What Predicts Success in STEM…and School?

At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, we are developing and enhancing the knowledge on the practices and supports necessary to improve access and participation within  early STEM learning  opportunities. But many of you may question why STEM is so important in the early years. This week, we invited Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama to share their insights with us.

About the Authors
3533786640?profile=RESIZE_180x180 Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D.
Dr. Clements received his PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher, he has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education.

3533793197?profile=RESIZE_180x180Julie Sarama, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarama received her PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. She designed and programmed over 50 published computer programs, including her version of Logo and Logo-based software activities (Turtle Math™, which was awarded Technology & Learning Software of the Year award, 1995, in the category "Math"). 

How important is doing STEM in the early years…really? If my children do more STEM, will it make a difference later?

Absolutely, but you don’t have to take our word for it!  STEM in the early years has been found by researchers to be surprisingly important for development through life.

Let’s take a look at math first. The math children know when they enter kindergarten predicts their math achievement for years to come 1 out to 10th grade 2. Math also predicts later success in reading,1,3 so math appears to be a core component of cognition. Further, knowledge of math in the early years is the best predictor of graduating high school 4. One more: Number and arithmetic knowledge at age 7 years predicts socioeconomic status at age 42, even controlling for all other variables.5  These predictions may show that math concepts and skills are important to all of school and life. However,  math is much more: Math is critical thinking and problem-solving, and high-quality math experiences also promote social and emotional development, literacy, and general brain development!6,7,8,9 No wonder early STEM experience predicts later success.

Inside children, language and STEM are “best friends.”  That is, connections between the development of math and literacy are numerous and it’s a “two-way street”.10,11,12 The more math language children learn, such as “more,” less, “behind,” “above” and number and shape words, the more math children learn.13 More surprising, preschoolers’ narrative abilities, particularly their ability to convey all the main events of the story, offer a perspective on the events in the story, and relate the main events of the story to their lives, predict math achievement two years later.14 And, going the other way on this street, children who experience more high-quality mathematics in preschool grow in their expressive oral language abilities (measured by assessments devoid of any math vocabulary15). In another study in the UK, doing math increased later scores on English by 14 percentile points.16 

The same is true with science. First, early science matters to later science. Children who have primary-grade teachers trained in the U.S. science framework17 score significantly higher than their peers in fifth grade.18 Second, science activities excite children’s “STEM talk” that reflects scientific reasoning, including observing, predicting, comparing, explaining, and generalizing19. And reading for comprehension and reading-to-learn requires concepts and knowledge of the world, both of which STEM provides.20  Doing more science increases primary-grade children’s science, and math, and reading scores.21

Not just language, but many cognitive and affective, or emotional outcomes improve with STEM. Let’s consider two: executive function (EF) and approaches to learning. EF, including cognitive flexibility, updating working memory, and response inhibition, is one of the most important general cognitive abilities. EF is highly related to academic success 22 and particularly important to children with disabilities 23 as well as to children from low-resource communities. Research also has confirmed the importance of engagement in learning or approaches to learning. In one study, it was the single best predictor of learning as far out as fifth grade 24 ). Such engagement in learning, including persistence at tasks, eagerness to learn, attentiveness, learning independence, flexibility, and organization, was especially important for girls and minority students. 

The good news is, high-quality STEM may develop both!22 For example, EF predicts math22 and predicts science learning.25 Early STEM offers a fruitful context to foster EF and approaches-to-learning in many ways: 26,27 

•    STEM elicits children’s natural curiosity about the world.

•    STEM providing a unique opportunity to engage children in hands-on learning experiences. These experiences promote critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, persistence, and other adaptive domain-general learning skills such as EF.

In solving STEM problems, children make observations, engage in rich conversations with teachers and other children, and think flexibly to come up with predictions and solutions to their problems. Inherent to STEM is the expectation that we learn from failures and mistakes.28 Children learn to try and try again, practicing risk-taking, persistence, tolerance for frustration, and maintaining focus. 26,27


