Interview - Caroline Fitzpatrick


Caroline Fitzpatrick has co-authored a recent Canadian study on memory and dropout risk in pre-school children

She is a professor at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, and a researcher at Concordia University’s Perform Centre in Montréal.

You found that a one-point increase in pre-school children’s working memory skills makes them 26 per cent less likely to be at high risk of dropping out from school when they are older. What’s the connection between early years memory and academic success?

Brain regions in the prefrontal cortex, which support working memory and cognitive control, undergo rapid development during the pre-school years. Working memory is a component of cognitive control that allows us to manipulate, update and track information. Children use working memory to keep in mind different steps involved in solving a maths problem or to connect information from one paragraph to the next while reading.

How did you test the children?

We studied 1,824 children over several years through the ‘Québec Longitudinal Study of Child Development’. Their working memory was measured when they were aged two and three, using an imitation sorting task. The research assistant first sorted toys in two transparent canisters. The toys were then removed from the canisters and placed in front of the child. The assistant then asked the child to repeat what they had observed. Dropout risk was measured at age 12 by asking students to report on academic grades, prior grade retention, and school engagement.

How might these findings be used to help children improve their future chances?

Mindfulness involves training oneself to focus on moment-to-moment experiences. Some research suggests the technique may help young children because it can improve awareness of distractions and focus on tasks. In addition, reducing time spent with screens can also be beneficial, since screens can undermine cognitive control and take time away from more enriching pursuits. Parents can also encourage children to engage in pretend play with other children to help them practise their working memory – by remembering their own roles and those of others. With older children, vigorous aerobic activity such as football, basketball and jumping rope can all benefit concentration and working memory. Practising a musical instrument or traditional martial arts, which place an important focus on respect, self-discipline and humility, can also help children build strong cognitive control and working memory skills. Finally, policies protecting vulnerable families from stress can also play an important role.

Read the full interview at www.nurseryworld.co.uk

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