A Canadian research team lead by Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick discovered preschoolers who score lower on a memory task are likely to score higher on a dropout risk scale at the age of 12.
“Identifying students who are at risk of eventually dropping out of high school is an important step in preventing this social problem,” said Fitzpatrick, first author of a study recently published in the journal Intelligence. She is a researcher at Concordia University’s perform Centre.
Researchers assessed responses from 1,824 children at age two and a half, and then at three and a half. They then compared their findings to the school-related attitudes and results of these children when they hit grade seven.
Results were clear: Those who do better on a memory-testing imitation sorting task during toddlerhood are more likely to perform better in school later on, and therefore more likely to stay in school.
The imitation sorting task is specifically effective in measuring working memory, which can be compared to a child’s mental workspace.
“Our results suggest that early individual differences in working memory may contribute to developmental risk for high school dropout, as calculated from student engagement in school, grade point average, and whether or not they previously repeated a year in school,” said Fitzpatrick.
“When taken together, those factors can identify which 12 year olds are likely to fail to complete high school by the age of 21.”
The good news is that preschool activities can improve memory performance.
“Preschoolers can engage in pretend play with other children to help them practice their working memory, since this activity involves remembering their own roles and the roles of others,” said Dr. Linda Pagani of the Université de Montréal, co-senior author.
“Encouraging mindfulness in children by helping them focus on their moment-to-moment experiences also has a positive effect on working memory.”
Pagani also said breathing exercises and guided meditation can be practiced with preschool and elementary school children. In older kids, vigorous aerobic activity such as soccer, basketball, and jumping rope have all been shown to have beneficial effects on concentration and recall.
The researchers note that another promising strategy for improving working memory in children is to limit screen time — video games, smartphones, tablets, and television — which can undermine cognitive control and take time away from more enriching pursuits.
“Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention,” Fitzpatick said.
“Parents can help their children develop strong working memory skills at home, and this can have a positive impact on school performance later in life.”