  1. Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., . . . Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428
  2. Stevenson, H. W., & Newman, R. S. (1986). Long-term prediction of achievement and attitudes in mathematics and reading. Child Development, 57(3), 646–659. doi: 10.2307/1130343
  3. Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2011). The nature and impact of early achievement skills, attention skills, and behavior problems. In G. J. Duncan & R. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality and the uncertain life chances of low-income children (pp. 47–70). New York, NY: Sage.
  4. McCoy, D. C., Yoshikawa, H., Ziol-Guest, K. M., Duncan, G. J., Schindler, H. S., Magnuson, K., . . . Shonkoff, J. P. (2017). Impacts of early childhood education on medium- and long-term educational outcomes. Educational Researcher, 46(8), 474–487. doi: 10.3102/0013189x17737739
  5. Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring links from childhood mathematics and reading achievement to adult socioeconomic status. Psychological Science, 24, 1301–1308. doi: 10.1177/0956797612466268
  6. Aydogan, C., Plummer, C., Kang, S. J., Bilbrey, C., Farran, D. C., & Lipsey, M. W. (2005, June 5-8). An investigation of prekindergarten curricula: Influences on classroom characteristics and child engagement. Paper presented at the NAEYC, Washington, DC.
  7. Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Layzer, C., Unlu, F., & Fesler, L. (2020). Effects on mathematics and executive function of a mathematics and play intervention versus mathematics alone. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 51(3), 301-333. doi: 10.5951/jresemtheduc-2019-0069
  8. Dumas, D., McNeish, D., Sarama, J., & Clements, D. (2019). Preschool mathematics intervention can significantly improve student learning trajectories through elementary school. AERA Open, 5(4), 1–5. doi: 10.1177/2332858419879446
  9. Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., & Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The impacts of an early mathematics curriculum on emerging literacy and language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(3), 489–502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002
  10. McGraw, A. L., Ganley, C. M., Powell, S. R., Purpura, D. J., Schoen, R. C., & Schatschneider, C. (2019, March). An investigation of mathematics language and its relation with mathematics and reading . Paper presented at the 2019 SRCD Biennial Meeting, Baltimore, MD.
  11. Purpura, D. J., Day, E., Napoli, A. R., & Hart, S. A. (2017). Identifying domain-general and domain-specific predictors of low mathematics performance: A classification and regression tree analysis. Journal of Numerical Cognition, 3(2), 365–399. doi: 10.5964/jnc.v3i2.53
  12. Purpura, D. J., & Napoli, A. R. (in press). Early numeracy and literacy: Untangling the relation between specific components. Mathematical Thinking and Learning.
  13. Toll, S. W. M., & Van Luit, J. E. H. (2014). Explaining numeracy development in weak performing kindergartners. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 124C, 97–111. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.02.001
  14. O'Neill, D. K., Pearce, M. J., & Pick, J. L. (2004)Predictive relations between aspects of preschool children’s narratives and performance on the Peabody Individualized Achievement Test - Revised: Evidence of a relation between early narrative and later mathematical ability. First Language, 24, 149-183.
  15. Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., and Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The Impacts of an Early Mathematics Curriculum on Emerging Literacy and Language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 489-502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002.
  16. Shayer, M. & Adhami, M. (2010). Realizing the cognitive potential of children 5–7 with a mathematics focus: Post‐test and long‐term effects of a 2‐year intervention. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(3), 363–379.
  17. National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
  18. Kaderavek, J. N., Paprzycki, P., Czerniak, C. M., Hapgood, S., Mentzer, G., Molitor, S., & Mendenhall, R. (2020). Longitudinal impact of early childhood science instruction on 5th grade science achievement. International Journal of Science Education, 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09500693.2020.1749908
  19. Henrichs, L. F., Leseman, P. P. M., Broekhof, K., & Cohen de Lara, H. (2011). Kindergarten talk about science and technology. In M. J. de Vries, H. van Keulen, S. Peters & J. W. van der Molen (Eds.), Professional development for primary teachers in science and technology: The Dutch VTB-Pro project in an international perspective (pp. 217–227). Boston: Sense.
  20. McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
  21. Paprzycki, P., Tuttle, N., Czerniak, C. M., Molitor, S., Kadervaek, J., & Mendenhall, R. (2017). The impact of a framework‐aligned science professional development program on literacy and mathematics achievement of K‐3 students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(9), 1174–1196. doi: 10.1002/tea.21400
  22. Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Germeroth, C. (2016). Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36(3), 79–90. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.12.009
  23. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2019). Executive function and early mathematical learning difficulties. In A. Fritz, V. G. Haase & P. Räsänen (Eds.), International handbook of mathematical learning difficulties: From the laboratory to the classroom (pp. 755–771). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  24. Bodovski, K., & Youn, M.-J. (2011). The long term effects of early acquired skills and behaviors on young children’s achievement in literacy and mathematics. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 9(1), 4–19.
  25. Nayfeld, I., Fuccillo, J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2013). Executive functions in early learning: Extending the relationship between executive functions and school readiness to science. Learning and Individual Differences, 26, 81–88. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2013.04.011
  26. Bustamante, A. S., Greenfield, D., & Nayfeld, I. (2018). Early childhood science and engineering: Engaging platforms for fostering domain-general learning skills. Education Sciences, 8(3), 144. doi: 10.3390/educsci8030144
  27. Bustamante, A. S., White, L. J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2018). Approaches to learning and science education in Head Start: Examining bidirectionality. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 34–42. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.02.013
  28. Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books.
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