How much is that rowdy kid interfering with your child’s learning?

Daniel Willingham
Anyone who has spent much time in classrooms has the sense that just a couple of disorderly kids can really disrupt learning for everyone. These kids distract the other students, and the teacher must allocate a disproportionate amount of attention to them to keep them on task.
Obvious though this point seems, there have been surprisingly few studies of just how high a cost disruptive kids exact on the learning of others.
Lori Skibbe and her colleagues have just published an interesting study on the subject.
Skibbe measured self-regulation in 445 1st graders, using the standard head-toes-knees-shoulders (HTKS) task. In this task, children must first follow the instructors direction (“Touch your toes. Now touch your shoulders.”) In a second phase, they were instructed to do the opposite of what the instructor said–when told to touch their toes, they were to touch their head, for example. This is a well-known measure of self regulation in children this age (e.g., Ponitz et al., 2008).
Researchers also evaluated the growth over the first grade year in children’s literacy skills, using two subtests from the Woodcock-Johnson: Passage Comprehension and Picture Vocabulary.
We would guess that children’s growth in literacy would be related to their self-regulation skill (as measured by their HTKS score). What Skibbe et al showed is that the class average HTKS score also predicts how much an individual child will learn, even after you statistically account for that child’s HTKS score. (Researchers also accounted for the school-wide percentage of kids qualifying for free or reduced lunch, as academic growth might covary with self-regulation as due to SES differences.)