CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- "Works and plays well with others," that seemingly minor item on many a kindergarten report card, may be much more important to a child's academic success than many parents realize, a University of Illinois professor of educational psychology says.
Kids entering kindergarten who don't get along with peers and teachers often set themselves immediately on a "problematic pathway" of low and often declining school success, according to Gary Ladd, director of the Pathways Project, a long-term study of about 400 children that began with their entry into kindergarten.
The reason, as Ladd and his research colleagues explain it, is fairly simple. Early grade school is a social environment in which kids learn chiefly through interactions with peers and teachers. When they don't get along with those individuals, they can start to be left out of activities, they can sour on school, and learning suffers.
"The way we look at it is engagement is the number one thing. If kids don't engage and participate in classroom tasks with others, they're not going to learn as much as children who do," Ladd said. "We're saying that regardless of how prepared children are academically, they still have to attach or engage themselves within the school environment. And the glue that helps kids attach or engage with young kids, 4 and 5 years old is sometimes more interpersonal or social than it is academic.
"It appears that it is not the fun of math that makes kindergarteners want to come to school, it's having a friend in the classroom who's fun to play with or be with or work on things with, it's a teacher who they feel comfortable with and excited to be around, a classroom atmosphere that's supportive and encouraging."
Parents can help their children prepare for the social environment they will face in school by finding opportunities to observe them playing with other children, and then using conflicts or problems as opportunities to teach, Ladd said. Children in their preschool and early grade school years are not likely to connect their behavior with why they are liked or disliked, he said. "We interviewed a lot of kids who don't understand why people won't play with them. They have no idea."
By getting the child to focus on that connection, however, parents often can make a difference, he said. When they grab a toy or shove their way into line, "we simply try to teach them 'How do you suppose it makes the other person feel? Will they want to play with you if you do stuff like that?' Some kids do change as a result of that, when they begin to see the effect they're having."
The Pathways Project, funded with grants from the National Institutes of Health, is now in its seventh year. The two separate groups of children under study, from three central Illinois communities, are now entering fifth and sixth grades. The research conclusions released so far cover only through the second grade, Ladd noted.
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