- Published on Oct 16, 2008
- Contact Diane Swanbrow
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—I think I can, I think I can. Believe. You can fly if you just believe. I won't die if you just believe.
Archetypal advice from The Little Engine That Could and Tinkerbell notwithstanding, a new study finds that until children are at least eight years of age, their beliefs have little or no connection to their behavior.
They may believe they are good at math even when they do poorly on tests, for example. Or they may behave aggressively with other children even though it is hard for them to act aggressively.
The study of approximately 1,600 children ages six to 18 appears in the current (September/October 2008) issue of Child Development.
"Children entering school have two important tasks," says University of Michigan psychologist Pamela Davis-Kean, who conducted the study with colleagues from U-M and from the University of Minnesota, Indiana University and Duke University. "They need to learn and achieve in school, and they need to cooperate with others.
"The findings of this study suggest that the best ways to help children accomplish these key tasks may be very different depending on their age."
Davis-Kean directs the Center for the Analysis of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
For the analysis, Davis-Kean and colleagues analyzed data from two different long-term studies. In one study, children in Southeast Michigan were asked about their ability in math and how well they expected to do in math in the coming year. The researchers also obtained the students' math grades from school records.
In the other study, children in Indiana and Tennessee were presented with cartoons or videos depicting ambiguous events, and then asked how easy or difficult it would be for them to act aggressively in that situation. For this study, mothers were also asked about their children's aggressive behavior.
The researchers analyzed the concurrent connection between beliefs and behaviors across both studies and at different ages. They found that the link between belief and behavior strengthened with age, for both math performance and aggressive behavior. And they also found that until the age of eight, the link was virtually nonexistent.
According to Davis-Kean, the findings have important implications for parents, teachers and others interested in helping children to improve academic achievement and behavior.
"Just saying to a child, 'You know this is wrong. Why do you keep doing it?' may not be an effective strategy before the age of 8," Davis-Kean said. "Younger children may know it's wrong, but they haven't associated that knowledge with their own behavior."
With children younger than age 8, it may be more effective to try to change their behaviors directly, either by giving them time-outs to discourage negative behavior or by rewarding them for positive behavior.
With children over the age of 8, encouraging children to think differently about their behavior may have more of an impact, she said.
Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest academic survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.
The U-M Center for the Analysis of Pathways from Childhood through Adulthood brings together researchers from around the world to identify specific factors that influence children's academic achievement, social relations, mental health and eventual life success. Funded by the National Science Foundation, CAPCA applies cutting-edge analytic methods and statistical approaches to a broad range of longitudinal studies with the aim of creating effective interventions to help families, schools and community organizations help children develop into happy, productive adults. For more information, visit the CAPCA website: http://rcgd.isr.umich.edu/capca/