New research has shown that growing up with lots of books and being read to as a toddler have a bigger impact on the performance of a child starting school than their temperament or even their socio-economic background.
To determine the best predictors of a child's ability to be organised, pay attention and stay on task in class, Queensland University of Technology and Charles Sturt University researchers tracked nearly 3500 children from birth to age six. Overall girls did better than boys when they started school, as did children from higher socio-economic backgrounds, according to the data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
But the researchers found the quality of a child's learning environment when they were toddlers was the most significant indicator of their ability to manage themselves at school.
"It was strongly predictive of academic, social and emotional outcomes later on," said Sue Walker, an early childhood expert at QUT's Faculty of Education.
Children who grew up in homes with lots of books and who enjoyed being read to for longer periods were most likely to perform well when they reached school. The research found a child's learning environment at home was a better predictor of functioning than their temperament, ethnicity or the quality of their relationship with their parents.
"When they come to school they're prepared to learn effectively," said Associate Professor Walker, who will present her findings at an international behavioural development conference in Shanghai next month.
"They can pay attention in class, stay focused on tasks, and keep belongings organised."
Experts believe these executive functioning skills are more crucial for a child's school readiness than their ability to read, write or count.
Professor Walker said that if a parent placed a high value on literacy, as shown by the number of books they had, they would read to their child regardless of their socio-economic status.
Being read to often increases a child's vocabulary and enjoyment, and requires them to pay attention and remain engaged.
Professor Walker said any kind of engagement with a child when they were young would benefit their development, including involving them in music and playing games that focused on memory skills.