Here is a novel idea: Use the classroom as a training ground for later workplace behavior.
As a psychologist and former nurse who studies human development, I think this idea is right on. In my profession, we see people as “a work in progress” and we see a lot of what we call “developmental continuity” - people exhibit certain specific characteristics continuously across time.
In my research projects, I see this idea demonstrated repeatedly - sedentary kids often become sedentary people (the two year old who watches television excessively tends to be the eleven year old with much more screen-time than average;) the impulsive five year old is more likely to still be impulsive in middle school; the physically aggressive kindergartner tends to be more physically aggressive a decade later.
It logically follows that if I am looking at some kind of work-related behavior (like showing autonomy, persistence, and resourcefulness) at a desk at age five, I can project out to later on in life and imagine the likelihood of the same work-related behavior at a desk at age 25. Sociologists have been discussing this for the past decade, and about five years ago I became interested in what they were saying and added their thoughts to my school readiness project.
How prepared children are on their first day of school is important to parents, teachers and the population at large because school readiness is very predictive of how things are going to go over the long term. Researchers in my field have traditionally considered intellectual skills (knowing how to write a letter or two or your name, understanding that letters make words and that words make text, knowing that the number of objects increase as you go along the number line, etc.) to be what matters when kids start kindergarten.
But economists have shown us that you can have two Harvard graduates with the same grade point average and the same IQ turn out very differently in terms of personal and financial success. The distinction is in how each person manages his or her attitude in the workplace. Combine all these multidisciplinary ideas together and we can begin to think of the classroom as the child’s workplace. Or, even better, we can think of early childhood education as the time during which the child gets to practice good workplace behavior before he or she gets there!
In a paper recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, my colleagues and I took those ideas (which make up an entire semester of a graduate psychology seminar) and sought to find an indicator of later childhood work habits in the classroom.
I chose to study attention for two reasons: One, we all know that intellectual skills are important markers of later success and two, you need good attention skills to successfully fit into the school environment and manage a school’s expectations.
Not enough is known about attention skills in developing children, especially when it comes to school readiness. We know a lot about attention problems, but not enough about attention as a skill.
In 1997, I started a longitudinal study with children who were entering kindergarten. After a few months of settling in, I asked the teachers to provide observational data on the attention skills of the children in my study (i.e., does this child listen attentively, does this child seem distracted, does this child seem to concentrate well, etc.) These children were also tested for their vocabulary and number knowledge.
Then, from grades one through six, I asked homeroom teachers to rate their productive behavior (i.e., works cooperatively with other children, demonstrates self-control, shows self-confidence, follows directions, completes work on time, works independently, capable of making decisions, and follows rules and task instructions.)
The above behaviors are much like how we would like our coworkers to act. This is no coincidence. Of the 1,369 children that we followed longitudinally, we found evidence that attention skills - which are easily observed by teachers - chart a life-course pathway toward more productive work-related behavior from first to sixth grade.
Those with less strong attention skills were less likely to be on a path of productive and persistent workplace behavior. Most amazingly, these results did not depend on how smart the children were or what kind of family they were from. This is great because it matches up perfectly with the basic values that our ancestors sold us: If you work hard, people will notice, and it will pay off.
Indeed, we researchers noticed!
Linda Pagani, PhD, is a professor and researcher at the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine. Her study on the attentiveness of kindergartners was published by the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in January.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.