UW News

August 22, 1999

High-achieving children off to a good Head Start academically and socially, but study shows some are not ‘turned on’ by school

The highest-achieving children who were exposed to the Head Start program before entering elementary school are thriving academically and socially at the end of the third grade, but data from a new national study creates worries that their future success may be tempered by their luke-warm attitude toward school.

Results of the study, which also looked at family factors that may contribute to academic success of the children, will be presented today at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association by Nancy Robinson, a University of Washington child psychologist and director of the university’s Halbert Robinson Center for Capable Youth.

The research focused on 162 children, the highest achieving three percent from the multi-site National Head Start/Public School Early Childhood Transition Demonstration Project that involved 5,400 children. Funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the demonstration project included children from 30 states and the Navajo Nation. More than 450 schools in 85 school districts participated.

Robinson said teachers rated the high-achieving children as significantly more socially competent, more motivated to succeed academically and showing more positive overall classroom behavior than other students. Teachers also viewed the parents of high achievers as more supportive in encouraging their children to succeed in school than other parents, she said, even though these parents didn’t report this behavior.
Parents also rated their high-achieving children as better skilled socially, but not necessarily more cooperative or well-behaved.

“This isn’t surprising because talented children usually thrive in school,” said Robinson. “But we had hoped that these children would have loved school because their best hope and insurance for continued high achievement is loving school. But they are no different from the other children in the study. They are not totally turned off, but about one in three answers only ‘sort of’ when asked how well they like school or get along with their teacher.

“I’m worried about the future because they are moving into a period where they will be facing a lot of peer pressure to be just like everyone else, even though they really are not. It’s a time when they will need the strong support of parents and teachers, as well as access to high-achieving friends, who can help them maintain a motivation to succeed in school.”

The study also looked at family demographics, examining challenges, such as unemployment and homelessness, and strengths, such as an income over the poverty level or having a parent or caretaker with more than a high school education. Families of the high-achievers had fewer children, access to slightly more money and reported fewer challenging circumstances than the other families. While these families are more resourceful, Robinson said, they are by no means well off because 64 percent of them reported monthly incomes of $1,500 or less.

While the study clearly shows how effective low-income parents in encouraging their children, Robinson believes high-achieving children are at risk for not fully developing if society doesn’t take an active role in providing educational challenges.

“We need to recognize and challenge children. Real self-confidence comes from trying hard things. If we don’t offer opportunities to these children, we’ll lose them,” she said.

For more information, contact Robinson at (206) 543-4160 or at capable@u.washington.edu.
In Boston, she can be reached Aug. 22-24 at the Westin Copley at (617) 262-9600. After the APA meeting she will be on vacation until Aug. 30.