Young children who behave badly in school can do just fine academically, new research suggests. But if the bad behavior persists until age eight, education can be compromised, and professional success later in life is less likely.
One new study examined data from six previous large-scale studies of almost 36,000 preschoolers in which the same subjects were observed repeatedly over time. The research included two national studies of U.S. children, two multi-site studies of U.S. children, one study of children from Great Britain and another of children from Canada.
The conclusion: Surprisingly, difficulty getting along with classmates, aggressive or disruptive behaviors, and sad or withdrawn behaviors in kindergarten did not detract from academic achievement in childhood and early adolescence, according to Northwestern University professor Greg Duncan and 11 co-authors.
The researchers examined several indicators, including picking fights, interrupting the teacher and defying instructions. They found that kindergartners who did these things performed surprisingly well in reading and math when they reached the fifth grade, keeping pace with well-behaved children of the same abilities.
Although Duncan's team found no predictive power in early behavior problems for later learning, another study, which examined older children, found such a connection.
Persistent behavior problems in eight-year-olds are powerful predictors of educational attainment and of how well people will do in middle-age, according to the second study's leader, Rowell Huesmann at the Center for the Analyses of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood (CAPCA) at the University of Michigan.
If behavior problems of the kind seen in younger children continue until age eight, they can create other challenges, Huesmann said.
Huesmann based his conclusion on a prior research study and a recent analysis by CAPCA researchers, who studied data from 856 U.S. children and 369 Finnish children. They found that children who engaged in more frequent aggressive behaviors as eight-year-olds had significantly lower educational success by their 30s and significantly lower status occupations by their mid-40s. The results were published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
"It makes perfectly good sense that persistent behavior problems would have a substantial impact on later success," said Amy Sussman, director of the Developmental and Learning Sciences Program at the the National Science Foundation, which funded both new studies. "When interviewing for jobs and progressing through one's career trajectory, personality and other characteristics that are not measured by tests certainly come into play."
There's a good chance that personality traits also come into play in the classroom. Huesmann and his colleagues hypothesize that children with persistent behavior problems lasting into the third grade are those who cannot be easily socialized to behave well and who therefore are more likely to experience a "hostile learning environment."
They speculate that teachers and peers likely "punish" these children, reducing or eliminating positive support for learning. But researchers note that if a child's aggression is short-lived, it is unlikely to have the same long-term consequences.
"Socialization of disruptive preschoolers by teachers and peers may ensure that a child's behavioral problems do not affect his or her educational achievement," Huesmann said. "Attending class, spending time with classmates, observing the rewards of proper behavior, and being told, 'No,' to correct disruptive behavior can benefit unruly children."
Researchers also noted that popularity and positive social behavior in childhood and adolescence predicted higher levels of educational attainment in early adulthood. They said it is possible that children with stable positive social skills experience a supportive and conducive learning environment.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.