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Preschool Math Skill Predicts Success

Controversial Study Says Math, Reading Skills Matter More Than Behavior

Child Experts Disagree

WebMD asked two child development experts -- both of whom recently published studies on school readiness -- to comment on the Duncan study. Both were highly critical of the study and of Duncan's conclusions.

Psychologist Clancy Blair, PhD, is associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.

"Duncan and his colleagues are brilliant people, but their conclusions are built on feet of clay," Blair tells WebMD. "Their finding that behavioral measures did not correlate with later academic success is contrary to other data. They mainly focused on behavior problems. They did not tap into behaviors more related to school readiness."

Psychologist Megan McClelland, PhD, associate professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University, agrees with Blair that the Duncan paper failed to measure important aspects of children's behavioral and social skills.

"Finding out that the skills you start out with predict the skills you end up with is not very interesting," McClelland tells WebMD. "Other studies, which find that children's improvement in self-regulation prior to kindergarten predicts later academic skills, are much more compelling."

Teaching School Readiness

Neither Blair nor McClelland has a problem with teaching preschoolers basic math and reading skills -- if it's done the right way.

"Drill 'em, kill 'em," Blair says. "Flash cards, the old this-is-a-square, this-is-a-triangle -- that didactic stuff is poison. Parents must manufacture situations where children take on challenges just at or above their ability -- puzzling out words or letters or drawing a picture. If parents make it fun, kids develop self-regulatory abilities from this sense of success."

McClelland argues that children can't learn math or reading if they can't sit still and can't remember.

"Parents can make sure their children can sit still when they need to, that they can work independently and also in a group. Those are the skills that are going to set you up to be successful in life, because you follow through," she says. "Can you work independently? Can people depend on you? To do well on a math test you have to have these skills. Parents should focus on whether their children can play well with other kids, and on whether they have some self-regulation and persistence on tasks."

Duncan does not advocate preschool calculus classes. But he insists that his study points to the need for research into the best ways to improve preschoolers' early math and reading skills.

"It would be very interesting to see if reading and math interventions affected math and reading much later on -- to see if more complicated skills in third grade are boosted as well," he says. "We need to have a cupboard-full of evaluations of the various curricula that extend beyond the end of the programs themselves to see if there are lingering improvements in what kids learn."

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