'Rigorous' maths boosts young children's social skills, research suggests

30th April 2017 at 05:01
Study challenges fears about departing from play-based learning

Five-year-olds given “academically rigorous” work not only perform better in maths and English, but also see a boost in their social-emotional development, research suggests.

The US study challenges the view that moving away from a play-based approach is damaging to young children.

University of Chicago researchers examined “academically rigorous” kindergarten classrooms – US children usually start kindergarten aged five – using a representative sample of around 11,600 children from 1,000 schools.

Positive results for children who might struggle

The researchers write: “The results support the notion that rigorous academic content can be taught without compromising children’s social-emotional and executive functioning development.”

Researchers and parents have frequently expressed fears that such an approach is overly stressful for children, it notes.

Greater exposure to advanced maths was associated with better memory, interpersonal skills and control of inhibitions – and children who might otherwise struggle with learning seemed to do particularly well.

The researchers state: “Notably, the positive associations were observed for students whose initial achievement levels were well below average, and who were arguably most vulnerable to content that might be considered developmentally inappropriate for them.”

The study looked at several measures, relating to academic performance as well as children's ability to get along with others, form friendships, and be sensitive to others’ feelings.

It also considered how well they kept their belongings organised, showed eagerness to learn new things, and adapted to changes, and the extent to which children showed anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness.

Older pupils may not repeat results

The researchers caution, however, they “cannot rule out the possibility that teachers who frequently teach academically-rigorous content are qualitatively different” to other teachers and might, for example, also “provide better learning supports”. They also stressed that the positive associations between academic content and students’ outcomes might not be replicated in older classes.

While exposure to more rigorous English language content was not associated with improvements in the measures chosen by the researchers, there was no negative effect. 

The University of Chicago research – Is There a Trade-off Between Academic Achievement and Social-Emotional and Executive Functioning Outcomes in Academically-Rigorous Kindergarten Classrooms? – was presented this week at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas.

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