A new study of children in the U.K. suggests that physical activity is linked to emotional regulation in early childhood, which in turn predicts academic achievement. Fotini Vasilopoulos and Michelle Ellefson of the University of Cambridge, U.K. (Vasilopoulos now at University of London, UK), present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 19, 2021.
Previous research suggests that physical activity in childhood can boost self-regulation--the skill of controlling one's emotions and behavior as required by a given context. However, previous studies of the impact of physical activity on academic outcomes have had mixed findings.
To better understand the interplay between physical activity, self-regulation, and academics, Vasilopoulos and Ellefson used the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal study of 4,043 children in the U.K. Parents and teachers filled out questionnaires to measure the emotional and behavioral components of the children's self-regulation skills at ages 7, 11, and 14. Children's physical activity was assessed according to several parameters, including intensity, duration, and enjoyment.
Statistical analysis of the data showed that a greater degree of physical activity was linked to greater emotional regulation, but not behavioral regulation, across all three time points when measurements were taken. However, when the researchers accounted for the children's socioeconomic status, physical activity was linked to lower emotional regulation and had a negligible link with behavioral regulation.
The analysis also suggested that, for 7-year-olds, physical activity positively predicted emotional regulation skills resulting in higher academic achievement throughout early primary school. For 11-year-olds, physical activity appeared to positively impact academic achievement via behavioral regulation. After accounting for socioeconomic status, these links were even more pronounced.
These findings suggest that early and sustained physical activity is an important element in children's development and schooling. The researchers note that evaluating childhood risks for poor academic achievement is complex, as evidenced, in part, by the influence of socioeconomic status on the results. The findings demonstrate the importance of ensuring that children have access to forms of physical activity, particularly for children from less-advantaged settings who lack the resources or opportunities to participate in physical activity than their better-advantaged peers.
The authors add: "Physical activity is linked to emotional regulation in early childhood and behavioural regulation in middle childhood. This relationship predicts academic attainment, suggesting that early and sustained physical activity is an important element in children's development and schooling. The findings demonstrate the importance of ensuring that children have access to forms of physical activity, particularly for children from less-advantaged settings who lack the resources or opportunities to participate in physical activity than their better-advantaged peers."
Citation: Vasilopoulos F, Ellefson MR (2021) Investigation of the associations between physical activity, self-regulation and educational outcomes in childhood. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0250984. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0250984
Funding: The authors received no specific funding for this work.
Competing Interests: No authors have competing interests.
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