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. 

Introducing the Research Networks: A New Funding Opportunity from NCER

By Tom Brock, NCER Commissioner

In April 2015, NCER announced a new funding opportunity: Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice (84.305N).  The purpose of the Networks is to focus resources and attention on education problems or issues that are a high priority for the nation, and to create both a structure and process for research teams who are working on these issues to share ideas, build new knowledge, and strengthen their research and dissemination capacity.  In this blog, I want to provide some background on how the Networks program came into being and what NCER hopes to achieve.

Over the past year and a half, NCER and NCSER have undertaken a variety of efforts to elicit feedback from education researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders on IES research and training programs, and to identify problems or issues on which new research is most needed.  These efforts have included Technical Working Group meetings with practitioners and researchers, and a call for public comment that was issued in August 2014.  One theme that emerged was the desire for NCER and NCSER to dedicate funding to particular issues or problems that are widely recognized as important and that seem ripe for research advances.  Strengthening preschool education and boosting college attendance and completion rates for students from low-income backgrounds were frequently cited examples.  Another theme was to consider funding strategies that would encourage greater collaboration among researchers to tackle difficult education topics.  These themes were echoed during meetings with Department of Education staff.    

NCER’s plans for the Networks emerged from these discussions.  The Network on Supporting Early Learning from Preschool through Early Elementary School Grades (or Early Learning Network for short) was motivated in part by the significant expansion of prekindergarten programs in many states and cities across the country, and by the growing body of evidence on the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve outcomes for early learners.  Despite these advances, a persistent academic achievement gap between children from different household income levels and educational backgrounds is present at kindergarten entry and widens during the school years.  The Early Learning Network is charged with conducting in-depth, exploratory research to investigate how selected states and localities are implementing early learning policies and programs, and to identify malleable factors that facilitate or impede children’s academic progress as they move from preschool through early elementary school grades. This research is intended to generate reliable information and useful tools that policymakers and practitioners can use to assess their efforts to build effective early learning systems and programs and to make improvements as needed.

The Network on Scalable Strategies to Support College Completion (or College Completion Network for short) was conceived in response to studies showing that large numbers of degree-seeking students who attend community colleges and other open- and broad-access institutions fail to earn a degree six years after enrollment.  To date, most of NCER’s postsecondary education research has focused on efforts to increase college access or to help students complete developmental (or remedial) education requirements; much less has focused on assisting students to earn diplomas once they are in college and taking college-level courses.  The College Completion Network will address this gap.  Specifically, it will support researchers who are working with states, postsecondary systems, or postsecondary institutions to develop and evaluate interventions that address possible impediments to college attainment, including high college costs, insufficient advising, and social/psychological barriers, to name a few.  The Network will study interventions that are already operating or have the potential to operate on a large scale. The ultimate goal of the College Completion Network is to provide evidence on a range of strategies that policymakers and college leaders may consider adopting or expanding in their states and institutions.

The Early Learning and College Completion Networks will each be made of up to four research teams, plus a Network Lead that is responsible for coordinating Network activities.  (The Early Learning Network will also include up to one assessment team that is responsible for developing a new or improving an existing classroom observation tool that is predictive of children’s school achievement.)  Each team will be funded to carry out a project of its own design, and will meet periodically with other teams to discuss research plans and progress and identify ways that they can strengthen their work through collaboration.  For example, members of the Early Learning or College Completion Networks may decide to work together on some common data collection tools or outcome measures, and to produce a research synthesis at the end of their projects.  NCER will set aside additional funding that each Network can use toward supplementary studies and joint dissemination activities that are useful to policymakers, practitioners, and other researchers.  

The ultimate objective of the Networks is to advance the field’s understanding of a problem or issue beyond what an individual research project or team is able to do on its own, and to assist policymakers and practitioners in using this information to strengthen education policies and programs and improve student education outcomes.  While the composition of the Networks will not be known until proposals are received and evaluated by scientific review panels, NCER hopes that they represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives and include both senior and early career researchers.  Over time, the Networks may lead to new collaborations and lay a foundation for new lines of inquiry.

The Early Learning and College Completion Networks build on the lessons learned from the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative program and represent one strategy that NCER is taking to address critical problems of practice identified by education researchers, practitioners, and other stakeholders.  If you have comments on this year’s Request for Applications – or if you have other feedback you would like to share – please write to us at IESResearch@ed.gov.

Does the Department of Education collect information on young children’s social and emotional development?

By Jill Carlivati McCarroll and Gail M. Mulligan

Yes, we do! During their early years, children are developing socially and emotionally. This includes the development of social skills, relationships, and regulation of emotions. Children’s socioemotional development can affect school experiences and outcomes, so it makes sense that the Department of Education is interested in this topic.

Researchers are using NCES’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies (ECLS) to examine questions about socioemotional development, for instance, how children’s growth in this area is related to background characteristics such as race/ethnicity and parents’ educational attainment, as well as home and school experiences. The ECLS studies collect information from the children themselves, as well as from their parents, their care providers, and their teachers. Being longitudinal, the ECLS data allow researchers to study how children’s socioemotional skills develop over time. Additionally, these surveys are some of the only nationally representative studies with data on children in these age groups.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) followed a group of children born in 2001 until they entered kindergarten. The ECLS-B was designed to describe children’s earliest experiences and relationships, and the first home visit data collection occurred when the children were only 9 months old. Socioemotional development was measured in several ways in this study. During home visits, researchers observed the children’s interactions with a parent during specific tasks, such as while the parent was reading a book aloud to the child, and reported on the children’s attentiveness, interest, affect, and social engagement. The quality of the children’s attachment relationship to their parent was also measured at age 2. When the children were in kindergarten, their teachers provided information about the children’s socioemotional skills. 

Socioemotional development has also been measured in ECLS studies that have followed groups of kindergartners over time: the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K) and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 (ECLS-K:2011). Teachers provided information about children’s social skills, problem behaviors, learning behaviors, and their own closeness and conflict with the students. Parents provided their own reports on much of the same information. One analysis of data from the teacher reports shows that children who enter kindergarten on time and those who had a delayed entry show positive “approaches to learning” (for example, eagerness to learn, self-direction, and attentiveness) more often than children who repeat kindergarten.

In later rounds of the ECLS-K and ECLS-K:2011, when the children were older, they were asked to provide information about themselves. In the ongoing ECLS-K:2011, children are reporting on aspects of socioemotional development such as their relationships with peers, social distress, peer victimization, and their satisfaction with different aspects of their lives.

For more information on the measures of socioemotional development included in the ECLS studies, please see our homepage, review our online training modules for the ECLS-B and ECLS-K, or email the ECLS study team.