Strong cognitive skills in early childhood are associated with later school success. Cognitive skills are the mental processes that help us think, analyze, reason, and solve problems. These mental processes are complex and include a number of sub-skills that include attention, perception, memory, use of language, problem solving, and creativity – a set of skills referred to as executive function.
While cognitive skills may look very different as children grow and develop, the importance of these skills cannot be understated. The toddler who is trying out different puzzle pieces to figure out where they fit is developing cognitive skills, as is the high schooler who is examining graphed data to identify trends. In both cases, they are building on cognitive processes that will help them continue to learn throughout their lives.
To be a successful learner, children must learn to attend to classroom activities, understand that other people have different feelings or points of view, manipulate information in their heads, effectively communicate, and develop problem skills to solve problems. Children who have difficulty with any of these skills may find school to challenging. Fortunately, research shows that parents, teachers, and other adults can help children develop their cognitive processes through deliberate actions like those measured with CLASS.
The types of teacher-student interactions identified by the CLASS have been associated with the development of specific cognitive skills that underlie learning. For example, the domains of Emotional Support, Classroom Organization, and Instructional Support all positively predict to executive functioning; the cognitive processes that include working memory, cognitive inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.
In a 2013 study, Weiland, Ulvestad, Sachs, and Yoshikawa explored the relationship between classroom quality and children’s receptive vocabularies and executive functioning skills. Their sample included 414 children who were enrolled in the city of Boston’s public pre-k program. They found a significant association between the three domains of the CLASS and children’s scores on the Pencil Tapping task, a widely used measure of cognitive inhibitory control and memory. During this test, children are directed to tap a pencil once after the adult taps the pencil twice. This test requires that children hold two pieces of information in their mind and also tests the child’s inhibitory control over the natural impulse to repeat the actions of the adult.
Rimm-Kaufman, Curby, Grimm, Nathanson, & Brock (2009) also examined the impact of classroom quality on children’s self-regulation. They used four subtests of the Preschool Self-Regulation Assessment, which included the Pencil Tapping task, to assess the self-regulation skills of 172 kindergarteners. They learned that higher levels of Classroom Organization and Instructional Support were positively associated with cognitive and behavioral self-control. In addition, students who entered kindergarten with better self-regulation displayed greater behavioral self-control and work habits at the end of kindergarten.
The relationship between cognitive skills and longer-term outcomes is clear: students who develop their analytic and executive function skills early in life tend to do better in school and, in turn, the workforce. Supportive relationships between children and adults can help bolster these skills.
Rimm-Kaufman, S. E, Curby, T. W, Grimm, K. J., Nathanson, L., & Brock, L. L. (2009). The contribution of children’s self-regulation and classroom quality to children’s adaptive behaviors in the kindergarten classroom. Developmental Psychology, 45(4), 958–972.
Weiland, C., Ulvestad, K., Sachs, J., & Yoshikawa, H. (2013). Associations between classroom quality and children’s vocabulary and executive function skills in an urban public prekindergarten program. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(2), 199-209.
Most people I know who are invested in early childhood education look at Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address as an important moment. In it, Obama called on the federal government and states to work together to “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” and talked about the economic and social impact of such policies. I teared up when I rewatched this speech. It’s powerful stuff. As it so often does, the conversation about early childhood education and care revolved around quality.
Okay, this is a slight change from our usual “What We’re Reading” posts. Instead of highlighting a particular article, we wanted to share an interesting application of research: this childcare cost calculator from the Center for American Progress. You can use it to estimate the impact of improving different parts of structural quality (the infrastructure that surrounds teaching, like teacher-child ratios, the physical space, and materials) on the cost of care.
Everyone experiences stress in their daily lives. Some of it, like deadlines or first date nerves, are good stress. It propels you forward and helps you accomplish goals. Some stress, like the car in front of you slamming on the brakes, is acute, but temporary. But a more concerning type of stress that’s gained a lot of attention in the past few years is toxic stress, long-term, unrelenting exposure to stressful situations. In young children, this stress can alter the development of the brain, creating shortcuts to the parts of the brain that “turn on” stress responses and limiting connections to the parts of the brain responsible for learning and reasoning.
Social-emotional skills are key to student success. These skills include the ability to recognize and regulate emotions and behavior, take others’ perspectives, and make sound choices. Children who have good social-emotional skills have an easier time making friends and maintaining strong relationships with teachers and peers.