NCES Blog

National Center for Education Statistics

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. 

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.