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Researchers have isolated what may be the single most important trait that makes kids successful in school

May. 6, 2018, 8:01 PM
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kid science experiment Paul Hackett/Reuters
  • Researchers who've studied more than 6,000 kindergartners found that the kids rated by their parents as more curious and willing to try new things performed better on math and reading assessments at school.
  • The curious kids did well regardless of socioeconomic background — suggesting there's something about being curious that helps everyone learn.
  • Even curious kids who weren't as persistent or attentive in class did well, and the researchers suspect that curiosity may be a more important trait to foster in children than self-control.

For years, scientists have documented the downsides of growing up poor.

Studies have shown kids from low-income families are generally less ready to start school. They score lower on vocabulary tests and have more trouble concentrating in class. What's more, being chronically hungry, unsafe, or neglected can re-shape a developing child's brain, dosing it with toxic stress.

New research published in the journal Pediatric Research in April suggests there may be one simple trait that can help kids learn and succeed in school, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Researchers who looked at the reading and math scores of 6,200 kindergarteners in 2006 and 2007 found that those kids whose parents rated their children's behavior as most curious did the best in school, regardless of socioeconomic status. The results were consistent for both boys and girls, too.

The high-performing kids from all walks of life liked trying new things, and were rated as more imaginative in both work and play by their parents.

These kids "seek answers to the unknown," lead study researcher Prachi Shah, a developmental pediatrician and research scientist at the University of Michigan, said in a release.

The kids' reading and math scores were consistently better the more curious they were. That was true even when the students weren't very good at a self-control measure called "effortful control," which tracks how attentive and persistent students are when completing tasks. The findings suggest that while traits like paying attention, controlling impulses, and delaying gratification may be important for young learners, being curious might matter more when it comes to learning new things.

"Even if a child manifests low effortful control, higher curiosity may be associated with more optimal academic achievement," the authors wrote.

As early childhood pioneer Jean Piaget once put it, kids are not "empty vessels to be filled with knowledge." Instead, they're "little scientists who construct their own theories of the world," he said.

Developing a sense of wonder, trying new things, and asking novel questions of the world are not the only ways that little ones across the socioeconomic spectrum can get better at learning their letters and numbers.

For years, studies have shown that early childhood learning and preschool programs like the Head Start program can lead to better educational outcomes for a lifetime. Kids who attend Head Start are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and develop better self-control and self-esteem, eventually becoming better parents themselves.

And a treasure trove of studies about kids who watch Sesame Street when they're young has also shown that singing along with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch is a great way to develop literacy, emotional wellbeing, and respect.

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