One of the longest running debates about early childhood education is how much emphasis teachers should place on academic content. Thanks to changing perceptions, the standards-based reform movement, and accountability policies that have changed early grade instruction, kindergarten classrooms are increasingly focused on academic content and skill development.

These changes have garnered mixed reactions. Those in favor of the increased academic focus cite studies showing that exposure to advanced content is associated with higher student achievement. Opponents, meanwhile, have raised questions about whether kindergartners are developmentally ready for academics, and whether focusing on more advanced skills reduces play opportunities and leads to poorer social-emotional (SE) development.

To address these concerns, a new study examines the relationship between advanced content in kindergarten and children’s academic achievement and social-emotional outcomes. The study’s authors used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of Kindergartners in 2010 (ECLS), a nationally representative study of kindergarteners enrolled during the 2010–11 school year. ECLS included approximately 18,200 children from nearly 1,000 schools, but the authors used a specific sample of 11,600 public school kindergarteners and their 2,690 teachers. ECLS collected information during the fall and spring of the academic year about children’s academic achievement and SE skills through surveys and interviews of parents and teachers, as well as math and ELA assessments. The authors control for class size, teacher characteristics, childcare situation, and a host of demographic and family background variables.

The authors defined advanced content as academic skills that were taught in a higher grade than kindergarten. Using the ECLS dataset, they identified which skills qualified as advanced based on the percentage of teachers who indicated that they were taught in a higher grade. They found four such skills in ELA and ten in math.

On average, teachers spent close to nine days per month on advanced ELA content and slightly more than six days per month on advanced math content. Yet the authors found no negative association between advanced content and SE skills. In fact, greater exposure to advanced math was related to some improved SE outcomes (though exposure to advanced content in ELA was unrelated to SE skills). And as expected, they found that more advanced content was correlated with higher test scores in the respective subjects.

It’s unclear why exposure to advanced math was positively associated with SE outcomes and exposure to advanced ELA content was not, but the authors offer a few theories. First, it’s possible that advanced math enhances executive functioning in a way that advanced ELA does not. Second, there may have been variations in what was considered challenging material in each subject. Moreover, these findings are in line with other research that didn’t find negative associations between challenging academic content and healthy SE development.

The authors do note several limitations of their study. First and most importantly, this study is correlational. There is the possibility of self-selection bias, and the authors can’t definitively say whether children’s gains were due to exposure to advanced content or exposure to highly effective teachers; teachers who are more likely to teach advanced content than their peers, for example, may also produce better achievement and SE gains.

With that said, the authors are “cautiously optimistic that advanced academic content can be taught without compromising students’ social-emotional skills.” The research is a promising sign that they’re right.

SOURCE: Vi-Nhuan Le, Diana Schaack, Kristen Neishi, Marc W. Hernandez, Rolf Blank, “Advanced Content Coverage at Kindergarten: Are There Trade-Offs Between Academic Achievement and Social-Emotional Skills?American Educational Research Journal (January 2019).

Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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