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by Deirdre Wilson
It may sound obvious, but researchers say a new study linking young children’s attention skills to completing college years later is important at a time when academic subjects are increasingly taught in preschool.
“There is a big push now to teach children early academic skills at the preschool level,” says study lead author Megan McClelland, an early child development researcher at Oregon State University (OSU). “Our study shows that the biggest predictor of college completion wasn’t math or reading skills, but whether or not [kids] were able to pay attention and finish tasks at age 4.”
The study tracked 430 preschool-age kids and found that those with good attention and task-completion skills in preschool were 50 percent more likely to complete college. That means that social and behavioral skills, the foundation of the preschool experience, may be even more important down the road than academic abilities, the researchers say. And, they note, attention and persistence can be taught.
In the study, parents of preschool children rated their kids on behavior such as “plays with a single toy for long periods of time” or “gives up easily when difficulties are encountered.” When the kids reached age 7, researchers assessed their reading and math skills. And at age 21, the same group was tested again for reading and math skills.
Ironically, reading and math achievement didn’t strongly predict whether or not a student completed college. Instead, the study revealed that kids rated higher by their parents on attention span and persistence at age 4 were nearly 50 percent more likely to get a bachelor’s degree by age 25.
“We didn’t look at how well they did in college or at grade-point average,” McClelland says. “The important factor was being able to focus and persist. Someone can be brilliant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can focus when they need to and finish a task or job.”
Simple classroom games such as Simon Says and Red Light/Green Light have proven effective for helping both literacy and self-regulation skills, which in turn improve a child’s ability to listen, pay attention, follow through on a task and remember instructions, McClelland says.
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