The year's first report card is like a preseason game in sports. "It gives you a line on how the child's responding," says psychiatrist Sheppard Kellam, "but it has very little importance for later outcome."
The year-end report card, however, may do more than indicate success or failure at basic tasks. For young children, contends the chairman of Johns Hopkins Department of Mental Hygiene, "the final report card can be a major predictor of success or failure in later life.
"Starting school is one of life's biggest challenges. It may be tougher than choosing a career and landing the first job because in first grade there are no choices available. Everybody goes. The first-grade classroom is society, where the child has to survive."
A child's ability to make this key transition from home to society plays a crucial role in his or her future, according to a 19-year-study of 12,000 Chicago children Kellam and his wife, sociologist Margaret Ensminger, conducted at the University of Chicago's Social Psychiatry Study Center. They have recently moved their data -- and themselves -- to Johns Hopkins where they joined the study's third researcher, Hendricks Brown.
The researchers followed one group of about 1,200 children over a 10-year period to identify characteristics in first grade that were linked to later-life problems. Among their findings:
* Children having trouble learning react with "inward distress" and show marked risk of later depression, paranoia and overall distress.
* Boys and girls generally respond to school learning problems differently. Boys tend to "act out" their trouble in recognizable ways, while girls tend to react inwardly with more subtle "psychiatric symptoms" such as sadness and crying.
* Boys with learning problems usually fit one of three profiles: "aggressive" -- acting out trouble by fighting or disrupting, "shy" -- not speaking up in class, not having many friends and "shivering in fear" that the teacher will call on him, and "shy-aggressive" -- sitting alone and also fighting and breaking rules. Shy boys are at high risk for anxiety 10 years later. Both aggressives and shy-aggressives are at high risk for becoming delinquent, with shy-aggressives at extremely high risk of later substance abuse.
* A first-grade girl's emotional health is linked to her mother's mental health. Daughters of women who reported depression and anxiety in turn reported more depression and anxiety than did their peers. This psychiatric distress was evident both in first grade and in mid-adolescence, even if the mother's mental health improved.
* Children who succeed in first grade have a lower risk of depression and anxiety in adolescence.
* Mastering early learning is "vital." In a very few weeks, a child who is falling behind can start losing some self-esteem.
Although the study was conducted in a low-income community, Kellam says these findings are applicable to children in all socio-economic groups.
While school adjustment's relationship to later-life success is most striking in first grade, he says, "what's true of first grade is true of second, and so on. The point is that you can start early on being concerned about how well children are doing.
"This means it's vital that parents and teachers pay attention to developmental markers of how well things are going for the future of the child. And it's important that we successfully socialize children coming into the elementary school for the future of society.
"When you talk about expanding prisons, delinquency, crime, psychiatric symptoms and the rest, you're talking about a failure to socialize children. We're losing over half the kids who are coming into elementary school in urban areas at this point. They're not succeeding at the three basic tasks of learning, dealing with the rules and authority of the school and participating socially in the classroom process."
Current failures to successfully socialize children, says the 51-year-old father of three, can be countered by specific steps taken by the school system, teachers and parents. "For starters," he says, "you've got to cut class size" from current levels of 36 to 42 to "no more than 25." Second, he says, "You need a curriculum that is set up to make sure it reaches every single child in that classroom at the point the child is at in learning and takes them forward step by step with one small increment after another.
"We're using the same curriculum we used when we lived in a society where an eighth-grade education was sufficient. Today we're in a highly technological society, competing with the Japanese. We need a curriculum that uses teaching machines, because kids love them and they're a great learning tool."
Teachers can "reach out to kids in trouble. They can appoint shy children helpers and include them in structured ways such as having them erase the blackboard, collect papers and hand out pencils. With the aggressive child you must have a common agreement between the teacher and parent on how the child is to behave. The child has to be taught to behave and rewarded when they act appropriately, learn and participate."
Too often, says Dr. Kellam, parents and children have different views of the child's school success. According to his study, "when you compare mother's ratings of how their kids are doing and the teacher's ratings about how the kids are doing, the correlation is like zero.
"Teachers and parents must form a partnership. Much of the reinforcing of how the child behaves in school has to be done at home, plus there's homework to be done and a set of structured goals and values to be taught to the child and they should be in agreement."
In primary grades, this partnership should be established, he says, "from day one. You see the teacher for a few minutes just to make yourself available and form a relationship such that the teacher can call on you at the drop of a hat. You'll check in every other week or so just to have three words about how it's going. You don't want to distract the teacher from her job, but you want to have sufficient involvement so you know what's happening.
"Parents who haven't already done this should get in there and start. If your child does have problems, it's extremely hard to play catch-up ball."
The degree to which parents should be partners with their child's teacher, he says, "decreases as a function of age." Parents of junior and senior high schoolers, he says, "may want to see teachers with other parents in formal meetings.
"You can't go find out what your 16-year-old daughter is doing as well as you can your 6-year-old. Teachers by that time are dealing with a highly specialized part of her behavior, and she's got more teachers."
Kellam's advice when there is "a fundamental disagreement" between parents and teacher or when the teacher seems inadequate: "You go in and talk to the teacher, you talk to the principal . . . and as a last resort you transfer the kid.
"But you can't keep yanking the kid out. When it gets down to it, some teacher is going to be right. The school represents the society in which the child's going to have to make it. If the teacher says this kid is failing to learn, you better believe something is wrong. What's not permitted is passivity."