08/10/2012 12:15 EDT | Updated 10/10/2012 05:12 EDT

The Skill that Will Help Your Child Get into College

Courtesy Sewanee: The University of the Soutj

We are increasingly aware that the first few years of a child's life can have a profound effect on his/her later success. Those early years make up a critical period when a young child is learning essential skills such as how to interact well with others, follow directions, and follow through on a task. These skills may be more even more important for long-term educational attainment than the ability to add and subtract.

As a researcher who has studied early child development for more than a decade, I have an increased interest in this area now that I am a mother. Like all parents, I want to do whatever is possible to make sure that my daughter and son will have the skills to succeed at whatever path they choose.

In a recent study, published online in "Early Childhood Research Quarterly," we utilized data from a study tracking 430 preschool-age children over 25 years. We found that those children who were rated higher by their parents on attention and persistence at age four had nearly 50 percent greater odds of getting a bachelor's degree by age 25.

Parents of preschool children were asked to rate their children on items such as "plays with a single toy for long periods of time" or "child gives up easily when difficulties are encountered." Reading and math skills were assessed at age seven using standardized assessments. At age 21, the same group was tested again on reading and math skills.

Surprisingly, math or reading achievement at ages seven or 21 did not significantly predict whether or not these students completed college. However, a child's ability to pay attention, focus, and persist on a task at age four increased the odds of completing college by age 25 by nearly 50 per cent. This is compelling evidence that social and behavioural skills, such as paying attention, following directions and completing a task, may be even more crucial to attaining a degree than academic abilities.

In the United States and elsewhere, there is enormous pressure to focus on academic skills at the preschool level. Although learning basic math and reading is very important for young children, it is also critical to help children learn how to listen and pay attention, remember instructions, demonstrate self-control, and persist on tasks.

The good news for parents and educators is that attention and persistence skills are malleable and can be taught. The earlier that educators and parents can intervene, the more likely a child can succeed academically. Much of my research has focused on "self-regulation," which is the term we use for a child's ability to listen, pay attention, follow through on a task and remember instructions. Interventions aimed at increasing young children's self-control abilities have been effective tools for increasing both self-regulation skills and early achievement.

For example, in a past study, we found that children randomly assigned to an intervention who started the year with low levels of self-regulation saw significant gains in self-regulation over the preschool year after doing a variety of classroom games. These games are movement and music games that ask children to stop, think, and then act. Importantly, children participating in the intervention games also made significant gains in early literacy over the school year.

Here are a few games that parents or educators can do easily:

• Red Light, Green Light: One child is the stoplight; the others are the cars. When the stoplight says "Green light," the children run toward the streetlight. When the stoplight says, "Red light," the children must stop. You can then change the rules and make Red mean go and Green mean stop. Or add in new colors and rules.

• Dance: Start by having children dance slowly to slow music. Then have them dance fast to fast music. Then change the rules and tell them to dance slowly to fast music, and dance fast to slower music. Add in new rules to increase the complexity of the game.

• Simon Says. Add new rules and then switch the rules.

Taking time out every day to play a game, solve a puzzle, read a book together, or do something active with your child can go a long way to helping them succeed later in life. Helping children learn how to focus and persist on a task can make a huge difference, and will help ensure she has the building blocks for a prosperous future.