Working memory again: preschoolers working memory can forecasts teenage dropout risk

Yesterday I posted a new study about how our working memory, ehm, works. This other new study doesn’t look at working memory in itself but the link between the quality of the working memory at an early age and the chance of dropout in later school life: “A one point increase in children’s working memory skills predicted a 26% reduction in the odds of being in the high risk group for dropout”.

The study in short:

  • Youth who fail to finish high school are unlikely to achieve their full potential.
  • Identifying students showing precursor signs of dropout risk may benefit prevention.
  • We trace high school dropout risk at age 13 to preschool working memory.
  • Poorer working memory predicted risk of dropout independent of IQ and SES.
  • Prevention efforts may benefit from increased attention to working memory.

While the researchers only looked at the development of children in this longitudinal study, they do think that training the working memory at an early age could help fighting the dropout risk. It’s good that the researchers checked for things such as the socioeconomic status, but I do hope that new research will focus on the effect of the training of the working memory and the actual effect on dropout to check if the last bullet point is indeed correct.

From the press release:

Preschoolers who score lower on a working memory task are likely to score higher on a dropout risk scale at the age of 13, researchers at Université Sainte-Anne and the University of Montreal revealed today. “Dropout risk is calculated from student engagement in school, their grade point average, and whether or not they previously repeated a year in school. Previous research has confirmed that this scale can successfully identify which 12 year olds will fail to complete high school by the age of 21,” explained Caroline Fitzpatrick, who led the study as first author. “These findings underscore the importance of early intervention,” added Linda Pagani, co-senior author. “Parents are able to help their children develop strong working memory skills in the home and this can have a positive impact.”

The study was conducted with 1,824 children whose development has been followed over a number of years through the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. Their working memory was measured using an imitation sorting task with a trained research assistant. Students indicated their academic performance, prior grade retention, and school engagement – answering questions such as “do you like school?” and “how important is it for you to get good marks?” Children also completed tests of verbal and non-verbal intelligence. Their families were also interviewed to ascertain their socioeconomic status, a factor that the researchers took into account when analyzing their data.

Identifying students that are at risk of eventually dropping out of high school is an important step in preventing this social problem. Individual differences in executive functions are likely to play an important role in predicting later drop out risk because they contribute to academic success, engagement, and the achievement of long-term goals. The present results suggest that early individual differences in working memory may contribute to developmental risk for high school dropout.

The early detection of working memory problems in children is possible since such children generally show patterns of dysfunction in the classroom and at home. “A child with inadequate working memory might experience difficulty completing tasks in the face of distractors, following sequential instructions, and keeping track of time in order to finish their work in a timely fashion,” Fitzpatrick explained. “Poor self-control more generally is likely to result in disorganized living spaces, such as their room, desk, or locker. Providing parents, teachers, and support staff with basic training on cognitive control and working memory may be advantageous for at-risk children.”

Parents can help their children develop strong working memory skills in the home. “Preschoolers can engage in pretend play with other children to help them practice their working memory since this activity involves remembering their own roles and the roles of others. Encouraging mindfulness in children by helping them focus on their moment-to-moment experiences also has a positive effect on cognitive control and working memory,” Pagani said, noting that breathing exercises and guided meditation can be practiced with preschool and elementary school children.

In older children, vigorous aerobic activity such as soccer, basketball, and jumping rope have all been shown to have beneficial effects on concentration and working memory. “Traditional martial arts that place an important focus on respect, self-discipline, and humility have been shown to help children, especially boys build strong cognitive control and working memory skills,” Fitzpatrick added. “Another promising strategy for improving working memory in children is to limit screen time – video games, smartphones, tablets, and television – which can undermine cognitive control and take time away from more enriching pursuits.”

The researchers note that generalizing their conclusion to all school children with absolute certainty will require more research.

Abstract of the study:

Individual differences in cognitive control contribute to academic success, engagement, and persistence toward long-term goal achievement. In a prior study, we found that preschool working memory, a component of cognitive control, predicts kindergarten academic competence and classroom engagement. In the present study, we assess whether preschool working memory contributes to high school dropout risk at age 13. Participants are 1824 children from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development who were individually assessed at ages 2.5 and 3.5 on working memory using the Imitation Sorting Task. Dropout risk, representing an index, comprised of grade retention history and concurrent school performance and engagement, was measured in spring of grade 7. We used logistic regression to estimate dropout risk from early childhood working memory while controlling for verbal and non-verbal IQ, socioeconomic status, and sex. A one point increase in children’s working memory skills predicted a 26% reduction in the odds of being in the high risk group for dropout. Higher socioeconomic status and intellectual skills also predicted lower high school dropout risk. Individual differences in preschool working memory may contribute to early detection of later high school dropout risk. These results suggest the importance of further developing early effective interventions aimed at strengthening cognitive control in children.


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