That old saying that the teacher knows best may be even truer than you thought. A fascinating study from the University of Montreal published June 19, 2019 in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry details the work of researchers that mined the 30-year long Quebec Longitudinal Study of Kindergarten Children.
In the study, kindergarten teachers identified a specific set of traits in nearly 3,000 school children aged five to six. 30 years later (after carefully controlling for IQ and family background), the tax returns of each of the children in the study were examined in an attempt to discern if there were relationships between any childhood traits identified and income earned as an adult.
Incredibly, one trait emerged as a powerful early behavioral predictor of future earnings in both boys and girls. What was it?
The ability to pay attention.
The study showed a relationship between children who weren’t able to pay attention well and lower earnings as an adult. Specifically, a one standard deviation reduction in inattention scores at the age of six would restore a whopping $3,077 in annual earnings for adult men, $1,915 for adult women.
In Scientific American, Francis Vergunst, one of the lead researchers in the study, pointed out that if inattentiveness can be identified in young children based on a single teacher assessment made in kindergarten (as was the case in the study), it means that it may be possible to intervene. Providing support programs can help the child bolster their ability to pay attention and thus improve their future monetary and social success (Vergunst points out that inattention has also been linked to poor peer relations and anti-social behavior).
So helping your child develop this trait packs a powerful punch. How to do so?
1. Give them “focus-changing” cues.
It’s not helpful to bark orders across the room at your kid, hoping they’ll drop what they’re doing to focus in on the task you’re asking them to do. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Toddler Center and author of “How Toddlers Thrive”, says it’s important to get right down to the child’s eye level, put your hand on his or her shoulder and then give a clear request infused with empathy. “I know you don’t want to stop playing with your trucks. But it’s time to stop and clean up your room so no one trips on all the toys.” You get the idea.
It’s about providing clear signals that now is the time to pay attention. I’m not saying it’s easy or that it happens the first time, every time. But eventually your child will pick up on the cues. And I’ve found that stopping for a moment to get involved in what your child is doing before asking them to do that thing you want them to creates a connection that makes it more likely they’ll listen. (The spirit of reciprocity at work).
2. Help them keep their emotions in check.
This is one my wife and I work hard at with our daughter. If you’ve ever tried to focus when you’re raging angry, downright sad, or super-anxious, you know it’s almost impossible to do.
When our daughter’s emotions are running highest and she needs to complete her homework, for example, we encourage her to take deep breaths, we offer positive sentiments (that she can repeat to herself) and then we stay out of her way. Insisting that the child breaks out of the emotional state they’re in never works, they need time alone to sort it out.
3. Explain the why.
It’s really important that your child understands exactly why they need to focus and to understand the consequences of not doing so. Otherwise it can just sound like you’re issuing random commands. This includes making sure they understand the consequences of them not stopping and shifting their focus.
This takes tremendous patience. Sometimes, even when we explain to our daughter that if she doesn’t get moving she’ll be late for this thing at school that really she wants to do, it still takes multiple attempts. But I’ve found the clearer we are in articulating the consequences for not focusing (or shifting focus), the greater the success rate.
So pay attention to your child’s inattention. It will pay off, literally, and in many other ways too.