Does school entry age matter?

In the UK, children usually start primary school in the academic year in which they turn five. However, because entry rules vary across local authorities, some schools may defer entry for children born later in the year until the second or third term.

A new study at University College London looks at what impact an earlier versus later entry into Reception has on pupils’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills up until age 11 (their final year of primary school).

Christian Dustmann and Thomas Cornelissen analysed information on more than 400,000 children born in 2000-01 who attended state schools in England and whose records are included in the National Pupil Database. This was combined with information on more than 7,000 children born in 2000-01 who took part in the Millennium Cohort study.

The researchers found that receiving an extra month of schooling before age five increases test scores in language and numeracy at ages five and seven by about 6–11%. But by age 11, the effects on test scores have largely disappeared. For boys from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the benefits of an earlier school entry are even greater. An additional term of schooling before age five reduces the achievement gap between boys from low and high socioeconomic backgrounds at age seven by 60-80%.

Source: Early school exposure, test scores, and noncognitive outcomes (March 2019), CReAM Discussion Paper Series CDP 03/19, Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration

“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).

Less structure = better outcomes?

Frontiers in Psychology has published a new study that suggests that children whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals.

As part of the study, parents of 70 6-year-olds were surveyed about their children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. Researchers then categorised the children’s activities as either more structured or less structured, based on categorisation schemes from prior studies on children’s leisure-time use. In their classification system, structured time was defined to include any time outside of formal schooling spent in activities organised and supervised by adults (eg, piano lessons, organised football practice, and homework). Less-structured activities included free play alone and with others, social outings, sightseeing, reading, and media time. The children were also evaluated for self-directed executive function – the ability to set and reach goals independently – with a verbal fluency test.

Results of the study showed that the more time children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. Conversely, the more time children spent in more-structured activities, the poorer their self-directed executive function.

The researchers emphasise that their results show a correlation between time use and self-directed executive function, but they don’t prove that the change in self-directed executive function was caused by the amount of structured or unstructured time. The research team is considering a longitudinal study, which would follow participants over time, to begin to answer the question of cause.

Source: Less-structured Time in Children’s Daily Lives Predicts Self-directed Executive Functioning (2014), Frontiers in Psychology, online June 2014.

How an inner-city childhood affects adult success

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US have published results of a study that show “A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories.” As part of the study, the researchers followed nearly 800 Baltimore school children for a quarter of a century – from 1982, the year they entered first grade (age 6-7), until they turned 28 or 29 years old – focusing in particular on those who started in the most disadvantaged settings. Data included interviews with families, teachers, and other community members as the children made their way through elementary, middle, and high school; joined the work force; and started families.

Key findings of the study included:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships.
  • The most likely to abuse drugs were better-off white men.

Read more about the findings on the Johns Hopkins news website.

Source: The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood (2014), American Sociological Association.

Improving outcomes for children and their parents

A new article published in European Child Adolescent Psychiatry indicates that parent-focused interventions, implemented in the early years, can result in improvements in child and parent behaviour and well-being 12 months later, as well as a possible reduced reliance on formal services.

The article describes an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Incredible Years Basic parenting programme (IYBP) in reducing child conduct problems and improving parent competencies and mental health. A total of 103 families and their children (between ages 2 and 7), who previously participated in a randomised controlled trial of the IYBP, took part in a 12-month follow-up assessment. Child and parent behaviour and well-being were measured using psychometric and observational measures. Pre- to post-intervention service use and related costs were also analysed.

Results indicate that post-intervention improvements in child conduct problems, parenting behaviour, and parental mental health were maintained, while service use and associated costs continued to decline.

Source: Reducing Child Conduct Disordered Behaviour and Improving Parent Mental Health in Disadvantaged Families: A 12-month Follow-up and Cost Analysis of a Parenting Intervention (2014), European Child Adolescent Psychiatry.

Quality matters for preschool

A new report from The Sutton Trust and Oxford University reviews the evidence on early childhood education and care for children under three, and finds that developmental benefits will only be achieved if children are able to attend good-quality preschool. The findings, which draw on research from the UK, US, and Australia on both centre-based care and home-based care provided by childminders, identify four key dimensions of good-quality pedagogy for all children under three:

  • Stable relationships and interactions with sensitive and responsive adults;
  • A focus on play-based activities and routines which allow children to take the lead in their own learning;
  • Support for communication and language; and
  • Opportunities to move and be physically active.

The report provides recommendations for policy and practice, which focus in particular on helping children from poorer backgrounds overcome early disadvantage. Several of these relate to the “quality” of staff. For example, recommendations include increasing pay rates contingent upon improved qualifications, and ensuring that practitioners have access to continuing professional development.

The authors also recommend retaining an overall ratio of 1:4 for group-care settings and 1:3 for home settings, working to ensure a good social mix in early years settings so that lower-income children mix with other children, and having an appropriate physical environment (eg, stimulating and appropriate resources; space for eating, sleeping, and physical activity; and small group sizes appropriate for age/stage).

Source: Sound Foundations. A Review of the Research Evidence on Quality of Early Childhood Education and Care for Children Under Three: Implications for Policy and Practice (2014), The Sutton Trust and Oxford University.