The secret to raising an academic child is not to coach toddlers in maths or play them classical music, but to teach them to pay attention, research by child development experts suggests.

Toddlers who are better at concentrating, taking directions and persisting with a game even after hitting difficulties have a 50 per cent greater chance of getting a degree when older, a two-decade long experiment found.

The study tracked 430 kids from pre-school to 21-years-old, monitoring academic and social development, behavioural skills and behaviour at home and in the classroom.

Parents were asked to watch how long the children would play with one particular toy while at home, while teachers were instructed to give the class a task and then monitor which toddlers gave up and which ones kept persevering until they had completed it.

Results of the study by Oregon State University were published in the online journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

The children most likely to go through further education were those who, at an early age, persisted in tasks and paid attention in pre-school sessions, said researchers.

Researchers said these are qualities that both parents and teachers can easily teach youngsters.

Many ambitious parents try to introduce maths or classical music or other academic subjects to their children to give them a headstart in life. But they may be better teaching social skills like paying attention, not giving up and how to follow directions, said child development expert Megan McClelland.

She said: “There is a big push now to teach children early academic skills at the pre-school level.

“Our study shows that the biggest predictor of college completion wasn’t maths or reading skills, but whether or not they were able to pay attention and finish tasks at age four.”

The pre-school research included seeing how long children would play with a single toy or how easily they would give up when they reached difficulties in a task.

Literacy and maths skills were assessed both as seven year olds and then again as 21-year-old adults. Researchers found that the best predictor of later academic performance was not how well they could read or complete sums at seven but their attention span and persistence levels.

The four year olds with the best attention span and persistence were 50 per cent more likely to end up with a degree. A college degree then leads to jobs paying higher wages and with more stability, Dr McClelland said.

Dr McClelland added: “The earlier that educators and parents can intervene, the more likely a child can succeed academically.

The important factor was being able to focus and persist. Someone can be brilliant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can focus when they need to and finish a task or job.

“Academic ability carries you a long way, but these other skills are also important. Increasingly, we see that the ability to listen, pay attention, and complete important tasks is crucial for success later in life.”

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