Tens of millions of children around the United States are going back to school. For those starting first grade, things are about to get serious. First grade brings new demands: sit still longer, pay closer attention, follow more rules, and so on. That may not sound like fun, but it’s not all bad. Between the ages of 5 and 7, kids show remarkable improvements in their ability to control their attention and behavior. This is a necessary part of developing the executive functioning needed to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. Until now, it wasn’t clear whether these executive functioning skills came naturally with age or were due to being in school. A recent study in Psychological Science revealed that school gets a good bit of the credit: First grade helps shape the brain processes that allow kids to pay attention and stay on task.
To tease out cause and effect, Garvin Brod and Yee Lee Shing from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and Silvia Bunge of the University of California, Berkeley, followed 62 5-year-old children in Berlin for a year. The kids all had birthdays near the official cutoff date for starting first grade, so they were close in age, however, some went into first grade and some into kindergarten. (“Kindergarten” is what Germans call preschool.) The school environments were very different. Kindergarten was more play-based and first grade was more structured and goal-oriented. Every first grader, regardless of school, followed the same federal curriculum.
Before school started and then again one year later, the children performed a series of behavioral tests. For example, in the hearts and flowers test, the children looked at images on computers. When a heart appeared, they had to push a button on the same side of the screen as the heart. When a flower appeared, they had to push a button on the opposite side. First, they saw only hearts, then only flowers, and then the two were mixed. In another test, they pushed buttons when they saw images of dogs, but when an occasional cat appeared, the children were told not to push the button. This is a classic go/no-go test.
The results were striking. All the children improved over the year—so there is some natural maturation occurring. But first graders performed better overall than kindergartners. As you’d expect, the children did better on the easier tests, such as pushing the button on the same side as the heart, and worse when they had to choose between reacting to hearts or flowers. But again, the first graders showed more improvement than the kindergartners on that task, which required focus and ability to follow rules.
Over the year, the neuroscientists also measured changes in the children’s brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging. (To their knowledge, no one else has done an imaging study of the effects of first grade on the brain.) They focused on a part of the brain necessary for sustained attention, the right posterior parietal cortex, which sits at the top and back of the skull. The first graders, compared to the kindergartners, showed more activity in this brain area. Furthermore, increased activation in this area correlated with levels of improvement in accuracy on the hearts and flowers test and the go/no-go test with cats and dogs.
“Your brain changes because of the new context that you’re in, and the new demands placed on you,” says Bunge. (I wrote here about her research on how children develop reasoning.) The result is a child who is better at maintaining focus and following rules.
The scientists are not saying that all children should start school earlier. There is plenty of research showing that children do well in hands-on, interactive learning environments. “When the kindergartners get to first grade,” says Shing, “they may just catch up to the same level or potentially show even larger changes due to being older when they start school.” Future studies will explore these possibilities.
What’s significant is that the study sheds new light on what happens when children do spend a year in first grade. It shows clearly how formal schooling influences children’s developing cognitive skills. In other words, environment does play a role. And the study also gives us a little more insight into the wondrous things happening in children’s brains during what’s known as the “5-to-7 shift,” that age period that brings about such significant cognitive development and coincides with start of formal schooling all over the world.
Kids may wish for no end to the lazy days of summer, but eventually they need to learn to pay attention and follow the rules. The good news is that when they go to school, they will.