Judging by a glance at the title, this article seems fit for the “patently obvious” files: “Preschool Children Who Can Pay Attention More Likely to Finish College”. But there’s more to it than just that seemingly self-evident observation.

A new study at Oregon State University, the results of which were just published online in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, suggests that young children who pay attention and are able to persevere with a task have a 50 per cent greater chance of completing college.

Tracking a group of 430 preschool-age children, the study gives compelling evidence that social and behavioral skills, such as paying attention, following directions and completing a task may be even more crucial than academic abilities. […]

“There is a big push now to teach children early academic skills at the preschool level,” said Megan McClelland, an OSU early child development researcher and lead author of the study. “Our study shows that the biggest predictor of college completion wasn’t math or reading skills, but whether or not they were able to pay attention and finish tasks at age 4.”

So when it comes to succeeding in college—and life beyond—perhaps it’s not whom you know, or what you know, but how persistently you work to meet your goals.

“Academic ability carries you a long way, but these other skills are also important,” McClelland said. “Increasingly, we see that the ability to listen, pay attention, and complete important tasks is crucial for success later in life.”

Character development evidently plays a role, as the ability to listen implies growth in self-restraint and being open and considerate towards others. Patience and perseverance are also traits crucial to developing a successful work ethic. Fostering the character as well as the intellect is what those who advocate for a classical liberal arts education (yes, they still exist) call “educating the whole person”.

“And the good news for parents and educators, the researchers said, is that attention and persistence skills are malleable and can be taught.”

The bad news for (some) parents and educators is that they are the ones who must model the behavior and teach it to their young charges. In other words, there is no magic formula, curriculum, product, technology, or government program that will do the job.  

This research is yet another reminder that what children need most is not costly government initiatives, high-tech toys, and mind-numbing entertainment, but someone who cares about them to engage, challenge, and mentor them. This article could also have been titled “Parents Who Pay Attention to their Pre-schoolers More Likely to Help their Children Succeed in Life”. 

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...