Seriously Snowballing

Florida Atlantic: Seriously Snowballing

A child’s early disinterest in school, particularly with math and reading, can cascade into problems with peers, according to new findings by FAU researchers.

“Children with behavioral and emotional problems struggle with the transition into elementary school; they do poorly in classes and relationships with their peers suffer as well,” said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., senior author and professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “We suspected that another path to early peer difficulties runs through the well-established link between disinterest in school and subsequent difficulties with math and reading.”

For the study, researchers used four annual waves of data collected from 545 children (311 boys, 234 girls) followed from first through fourth grade (ages 6 to 8 at outset). Each year, teachers completed assessments of academic task avoidance and students completed standardized measures of reading and math achievement. Acceptance was assessed through peer nominations.

The findings, published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology, showed that a lack of interest in school and low academic task motivation resulted in a downward spiral of troubles, from poor study habits to academic difficulties to declining peer acceptance. Children prefer to affiliate with students who are not struggling, Laursen said.

Specifically, avoiding classroom assignments and tasks in first grade led to declining math and reading achievement one year later in second grade. This in turn led to decreases in peer acceptance the following year in third grade. The same longitudinal pathway unfolded across the second to fourth grade.

“Our findings have important implications for parents, teachers and school professionals who want to prevent the onset of troubled peer relations,” Laursen said. “Considerable effort is currently invested in interventions for children with behavioral and emotional problems, because they are known to be at-risk for academic and interpersonal failure.”

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