Psychologist Clancy Blair, PhD, is associate professor of human development
and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.
"Duncan and his colleagues are brilliant people, but their conclusions
are built on feet of clay," Blair tells WebMD. "Their finding that
behavioral measures did not correlate with later academic success is contrary
to other data. They mainly focused on behavior problems. They did not tap into
behaviors more related to school readiness."
Psychologist Megan McClelland, PhD, associate professor of human development
and family sciences at Oregon State University, agrees with Blair that the
Duncan paper failed to measure important aspects of children's behavioral and
"Finding out that the skills you start out with predict the skills you
end up with is not very interesting," McClelland tells WebMD. "Other
studies, which find that children's improvement in self-regulation prior to
kindergarten predicts later academic skills, are much more compelling."
Neither Blair nor McClelland has a problem with teaching preschoolers basic
math and reading skills -- if it's done the right way.
"Drill 'em, kill 'em," Blair says. "Flash cards, the old
this-is-a-square, this-is-a-triangle -- that didactic stuff is poison. Parents
must manufacture situations where children take on challenges just at or above
their ability -- puzzling out words or letters or drawing a picture. If parents
make it fun, kids develop self-regulatory abilities from this sense of
McClelland argues that children can't learn math or reading if they can't
sit still and can't remember.
"Parents can make sure their children can sit still when they need to,
that they can work independently and also in a group. Those are the skills that
are going to set you up to be successful in life, because you follow
through," she says. "Can you work independently? Can people depend on
you? To do well on a math test you have to have these skills. Parents should
focus on whether their children can play well with other kids, and on whether
they have some self-regulation and persistence on tasks."
Duncan does not advocate preschool calculus classes. But he insists that his
study points to the need for research into the best ways to improve
preschoolers' early math and reading skills.
"It would be very interesting to see if reading and math interventions
affected math and reading much later on -- to see if more complicated skills in
third grade are boosted as well," he says. "We need to have a
cupboard-full of evaluations of the various curricula that extend beyond the
end of the programs themselves to see if there are lingering improvements in
what kids learn."
Meanwhile, Blair says parents should trust their children's innate curiosity
-- while being sure to set responsible limits in order to "seed" them
with the ability to self-regulate.
"Follow your child's lead in the way to make things interesting. Don't
direct every little thing," he says. "Whatever it is they are doing,
try to structure learning around their play. Anything that allows children to
integrate their wants, needs, and desires with some kind of planning process,
they are going to learn and be better for it."
The Duncan study appears in the November issue of Developmental
SOURCES: Duncan, G.J. Developmental Psychology, November 2007; vol
43: pp 1428-1446. Shonkoff, J.P.From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood
Development, National Academy of Sciences,
2000. McClelland, M.M. Developmental Psychology, November
2007; vol 43: pp 947-959. Blair, C. and Razza, R.P. Child Development,
March/April 2007; vol 78: pp 647-663. Greg J. Duncan, PhD, professor, school of
education and social policy, Northwestern University, Chicago; and president
elect, Society for Research on Child Development. Megan McClelland, PhD,
associate professor of human development and family sciences, Oregon State
University, Corvallis, Ore. Clancy Blair, PhD, associate professor of human
development and family studies, Pennsylvania State University, State College,
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