If a child is a brat in kindergarten he may be a handful for parents and teachers, but he's not at higher risk for academic problems down the road, researchers have found.
Children who are disruptive in class and have trouble getting along with their peers are no less likely to succeed later in school than their well-behaved counterparts, according to an analysis of six studies of a total of 36,000 preschoolers in Canada, Britain and the United States.
The study, which appears today in the journal Developmental Psychology, reports that other factors, including math skills, are far more relevant to a child's future success.
Previous research had suggested emotional development was a predictor of academic success. "I expected the behaviour measure to be significant," says Greg Duncan, professor of human development and social policy and faculty fellow of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University in Illinois and one of the lead authors of the study.
Instead, the "association between anti-social behaviour, social skills and later learning was essentially zero," Dr. Duncan says. A child's math and reading skills are better clues to how a child's school life will unfold, he adds.
After taking into account factors such as IQ and temperament, the researchers found that children who already had a knowledge of numbers and an idea of the relative size of numbers when they entered kindergarten did better at math when assessed between the ages of 7 and 14. Elementary reading skills were the next strongest indicator.
A child's ability to pay attention ended up as a modestly important third factor, Dr. Duncan says. "It's small, but it passes muster in terms of statistical significance."
There is one caveat: While behavioural problems don't seem to interfere with a child's future success, Dr. Duncan says parents and teachers shouldn't ignore those problems altogether. While many children just settle down over time, if problems persist as a child gets older they can directly affect test scores, school completion and earnings.
"Our interpretation is that behaviour problems are much more consequential later on. Kids can get suspended from school. They can get in trouble with the law when they're teenagers."
Dr. Duncan says research in this field may lead to the fine-tuning of preschool curriculums to encourage math and reading skills. It may also lead to new advice on how best to spend education dollars.
"Maybe the allocation isn't right," says Dr. Duncan, who is also an economist. "Maybe instead of putting a lot of money into teen dropout programs we should be spending the money earlier trying to get kids into school on the right track."
But parents needn't stock up on flash cards for their toddlers in anticipation of kindergarten, he says. He advocates a "serve-and-return" approach to encourage growing brains.
"I would caution about being too formal about it," Dr. Duncan says. "Pots and pans and wooden spoons are just as good at getting a child to learn basic things as the much more complicated things people want to sell you."
Essentially, he says, keep paying attention to your children and run with their natural curiosity - until they need a break.
"If kids are overloaded, they'll look away from you as if to say 'I'm done,' " he says. "Until that point, they're wired up to be really interested in what's going on."