Is Curiosity As Good at Predicting Children’s Reading, Math Success as Self-Control? Study Says Yes

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The joy of discovery matters as much as self-control, and matters even more for low-income children. We need to encourage kids to ask novel questions, not just give familiar answers.

Ever since the landmark "marshmallow test" highlighted the importance of early self-control in later achievement, educators have worked to find ways to build self-regulation among young children. But a new study in the journal Pediatric Research suggests boosting children's natural curiosity may be equally crucial to their long-term learning.

Researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and the Center for Human Growth and Development tracked 6,200 children participating in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative longitudinal study. In addition to collecting data on children's family income, education, and backgrounds, the federal survey also included home visits with parent interviews, and assessments of the children at ages 9 months, 2 years, at the start of preschool, and in kindergarten.

In addition to testing students for early math and literacy skills, the study also guaged other traits, such as invention, imagination, attention to new tasks and eagerness to learn new skills. The researchers found that even after controlling for differences in children's backgrounds and whether or not they had attended preschool, the young children's curiosity—in particular their "eagerness to learn new things"—was as good a predictor of their later kindergarten math and reading achievement as were early measures of self-control.

"It speaks to the young child's thirst for knowledge and inquisitiveness. It highlights this idea of the joy of learning," said lead researcher Prachi Shah, associate professor of behavioral and developmental pediatrics at the children's hospital.

Moreover, the benefits of being highly curious were greater for students in poverty, Shah said. "If you are a low-income child, compared to a high income child, and you have low curiosity, than you had [on average] lower math and reading achievement by the end of kindergarten," she said. "But if you are a low-income but highly curious child, your achievement was similar to a high-income child. Curiosity can mitigate or close that achievement gap in reading or math."

The takeaway for teachers, Shah said, is "a need to be curious about an individual child's curiosity and what motivates a child. What captivates one child's curiosity may not captivate another, and teachers should try to be attuned to that."

The researchers are now digging into what aspects of children's early home life and classroom environments seem to lead children to become more curious, and whether curiosity may have links to other social and emotional characteristics associated with academic achievement, like academic mindset (the belief that skills can be improved with practice rather than being innate).

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