Behavioral Problems Do Not Necessarily Create Failing Students
> 11/13/2007 11:33:30 AM

The perception makes sense: kids who can't seem to contain themselves or avoid acting up as kindergarteners probably shouldn't count on bright futures in the school system. If they don't understand the basic principles of sitting still and completing assignments in class, how can they stick with the program for another decade (or two)? Higher ed would seem but a distant fantasy - completing high school will prove challenging enough. But new research could bury the myth that poorly behaved kids are less intelligent or capable in the realm of academic performance than their more appropriately mannered peers. Math and reading skills are, in fact, far better predictors of a child's later school experience than his or her disciplinary record.

An international team of researchers based at Northwestern University compiled longitudinal data tracking the school records and ascertaining the emotional and intellectual development of more than 16,000 students from kindergarten through the crucial fifth grade year. Coming at the cusp of adolescence and middle school, fifth grade often serves as a preview of the problems and successes to follow. The study's major revelation: at 11-12 years of age, the children who'd been prone to interrupt the teacher, pick fights or interrupt classroom activities in kindergarten were scoring just as well on aptitude tests as their better-behaved peers. Math proficiency at the age of 5 was the most accurate sign of good grades to come regardless of co-existing social and emotional problems.

The results of this study do not minimize the problems created by children who lack the ability to follow instructions, settle down for required periods or refrain from behaving rudely in class. While the research clearly indicates that not all hope is lost for those kids who can't quite behave, their habits definitely affect the school experience of those sitting in class with them. To what degree do unruly toddlers compromise the learning process for the kids across the table who can't prevent their unfortunate outbursts?

We can't ignore problem children by operating under the clinically proven certainty that they'll manage to straighten themselves out over the following 8 years. This study does not in any way diminish the obvious need for behavioral conditioning. It simply reinforces the irresponsibility of assuming that these kids have no chance and delegating them to special needs classes or reformatory programs that, in many cases, only serve to reinforce pre-existing problems. So do we expect unreasonable degrees of maturity from our kindergarteners? In many cases, yes. They are, after all, young children, and they can't be expected to live by the standards that maturity allows us to devise. We can't simply look the other way when they misbehave, and we need to have programs in place to address problem cases, but we should try to avoid singling them out

Recommendations from the study's authors sound nearly identical to those proposed by education experts: better preschool training in reading and math. Starting with the essentials as early as possible does not compromise a child's ability to do the things associated with childhood. We're not talking about direct instruction to prepare for assessment. Playtime and creative activities can coexist with very basic math and language skills training. It certainly couldn't hurt. We might add that encouraging kids to engage in physical activity at least once a day would do wonders to relieve their sense of being trapped inside and most likely make them more tolerable in the classroom. While we can't ignore the problems created by hyperactive, withdrawn or confrontational kids, we also can't dump them into the "lost cause" file; they can become functional, cooperative students with the proper guidance at school and, most importantly, at home.

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