Three new insights about early learning and child wellbeing

14 Jul 2021, 5:00

Deprivation affects learning, but the good news for teachers is that other factors within their control can have an even greater impact, writes Rachel Classick

It is unacceptable that educational achievement is so strongly influenced by family circumstances. The deprivation gap is already large when children start school and recent evidence suggests gaps may have increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In our new analysis, building on findings from the international early learning and child well-being study
(IELS), we found evidence that both family-level and school-area deprivation matter for children’s development.

We focused on five-year-olds’ development in four areas measured by IELS: emergent literacy (oral language and vocabulary); emergent numeracy (counting, working with numbers, shape and space, measurement and pattern); mental flexibility (the ability to shift thinking according to the circumstances); and emotion identification (an important aspect of empathy).

Does the deprivation measure make a difference?

There are a number of ways to measure deprivation. IELS collected parental education, occupation and household income which was combined into a measure of socio-economic status (SES). Children whose parents had a higher SES demonstrated greater development in emergent literacy, emergent numeracy and mental flexibility.

The deprivation level of the area of a child’s school (measured by school-level Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index) also related to their cognitive development. Children who attended schools in the least deprived areas had greater development in emergent literacy and emergent numeracy than those in the most deprived areas.

We did not find an association at the individual level between FSM and development

It is useful for government to consider both family- and school-level deprivation when directing support to children in greatest need. Although having fewer children eligible for free school meals (FSM) in school was positively related to children’s emotion identification development, we did not find an association at the individual level between FSM and development. A blog by my colleague Joana Andrade further explores FSM as a deprivation measure.

Although deprivation is related to young children’s development, our research revealed that attention and persistence were more strongly related to children’s development at age five. 

1, 2, 3, eyes on me

Attention had the strongest relationship with children’s development of all the things we measured, including deprivation, month of birth and gender. Children who were on task to a ‘large extent’ during the study demonstrated greater development than children who were ‘not at all’ on task, especially in mental flexibility.

Teachers are experts in obtaining whole-class attention; regularly clapping a rhythm or repeating phrases such as ‘1,2,3 eyes on me’. Being able to focus gives children a strong foundation for learning. This has been imperative for children returning to school after Covid-19 lockdowns, where children need to learn (or re-learn) listening skills and concentration in a classroom setting.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Persistence is important for five-year-olds’ cognitive development, empathy and mental flexibility. Children who teachers identified as ‘always’ persistent – defined as ‘continuing their planned course of action in spite of difficulty or obstacles’ – demonstrated greater development than children who were ‘never’ persistent, with differences equivalent to around seven or eight months across the learning outcomes. Persistence is also important for children’s physical development.

And when it comes to persistence, modelling matters. Children can learn to be more persistent through encouragement and watching adults trying until they succeed.

But persistence is also related to executive function, the brain’s higher-order cognitive processes that enable people to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and multi-task. Executive function can be improved through classroom-based pedagogy (i.e. the method of teaching) and specific interventions.

So this latest research tells us that deprivation is negatively related to young children’s development, but the positive link with attention and persistence is stronger still. The more we can do to help children become attentive and persistent, the more this is likely to stand them in good stead for the future.

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