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New Evidence: Early Ability to Focus, Have Self Control Linked to College Completion

Learning how to learn plays a key role in whether children go on to graduate from college, a new study by Megan McClelland of Oregon State University and her colleagues finds.
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Learning how to learn plays a key role in whether children go on to graduate from college, a new study by Megan McClelland of Oregon State University and her colleagues finds.

It turns out, one aspect of executive function skills in four-year-olds -- what the researchers call "attention-span persistence" -- is strongly predictive of whether or not these same children graduated from college when they were 25-years-old. The researchers define attention span-persistence as "the ability to focus, attend to relevant information, and persist on a task."

This finding, in and of itself, should be headline news for families, educators and policy makers because it shows that:

• The early years set the stage for later learning;

• Promoting the tools of learning -- helping children learn HOW to learn -- is just as important, if not more important, than teaching children content; and

• These tools for learning involve what researchers call "executive function skills, including focus, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self control.

As important as this finding is, so too is the public response, at least as reflected on the New York Times website, where a blog was posted on August 23rd and an article will appear in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on August 26th.

In this blog, provocatively titled, "Simon Says Don't Use Flashcards," Wellness Columnist Tara Parker-Pope argues for helping children learn executive function skills by playing games with them, like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Clapping and Singing Games. She does so because studies, such as those quoted in my book, Mind in the Making, show that these games can promote executive function skills.

Not surprisingly, some of the comments on the blogs devolved into an either/or debate about free play and games.

One individual wrote that Einstein, Newton, and Shakespeare didn't need these -- "Kids need time to imagine. They need unfettered time in nature."

Another said: "simple, unstructured play time is the most underrated educational tool, not just for preschoolers but for older kids as well."

Yes, play is important and so are games. It is not either/or. It is instructive to look at how the researchers measured "attention span-persistence." They asked parents to rate their child on five questions on a five-point scale that assessed the degree to which this a characteristic was "not at all like their child" to it was "a lot like their child." The questions included whether their child "plays with a single toy for long periods of time," or "persists at a task until successful." Conversely, they asked whether the child "goes from toy to toy quickly" or "gives up easily when difficulties are encountered." Note that the focus is on playing.

Megan McClelland's carefully designed study, where the researchers began with 430 adopted and non-adopted children and followed them over time, statistically controlling for other factors that might make a difference, such as their reading and math achievements levels when they were seven-years-old as well as demographic and family factors, such as children's gender, their mother's educational achievement, and whether or not the children were adopted.

The key finding is best summarized in the researchers' own words: individual's attention span-persistence rating by his/her parents was a stronger predictor of college completion by age 25 than his/her reading or math score at age 7 or age 21.

For those who are into statistics, they are dramatic:

Specifically, children who were rated one standard deviation higher on attention span-persistence at age 4 had 48.7% greater odds of completing college by age 25.

The researchers conclude by suggesting that families and teachers provide "fun and engaging activities" to help children learn to pay attention and keep trying hard things. In the New York Times blog, the lead researcher Megan McClelland is quoted as saying: "Play is one of the most cognitively stimulating things a child can do."

So please--let's put away our outmoded notions of play versus games. Children need both!

When we hear the words, "attention span-persistence," it can sound like making children sit still and memorize content (perhaps even from flash cards). The message of this study is far different. It calls for giving young children--these are four year olds--active, physical games to do and time to play to promote their abilities in paying attention and in persisting when things get hard! These are important lessons for us all!

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