Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 17, 2020

Conscientious Children Do Better in School

by Simon Calmar Andersen
Photo of two boys laughing

If we want children to do well in school, practicing reading, writing, and mathematics is not the only way to help them succeed.  Raising children to be responsible, persistent, and careful might be just as important for them to do well academically, not least when it comes to reading.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I showed that, in primary and secondary school, conscientious students score better on national reading tests than less conscientious students. We see this difference as early as 4th grader, equally as strongly for eighth graders, and for girls as well as boys.

Conscientiousness is one of the five broad domains of personality in the Five-Factor Model of Personality, also called “The Big Five,” which is the dominant model for describing the core areas of personality. Conscientiousness involves aspects of people’s personalities that relate to the degree to which people are responsible and goal-oriented, and work carefully to get things done. Although it is often described as a personal trait, it may be more useful to think of conscientiousness as a set of socio-emotional skills that people can practice and improve. For instance, some children find it difficult to persevere when struggling with challenging tasks. But if they practice, they can gradually increase their perseverance and task performance.

Many studies have shown that students in high school and college perform better academically the more conscientious they are, but at what age does conscientiousness first become important?  The news in our study is that conscientiousness is important for students’ academic performance as early as age 10.  This finding is highly relevant for parents and teachers because it points to the fact that practicing academic skills such as spelling and arithmetic is not the only way to help children develop academically. Sometimes, the key to academic growth is to support children in developing important socio-emotional competencies such as persistence and dedication.

We base these conclusions on data from national reading tests and a Danish survey of well-being obtained in a nationwide sample of 135,389 students from fourth grade to eight grade. Then, a year later, we replicated all of the results in a separate sample of another 125,375 students. Therefore, we are very sure that the relationship between conscientiousness and academic performance is reliable and generalizable. 

In addition to looking at the relationship between conscientiousness and school performance, we also examined two of the other “Big Five” personality traits: agreeableness and emotional stability. Agreeableness relates to people’s tendency to cooperate and be empathic towards other people, whereas emotional stability has do to with having a calm disposition and being resilient in the face of stressful situations.  These competences are important in many areas of life, but our study showed that, once we accounted for the impact of conscientiousness, skills such as agreeableness and emotional stability had practically no impact on the students’ reading scores.

However, students in secondary school tended to do a little better on the national reading test if they scored lower in emotional stability. This was a surprising finding—one wouldn’t think that students who are highly unhappy, stressed-out, or anxious would get better grades.  However, perhaps for older students, being a little concerned about school performance can contribute positively to performance. Therefore, this small, negative relationship between emotional stability and academic performance is intriguing and warrants further research to understand the psychological mechanisms that cause it.    

But our main finding—that conscientious children do better as early as 4th grade—suggests that parents and teachers may want to keep a close eye on the development of conscientiousness in the children they care about.

For Further Reading

Andersen, S. C., Gensowski, M, Ludeke, S. G., and John, O. (2020). A stable relationship between personality and academic performance from childhood through adolescence. An original study and replication in hundred‐thousand‐person samplesJournal of Personality.

Simon Calmar Andersen is Professor at the Department of Political Science and director of TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus University


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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