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From Dateline (May 6, 2004)

Predicting School Success Center Grant Continues to Support Long-Term Study

Nature or nurture? Which is more useful in predicting whether a child will be a success in school?

In 1979, a group of professors and students embarked on an ambitious project to answer this and other questions about how children develop. And so began the Fullerton Longitudinal Study led by Allen Gottfried, professor of psychology.

As of 2003, the study team has tracked 130 children from age one through adulthood. Gottfried is still actively involved in the study, as are Adele Gottfried of CSU Northridge; Kay Bathurst, professor of psychology; and Pamella Oliver and Jacqueline Coffman, assistant professors of child and adolescent studies.

“We performed an initial evaluation and home study for each of the children,” said Diana Guerin, professor of child and adolescent studies who was one of the original student researchers on the project. “We would continue to gather information on the children every six months, and then once a year after age five through the high school years. ”

Recently, the Center for Public Policy awarded a $2,000 grant to Guerin to analyze data from the Fullerton Longitudinal Study – to compare preschool age predictors of early school success.

The child development study included assessments of each child’s intellectual and behavioral status, as well as home visits to determine how language was used with the children, the types of toys available, activity levels and parent/child interactions. Researchers also gathered information on parents’ educational levels and occupations, how often they engaged in family, cultural or religious activities, and how family members related to one another.

“When we analyzed all the variables, we determined that about 20 to 25 percent of the variation in academic achievement was explained by families’ socioeconomic status, and 25 percent was predicted by intelligence test scores,” said Guerin. “Other influencers that positively affected academic performance included homes where children were read to, where language skills were developed through games and conversations, and where, in general, parents were providing more intellectual stimulation to their children.”

Yet there was no single predictor that spelled success. All of the elements studied were linked: families with higher socioeconomic status provided more intellectually stimulating home environments and also had children with fewer behavioral problems. Even though each of these variables predicted academic success, researchers could not accurately predict, to a child, which ones would be held back a year in school.

“We had a significant number of misses on who would be detained,” Guerin said. “We were able to accurately predict up to 98 percent of the children who would pass on to the next level, but in terms of predicting who would be held back, we were accurate only 20 percent of the time.

“Children’s early development is dynamic and decisions to retain or promote students are based on unique factors. Even with extensive information about the child’s development in multiple domains and his/her home environment, accurate prediction about an individual child simply was not possible,” she added.

Out of the research have come five books on a variety of the topics studied: temperament, cognitive development, family development, gifted IQ and effects of maternal employment. More than 140 papers, based on study data, were presented at academic conferences, and the study has been cited in dozens of other books and articles.

With close to 100 students involved as researchers, 12 have gone on to pursue doctoral degrees, and 30 have been awarded master’s degrees.

And the research continues. Recently, these not-so-youngsters (they’re now 24) were tracked down for another interview.

So how are the “kids” – some of who are now parents themselves – doing?

“It’s a broad range,” said Guerin. “What is particularly exciting about the FLS is that we can now look for links between early experiences and developmental outcomes in early adulthood.”

So is it nature or nurture? The answer appears to be – both.