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New & Now: Spring 2009

New View of ALS

Strong Start

God and Coal

Plastics Plant

Joint Genetics

Incentives Support

Strong Start

Well-Prepared First Graders, Girls Especially, Gain Mental Health Edge

Few education experts would dispute the notion that children who are emotionally and academically prepared to begin school have a distinct advantage over their similarly unprepared peers. Numerous studies, for example, have echoed the findings of a 2004 report by the Economic Policy Institute that showed kids who participated in pre-school preparation programs — particularly lower-income and “at risk” youngsters — are “markedly better academic performance, decreased rates of criminal conduct, and higher adult earnings than their non-participating peers.”

Now, thanks to a new MU study, there is another reason to make certain first graders are show up ready to succeed: pupils’ mental health could hang in the balance. 

In a recent study, Keith Herman, associate professor of education, school and counseling psychology at MU, led a research team that examined the behaviors of 474 boys and girls in the first grade, then revisited these students as they entered middle school. The results were alarming: students who faired poorly as first graders were more likely to have negative self-beliefs and depressive symptoms down the road.

“We found that students in the first grade who struggled academically with core subjects, including reading and math, later displayed negative self-perceptions and symptoms of depression in sixth and seventh grade, respectively,” says Herman. “Often, children with poor academic skills believe they have less influence on important outcomes in their life. Poor academic skills can influence how children view themselves as students and as social beings.”

This effect was significantly stronger for girls, Herman found. Girls with lower academic skills at school entry later came to believe they had less control of important life outcomes, a risk factor for depression. The obvious implication? Educators and parents need to catch academic problems early, and to offer struggling students — both girls and boys — the support they need to be successful in school.

“One of the main ways children can get others to like them in school is by being good students. Children with poor academic skills may believe that they have one less method for influencing important social outcomes, which could lead to negative consequences later in life,” Herman says. “Along with reading and math, teachers and parents should honor skills in other areas, such as interpersonal skills, non-core academic areas, athletics and music.”

The study, “Low Academic Competence in First Grade as a Risk Factor for Depressive Cognitions and Symptoms in Middle School,” was published last summer in the Journal of Counseling Psychology.

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2009 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.


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