Can friendships as a teenager predict later mental health?

Research by Rachel Narr and colleagues at the University of Virginia looked at whether the quality of friendships during adolescence can predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health.

The study looked at a sample of 169 teenagers over 10 years, from age 15 to 25. They were surveyed annually and asked about who their closest friends were along with questions about those friendships. They were also assessed on anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth and symptoms of depression.

The researchers found that teens who prioritised close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression at age 25 than their peers. However, teens who had lots of friends, rather than a few close friendships, had higher levels of anxiety as young adults.

The study also determined that there was a low relation between teens having high-quality friendships and being more sought after by their peers, suggesting that although some teens manage both popularity and close friendship well, and attract both due to similar characteristics, for the most part, these two types of social success are due to different personal attributes.

Source: Close friendship strength and broader peer group desirability as differential predictors of adult mental health (August 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12905

Links between pre-school absenteeism and academic learning

A new study, published in Child Development, found that children in the US pre-school programme Head Start who missed 10% or more of the school year had fewer academic gains than their peers who attended pre-school more regularly.

Arya Ansari and Kelly M Purtell used data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009 cohort (n=2,842) to examine the effects of absenteeism among 3- and 4-year-olds on early academic learning. Their findings revealed that, on average, children missed eight days of the school year. However, 12% of children were chronically absent – defined as missing 10% of the school year or more – and missed an average of 22 days of school. Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in maths and literacy during the pre-school year. For maths, this was equivalent to approximately two months of lost academic skill gains. In literacy the loss was three months.

The study also found that Black and Latino children were less likely to be absent than white children. Children from households with married parents were less likely to be absent than those from households without two parents. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operate for more hours per week and in larger and bilingual classrooms. Children were more likely to be absent if their mother showed more depressive symptoms and was unemployed. The quality of interactions between teachers and children positively affected children’s development of literacy skills, and the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Source:  Absenteeism in Head Start and children’s academic learning (May 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12800

How much sleep do teenagers need?

In a new study published in Child Development, Andrew J Fuligni and colleagues examined whether there is an “optimal” amount of sleep for peak levels of academic achievement and mental health in teenagers.

A total of 421 pupils (mean age = 15.03 years) with Mexican-American backgrounds from the 9th and 10th grades (Years 10 and 11) of two high schools in the Los Angeles area reported the amount of sleep they had every night for two weeks. Official school records were obtained at the end of the academic year to measure academic achievement. The Youth Self-Report form of the Child Behavior Checklist was used as a measure of mental health. A year later, 80% repeated the same process and a second wave of data was collected.

Pupils who averaged 8.75 – 9 hours of sleep per school night demonstrated peak levels of mental health, whereas those who averaged 7 – 7.5 hours of sleep per night had the highest levels of academic achievement (see also an earlier study reported in Best Evidence in Brief).

While the results showed that the “optimal” amount of sleep needed is different for the two developmental outcomes, the researchers note that reducing sleep for the sake of academic performance may result in a greater decline in mental health than in the decline in academic performance from increasing sleep for the sake of mental health.

Source: Adolescent sleep duration, variability, and peak levels of achievement and mental health (January 2017), Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12729

Early maths knowledge among low-income children linked to later achievement

A longitudinal study published in Child Development evaluates an early maths trajectories model for 517 low-income US children from ages 4- to 11-years-old to determine whether children’s maths skills at 4- and 5-years-old predicted their maths achievement at age 11.

Children were tested on six maths skills (patterning, counting objects, comparing quantities, understanding written numbers, calculating and understanding shapes) during their last year of pre-school and near the end of the first grade (Year 2). At the end of the fifth grade (Year 6), they were tested on a range of maths knowledge, including knowledge about numbers, algebra, and geometry.

Bethany Rittle‐Johnson and colleagues found that children’s skills in patterning, comparing quantities and counting objects in pre-school were strong predictors of their maths achievement at age 11. By the end of the first grade (Year2), understanding written numbers and calculating were the strongest predictors of later maths knowledge. Patterning skills remained a predictor, however, shape knowledge was never a unique predictor of later maths achievement.

These results suggest that children’s maths knowledge in pre-school is related to their later achievement; however, not all early achievement is a useful predictor of future performance.

Source: Early math trajectories: low-income children’s mathematics knowledge from ages 4 to 11 (2016) Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12662

Children’s temperament and teachers as mediators

A new article in Child Development reports on a Finnish study of children’s temperament and their maths and reading development, focusing on whether teachers’ interaction style acts as a mediator between pupils’ temperament characteristics and their skill development.

The study followed 156 Finnish children, each from a different class, during their first year of primary school (equivalent to Year 3 in the UK). The participating children completed maths and English tests in October and April, and parents and teachers completed questionnaires about the child’s temperament. Teachers also answered daily questionnaires over a one-week period about their interaction style with the target child.

There were four components of the child’s temperament: Task orientation (activity, persistence, and distractibility); inhibition; positive mood; and negative emotionality. There were three components of teacher’s interaction styles: Affection (a positive and warm daily relationship with the child); behavioural control (the degree to which the teacher aimed to directly influence the child’s behaviour); and psychological control (teachers expressing disappointment and appealing to guilt).

The authors found different results for reading and maths. Although children’s low task orientation and negative emotionality were negatively associated with the children’s initial reading skill level at the beginning of the year, temperament did not predict children’s subsequent reading skill development during the year. The authors suggest this may reflect the relatively late school starting age and the consistent nature of Finnish orthography.

In contrast, the study indicated that for maths, temperament does play a role, perhaps reflecting the different learning process. The results showed that the impact of children’s low task orientation and negative emotionality on maths skill development was mediated by teachers’ behavioural control and, among girls, also by psychological control. However, the negative impact of children’s inhibition on maths skill development was not mediated by teachers’ interaction style.

Source: Children’s Temperament and Academic Skill Development During First Grade: Teachers’ Interaction Styles as Mediators (2015), Child Development, 86(4).

“Cool” kids meet a sticky end

A longitudinal study published in Child Development has shown that trying to grow up too soon is a good predictor of long-term difficulties.

When pseudomature behaviour (such as minor delinquency or precocious romantic involvement) occurs early in adolescence it can reflect an overemphasis on wanting to impress peers, and predict long-term adjustment problems. In the study, 184 adolescents in the south-eastern United States were followed from ages 13 to 23. At age 13, pseudomature behaviour was linked to an increased desire for peer popularity and led to short-term success with peers.

However, long-term follow-up showed that pseudomature behaviour predicted difficulties in social functioning ten years later. Those who had shown pseudomature behaviour experienced declining popularity with peers, and lower levels of peer competence, as rated by their peers, in early adulthood. It also predicted higher adult levels of more serious criminal behaviour, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Adolescents who engaged most in pseudomature behaviour were also those who valued being popular most highly. The authors say that this status-seeking link is important, since it suggests that some early adolescents learn to establish connections with peers by trying to impress them with pseudomature behaviour, rather than by learning to connect with them via more adaptive means.

Source: What Ever Happened to the “Cool” Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior, Child Development, 85(5).