The readiness kindergarten provides is even more important to a child’s success in high school than previously believed, according to a new study published today by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Being better prepared early in life gives children a “lifestyle advantage,” reducing the health burdens associated with dropping out of school, said the study’s researchers.
They looked at 966 Canadian children and compared the level of engagement they were given at age 5 and the results at age 17.
Scientists measured academic grades, school connection, anxiety sensitivity, substance use, physical activity, and height and weight.
“When we are adults, our habits and routines are engraved in our brains and it’s very hard to change things,” Dr. Ilan Shapiro, a pediatrician with AltaMed Health Services and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Healthline.
“Think about smoking, drinking, and other examples. But when you are young, the recorder is completely clean, and this is the opportunity to expose it to actions and behaviors that align with healthy habits and lifestyles.
“The U.S. could create more enrichment opportunities for children in underserved and rural areas, which would help improve the… academic gap against other countries,” Shapiro said.
The researchers determined kindergarten math skills contributed to better high school grades and lower dropout risk.
In addition, receptive vocabulary predicted lower anxiety sensitivity.
Kindergarten classroom engagement was a predictor of better grades, lower dropout risk, better school connection, lower risk of substance use, and more involvement in physical activity.
Kindergarten classroom engagement was also associated with a 65 percent reduction in the odds of a child being overweight by age 17.
“Early childhood readiness forecasts a protective edge by emerging adulthood,” the researchers wrote. “With these findings, we build the links between education and health indicators, suggesting that children who start school prepared gain a lifestyle advantage. Promoting kindergarten readiness could reduce the health burden generated by high school d
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Experts say well-rounded children come from much more than just schoolwork.
“Health includes social and emotional well-being, such as feeling safe and secure, the ability to interact positively with peers and being able to trust adults who teach and take care of them, as well as curiosity and the desire to learn,” Dr. Tovah Klein, the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City, told Healthline.
“Health also includes physical well-being,” Klein said. “We know now that emotional factors like feeling safe, not having to be vigilant to danger and harm — which is what happens to children who experience trauma and other severe risks — are tied to a person’s physical health over a lifetime.”
It’s crucial that children are prepared to go to kindergarten, said Colin Groth, the executive vice president of strategy and development at StriveTogether, a Cincinnati-based national program focused on systems transformation through collaborative improvement methodology..
“Even before we think about kindergarten, we know that a child’s experiences in the first 3 years are the bricks and mortar of brain development, with more than 1 million new neural connections forming in an infant’s brain every second,” Groth told Healthline.
“Connecting these positive early childhood experiences to a high-quality kindergarten classroom is a recipe for a great start toward economic mobility for kids academically, but also socially and emotionally,” he said.
The study pointed out how all society is affected by children unprepared for school.
“High school dropout rate incurs high medical and social costs,” the researchers wrote. “In particular, dropout is associated with increased risk of poverty, nicotine dependence, low self-esteem, depression, underemployment, and involvement in criminal behavior.”
The study goes on to suggest boosting school readiness “could translate into important economic savings across the life span.”
“With our findings, we further highlight the usefulness of conceptualizing kindergarten readiness as a public health issue,” the researchers wrote.
The study touts preschool, parental training programs, and early medical screenings.
“Pediatricians can play a key role in promoting school readiness by helping ensure that children receive the nutrition, sleep, and developmental experiences they need to develop strong school readiness,” the researchers wrote.
“Pediatricians can screen children for exposure to environmental threats including lead, toxins, and excessive screen time as well as exposure to chronic adversity, which can take the form of housing or food insecurity, family violence, parental mental health problems, and the experience of discrimination and systemic racism,” the researchers wrote.
“Sadly, in this country, a ZIP code determines much of a child’s outcome educationally and in life,” Klein said.
“Children living in poverty may miss out on a high-quality education because of a lack of funding, poor building conditions that have not been properly upgraded, lack of access to materials, and more,” she said.
Klein praised Scandinavian countries that emphasize play and engaging with their environment in their own way, which she says builds a base of confidence and teaches children to follow their curiosity.
“By the time they are taught to read, at age 7 or 8, they quickly catch on and the desire to learn more formally is there,” she said.
“In China, I have worked with Anji Play, a preschool program that is being expanded to kindergarteners, where children are given the space to play, to create their own environments, and to take risks that they feel comfortable. This also encourages broader thinking, excitement about learning, and the motivation to figure out complex problems. These qualities serve as a foundation for learning throughout their schooling,” Klein said.
Adults can serve as the best examples, Shapiro said.
“Kids learn more by observing how adults learn, not as much by what we say to them,” he said.
“The actions of adults around them are more important than the lectures we provide them. A great example is telling them to eat healthy and avoid junk food while we have a bag of chips in our hands,” Shapiro said.
“Children learn more visually than by words,” he added.