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February 15, 2006

Academic performance and social behavior in elementary school are connected, new study shows

By Lisa Trei

Stanford researchers following low-income children in kindergarten and first through fifth grade have found that those who are poor readers in their early years of school are assessed by their teachers as more aggressive later on. In addition, the study found that students who have good social skills in kindergarten and first grade are more likely to be good readers in third grade.

"Children's social behavior can promote or undermine their learning, and their academic performance may have implications for their social behavior," said Sarah Miles, a doctoral student in the Stanford School of Education. The study demonstrates the importance of attending to children's social skills in preschool and the early grades of elementary school, even when academic success is the primary goal.

The study, "Contemporaneous and Longitudinal Associations Between Social Behavior and Literacy Achievement in a Sample of Low-Income Elementary School Children," is co-authored by Miles and Deborah Stipek, dean of the School of Education. It appears in the latest issue of Child Development.

The study shows that the social and academic domains of school life are interconnected. "When children are having problems in school, we need to look beyond the specific problem to seek a remedy," Miles said. "The finding that difficulties in one area can create difficulties in another from the beginning of school underscore the importance of early intervention, particularly for low-income children who are most at risk of school failure."

Miles and Stipek used data from a study conducted from 1996 to 2002 of about 400 rural and urban low-income children on the West Coast and in northeastern states. The study followed two groups of children in kindergarten or first grade through elementary school. The boys and girls were assessed as they entered school and again in the third and fifth grades. All students came from families with incomes below the federal poverty line at the start of the study. Most of the participants attended public schools that served a high proportion of low-income children.

Teachers were given questionnaires to assess their students' aggressive and "prosocial" behaviors. For aggression, they rated four specific behaviors: "fights with other children," "aggressive child," "taunts/teases other children" and "bullies other children." For "prosocial" behaviors, they rated "helps other children," "shows recognition of the feelings of others," "is empathetic," "seems concerned when other children are distressed" and "offers help/comfort when others are upset."

The children's reading skills were measured in the third and fifth grades using standard tests assessing their decoding and comprehension skills.


According to the study's findings, children who were rated as relatively aggressive in the early grades were also rated as relatively aggressive in the later grades. Poor reading in the early grades also predicted poor reading in higher grades. "Literacy scores each year significantly predicted literacy scores in the next year in which they were tested," the researchers wrote. Furthermore, "relatively low literacy achievement in 1st grade predicted relatively high aggressive behavior in 3rd grade … [and] low literacy achievement in 3rd grade similarly predicted high aggressive behavior in 5th grade." Apparently, children who were having difficulty learning to read became somewhat more aggressive in subsequent grades. "It's possible that kids who are poor readers get more and more frustrated over time," Miles said.

At the same time, the findings showed that good social skills were associated with good reading scores. Children rated relatively high on social skills in kindergarten and first grade had better literacy skills. This trend continued into third grade, but the connection between social skills and literacy skills dropped off by the fifth grade. Miles could not explain why this correlation decreased over time.

Miles and Stipek's study shows how problems in one part of school life could lead to problems in another. The findings "point clearly to the importance of attending to the 'whole' child," the researchers wrote. "Children do not develop in particular domains independent of other domains. To the contrary, social development and academic development are inextricably connected."



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Sarah Miles, School of Education: (650) 468-5453,

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