Does exercise improve children’s cognitive performance?

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology looks at the effects of a nine-week programme of daily exercise on children’s cognitive performance, aerobic fitness and physical activity levels.

Vera van den Berg and colleagues conducted a cluster randomised controlled trial in 21 classes in eight Dutch primary schools. A total of 512 children aged 9 to 12 participated. The intervention consisted of daily classroom-based exercise breaks of moderate to vigorous intensity. Each break lasted approximately ten minutes, and children were asked to mimic dance moves from a video. Children in the control group watched 10- to 15-minute information and educational videos related to the body, exercise and sports.

Before and after the intervention, children were asked to perform four cognitive tasks to measure their cognitive performance in selective attention, inhibition and memory retrieval. Children’s aerobic fitness was measured with a shuttle run test, and accelerometers were used to measure physical activity throughout the day.

At the end of the nine weeks, the exercise intervention had no effect on children’s cognitive performance or aerobic fitness. Children in the intervention group spent 2.9 minutes more of the school day involved in moderate to vigorous physical activity compared to the children in the control group. The study concludes that daily exercise breaks can be implemented in the classroom in order to promote physical activity during school time, but don’t improve children’s cognitive performance.

Source: Improving cognitive performance of 9-12 years old children: Just Dance? A randomized controlled trial (February 2019), Frontiers in Psychology 10:174

Kindergarten-based yoga programme improves cognition and behaviour in children

A randomised controlled trial published in Frontiers of Psychology, assesses the impact of a kindergarten-based yoga programme on cognitive performance, visual-motor coordination, and inattentive and hyperactive behaviours in five-year-old Tunisian children.

Forty-five children (28 female and 17 male) took part in the 12-week trial, and were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Fifteen children performed Hatha yoga twice a week for 30 minutes per session, 15 children performed generic physical education twice a week for 30 minutes per session, and another 15 children performed no kind of physical activity, and served as a control group.

Prior to and after the 12 weeks, all children completed a visual attention test and a visual-motor precision test, and teachers evaluated their inattention and hyperactivity behaviours. The three interventions were conducted in parallel and supervised by teachers who were not involved in rating the children’s behaviour pre- and post-test.

Sana Jarraya and colleagues found that yoga had a positive impact on children’s inattention and hyperactivity compared to the other two groups. Yoga also had a positive impact on the completion times for two visual-motor precision tasks in comparison to children in the physical education group. The visual attention scores of the yoga group were also higher in comparison to the control group.

The researchers concluded that yoga could be a cost-effective exercise for enhancing cognitive and behavioural factors relevant for leaning and academic achievement among young children.

Source: 12 weeks of kindergarten-based yoga practice increases visual attention, visual-motor precision and decreases behavior of inattention and hyperactivity in 5-year-old children (April 2019), Frontiers in Psychology

Class clowns are no joke

A longitudinal study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that the older pupils get, the less they approve of male classmates who are looked upon as class clowns. Specifically, boys who act mischievously to make their peers laugh in first grade (Year 2) start to be shunned for their behaviour by third grade (Year 4), and lose self-esteem.

Educational psychologist Lynn Barnett followed 278 children from kindergarten through to third grade (Year 1 to Year 4) to examine “playful” children’s perception of themselves and how others saw them as the school years progressed. To determine which children were the most “playful,” Barnett used the 23-item Children’s Playfulness Scale; surveys on teacher-, peer-, and self-rated social competence; and teacher-, peer-, and self-rated disruptive classroom behaviours, placing pupils named by at least 25% of their peers into the “playful” category.

She found that pupils in the first grade equally regarded girls and boys as class clowns, but by third grade, mostly boys were labelled as such, even when the girls still demonstrated playful behaviour. Although playful children were often popular in the early school years and saw themselves as having better social skills than others, by third grade the male class clowns were the ones likely to be played with the least, losing confidence and seeing themselves as socially incompetent. This is in sharp contrast to female class clowns, who did not lose popularity or self-esteem by third grade. One pattern of note was that in all Year groups, teachers did not view playful girls as negatively as they did playful boys. Dr Barnett discusses these implications, and teachers’ influence on the way male class clowns are perceived.

Source: The education of playful boys: class clowns in the classroom (March 2018), Frontiers in Psychology Volume 9, Article 232

Montessori preschool boosts academic results and reduces income achievement gap

A longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined how children in Montessori schools changed over three years compared with children in other pre-school settings.

The Montessori model involves both child-directed, freely-chosen activity and academic content. Angeline Lillard and colleagues compared educational outcomes for children allocated places by a random lottery to either Montessori pre-schools (n=70) or non-Montessori pre-school settings (n=71) in Connecticut, US. The research team carried out a variety of assessments with the children over a three-year period, from when the children were three until they were six.

The researchers found that over time children in Montessori pre-schools performed better on measures of academic achievement (Woodcock–Johnson IIIR Tests of Achievement effect size = +0.41) and social understanding, while enjoying their school work more, than those in conventional pre-school settings. They also found that in Montessori classrooms, children from low-income families, who typically don’t perform as well in school, showed similar academic performance as children from higher-income families. Children with low executive function similarly performed as well as those with high executive function.

The findings, they suggest, indicate that well-implemented Montessori education could be a way to help disadvantaged children to achieve their academic potential.

Source: Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study (October 2017), Frontiers in Psychology

Screen time or story time?

A new article published in Frontiers of Psychology analyses differences in parent-child talk and reading behaviour when reading print versus electronic versions of the same books.

Parents of 102 children aged 17-26 months from Toronto, Canada, were randomly assigned to read either two electronic books or two print format books with their child. The books had identical content, but while the parent read the words in the print books aloud, the electronic books had an automatic voiceover. After reading, the children were asked to identify an animal presented in the books. Children who read the e-book made more correct choices.

Gabrielle Strouse and Patricia Ganea found that parents who read the print books pointed more frequently to pages than parents who read the electronic books. But the opposite was true for the children. Parents and children spent almost twice as much time reading the electronic books as the print format books. Children who were read the electronic books paid more attention, made themselves more available for reading, participated in more page turns, and produced more content-related comments during reading than those who were read the print format books.

The researchers point out that while increased engagement does not always translate into increased learning, the positive engagement and content-related language observed in the children who were read the electronic books suggests they have a role in supporting learning for younger children. However, more work should be done to identify the potential benefits and hazards.

Source: Parent-toddler behavior and language differ when reading electronic and print picture books (May 2017), Frontiers in Psychology 8:677

Does anxiety affect performance, or poor performance cause anxiety?

Mathematics anxiety (MA) is the state of discomfort around the performance of mathematical tasks. Does MA cause poor performance in mathematics, or is it poor performance in mathematics that causes MA? The question is important, because it affects the “treatment” that results. Should the focus be on improving students’ confidence, or their maths ability?

A review in Frontiers in Psychology considers the evidence supporting the two models – The Deficit Theory, which claims that poor performance leads to high anxiety, or The Debilitating Anxiety Theory, which claims that anxiety reduces performance by affecting the pre-processing, processing, and retrieval of information.

The evidence is conflicting – there is research to support the Deficit Theory, with the strongest evidence coming from longitudinal studies and studies of mathematical disabilities. Similarly, there is support for the Debilitating Anxiety Model from studies across all ages that have manipulated anxiety to reveal either a deterioration or improvement in performance. The paper considers that this is indicative of a Reciprocal Theory, where MA and poor performance reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. This in turn suggests that interventions to address MA should target both the anxiety and mathematics performance.

Source: The Chicken or the Egg? The Direction of the Relationship Between Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Performance (2016), Frontiers in Psychology.