CHICAGO — We all knew a few spacey kids in kindergarten who just couldn’t get their acts together. Their desks were a mess, they never knew what they were supposed to be doing, and they’d lose their heads if they weren’t attached.
You won’t be shocked to learn that they probably grew up to make less money than the class overachievers.
But would you believe that the dreamy kids might be doing worse in life than the class cut-up who got sent to the principal’s office for pushing on the playground, goading classmates or talking back to the teacher?
That’s one potential takeaway from a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics. The study compared kindergarten teachers’ assessments of low-income boys’ inattention, hyperactivity and aggression with their employment earnings at ages 35 to 36, based on their tax returns.
Researchers found that the boys who made the most money in their mid-30s were those who acted with empathy in kindergarten — helping, sharing, cooperating, inviting bystanders to join in activities and being a peacemaker in disputes.
But those who fared the worst were not the boys who disobeyed the teacher and bullied, fought, kicked, bit or otherwise intimidated their classmates.
It was the dreamy, inattentive boys who, the researchers estimated, could earn about $3,000 more a year — or nearly $71,000 over the course of a 40-year career — if they were just able to stay focused, concentrate on a task for a sustained period of time and persist through difficulties.
Research on how students succeed has long pointed to executive-functioning skills — self-regulation, planning, organization — as the basis for academic and eventual economic success.
But this is the first study, according to its authors, to make an explicit connection between so-called prosocial behaviors — like being a helper and a peacemaker — and higher lifetime earnings.
And, counterintuitively, it also shows in dollars and cents that the anti-social behaviors that classroom teachers find most alarming — hyperactivity, disobeying, talking back and fighting — aren’t the actions likeliest to impact long-term success.
“We tried to control for IQ, adverse home conditions and the like, but when we unpacked the relationship between performance in kindergarten and later life success, it wasn’t so surprising that being inattentive led to not being able to keep a job,” said Daniel Nagin, a criminologist and statistician from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and a co-author of the study. “But having done a lot of research on childhood physical aggression, I was surprised that the physical aggression was not associated with lower income in the way that inattention was.”
Though this might seem ho-hum to those who don’t spend their day with dozens of kids under the age of 7, take it from me: This is an important finding. It offers insight to those of us working hard to train kindergartners well enough to graduate to a first-grade experience that will include sitting still to work for 90 minutes at a stretch, learning to read and write, and performing algebraic functions during math instruction.
Another remarkable observation we can make is how finely tuned kindergarten teachers are to their students. Nagin confirmed for me that the teacher data was acquired through standard questionnaires.
“The kindergarten teachers effectively identified students who may have benefited from additional help just by using their observational skills — they weren’t specifically trained to make these assessments,” Nagin said.
As with any other individual research study, no matter how well constructed, it’s unwise to overgeneralize. This analysis was, after all, conducted on white, low-income boys in Montreal, Canada, who, presumably, were largely immune from the systemic racism and deep socioeconomic disparity that impact many elementary school students in the United States.
But it is fascinating, noteworthy and maybe a little unsettling to reframe bullying, disobedient or aggressive behaviors in children as young as 5 or 6 as something other than strictly a lack of executive-function skills.
And, potentially, it’s hopeful to imagine that youngsters who exhibit such behaviors may have the capacity to channel their impulses toward some eventual good.
America’s entire education apparatus, however, will be upended if the venerated “dreamy and creative” students that sappy educational motivation posters valorize because they “march to the beat of their own drummer” turn out to not be the next Steve Jobs, but the kids that need the most worrying about — and appropriate intervention.
Esther Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears in The Washington Post.