Kindergarten students learning with teacher
Published on: January 31, 2019

The transition to kindergarten can be a challenge for children who have trouble paying attention, and can result in behavioral problems and poor academic achievement. A team led by researchers at Penn State is analyzing task persistence and how parents can influence it in early childhood.

Task persistence — the ability to sustain effort towards a task-oriented goal over time — is an important aspect of self-regulation in early childhood. It is a component of effortful control, which involves suppressing impulses and focusing on teacher-directed tasks.

Erika Lunkenheimer, associate professor of psychology and associate director in the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State, coordinated a research team to investigate how children complete tasks with their parents and caregivers before school begins and to see if these behaviors carry over into the school setting. The research was published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

“Considering their consequences for child development, it is necessary to better understand teacher-rated attention problems early in a child’s academic life,” Lunkenheimer said. “Unfortunately, we know relatively little about how task persistence fluctuates in real time and whether it predicts later attention problems.”

Additionally, previous research largely focused on mother-child interactions. However, the researchers wanted a better understanding of task-persistence patterns with both parents to see if they could predict how children apply task persistence in other caregiver-directed areas such as school. “We wanted to understand moment-to-moment changes in task persistence and how they were influenced by parenting behavior and child temperament,” said Lunkenheimer, who is also a Social Science Research Institute co-funded faculty member.

The researchers looked at 227 children and their parents and teachers. They assessed the children at ages 3 and 5 by doing a three-hour home assessment, along with interviews with parents and questionnaires with both teachers and parents.

Observations of child negative emotion, parental praise and directive statements, and child task persistence were derived from the coding of a videotaped interaction task in which parents and children worked together to recreate three block designs using four plastic cubes.

After evaluating the results, Lunkenheimer and her team found that task persistence was related to concurrent child and parent factors and later kindergarten problems.

“We found that children who started tasks low in persistence, whether they increased in persistence over time or remained low throughout the task, were perceived by their teachers as having more attention problems,” Lunkenheimer explained. “We also discovered that children who started out with lower persistence who had higher verbal skills were able to improve, but required more maternal direction and were still perceived by their teachers as having higher difficulty.”

The researchers also found that children demonstrated higher persistence with mothers than with fathers, and that more praise from fathers and lower expression of negative emotions by children were associated with high persistence with fathers. “We suspect that moms and dads play different roles in helping to socialize their children. Since not a lot of research has been done on detailed father-child interactions, this is an important finding,” said Lunkenheimer.

The research has important implications, as it could inform parent and caregiver training programs to better prepare children for kindergarten and help parents and teachers improve children’s task persistence and attention in school.

Other researchers on the project are Carlomagno Panlilio, assistant professor of education and SSRI co-funded faculty member, Penn State; Frances M. Lobo, doctoral student in developmental psychology, Penn State; Sheryl L. Olson, professor of psychology, University of Michigan; and Catherine M. Hamby, doctoral student in developmental psychology, Penn State.