Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Early Literacy and Social Behavior: Is There a Connection?

Anyone who has worked in a classroom of young elementary students knows that two of the primary goals teachers focus on with their students is: learning to read and learning to get along with their classmates. On the surface, it may not seem like these two issues are related, but new research is offering more and more evidence that they may, indeed, be interrelated in early childhood.

A recent research brief produced by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child highlighted one of the studies examining the relationship between early literacy and social behavior. This report actually included two similar studies of early elementary-aged children (grades K-5) from low-income backgrounds. The students were assessed on literacy skills, aggressive behavior, and pro-social behavior (i.e., helping others) (as reported by teachers). The main findings of the studies included:

- children with lower literacy in 1st and 3rd grades were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior two years later (but the reverse was not found)

- the relationship between lower literacy and aggressive behavior strengthened over time (between 3rd and 5th grade)

- children who showed more pro-social behavior in 1st grade were more likely to have higher rates of literacy two years later

These findings make perfect sense when you consider the social and academic dynamic of early elementary school. Children who struggle to read may be teased by peers and this can lead to aggressive behavior in the form of retaliation. If these struggling students do not receive tutoring or special help to improve their literacy skills, this aggressive behavior may continue year after year.

These studies dovetail nicely with several other recent reports showing the link between language or literacy development and children’s social skills. One study showed that academically struggling students who participated in a social and emotional skills training program actually significantly improved their academic skills. Even among very young children, this relationship between social/behavioral skills and language is present. Another study illustrated how toddlers’ (especially boys) increased development of language stills is related to better self-regulation and self-control from ages 1 to 3.

All this research illustrates well the complex interconnections between different aspects of child development, particularly in the early years. It is often easy to focus on domains of child development as distinct entities. This seems especially prone to occur once a child enters school and much of their attention (and ours) turns to learning academic skills. This research is a good reminder to look at our children as the complex, multifaceted people that they are. Their social and academic skills seem to be closely interrelated in ways not previously considered.

ResearchBlogging.orgMiles SB, & Stipek D (2006). Contemporaneous and longitudinal associations between social behavior and literacy achievement in a sample of low-income elementary school children. Child development, 77 (1), 103-17 PMID: 16460528

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