IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Children’s approaches to learning and academic achievement in the early grades

By Grace Kena

Children’s skills early in school are of interest to educators and policy makers due, in part, to their association with school achievement in the later grades. NCES assesses children’s knowledge and measures their skills through data collections such as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011).

This study collected information from a sample of students at kindergarten entry as well as from their parents and their teachers, and will continue to follow the students through the early elementary grades. Through the ECLS-K:2011, NCES conducted direct assessments and gathered information related to other aspects of students’ development, including socioemotional development and approaches to learning. As part of the study, students’ teachers were asked to report on how the kindergartners approached learning by examining and reporting on seven behaviors: paying attention, persisting in completing tasks, showing eagerness to learn new things, working independently, adapting easily to changes in routine, keeping belongings organized, and following classroom rules.

Findings from The Condition of Education 2015 show that first-time kindergartners who demonstrated these positive learning behaviors “very often” in the fall of kindergarten had higher average reading and mathematics assessment scores than kindergartners who demonstrated these behaviors less often. First-time kindergartners who “never” exhibited the seven approaches to learning behaviors in the fall of kindergarten not only scored lower in reading and mathematics in the fall than children who had more positive learning approaches, but they continued to score lower than the other groups when the children were assessed again in the spring of their kindergarten year and in the spring of their first grade year.


Average mathematics scale scores of fall 2010 first-time kindergartners, by frequency of positive approaches to learning behaviors in fall of kindergarten year: Fall 2010, spring 2011, and spring 2012

Figure. Average mathematics scale scores of fall 2010 first-time kindergartners, by frequency of positive approaches to learning behaviors in fall of kindergarten year: Fall 2010, spring 2011, and spring 2012

NOTE: Possible scores for the mathematics assessments range from 0 to 96. Frequency of positive approaches to learning behaviors is derived from kindergartners' fall 2010 Approaches to Learning scale scores.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, ECLS-K:2011. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 220.40.


As an example of these differences, the average fall kindergarten mathematics score for students who “very often” showed positive learning behaviors was 36 points, compared to 18 points for children who “never” demonstrated positive learning behaviors. When measured again in the spring of the kindergarten year, the average mathematics score for children who had “never” demonstrated positive learning behaviors at the beginning of the kindergarten year (29 points) remained below the fall average score for those children who had exhibited positive approaches to learning “very often.”

For more information on approaches to learning and kindergarten and first grade achievement, including breakdowns for children of different demographic groups, see the spotlight on this topic in The Condition of Education 2015, or watch the video below.