Young children’s attention and persistence impacts their learning more than deprivation

Press Release

Thursday 8 July 2021

Today, sees the publication of two new reports, IELS thematic report: Young children’s development and deprivation in England focusing on early years education and IELS thematic report: Young children’s physical development in England, produced by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), and funded by the Department for Education (DfE).

The reports are based on further analysis of data from the International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS), looking at how deprivation and physical development relate to the learning outcomes of five-year-old children in England.  

The research reveals that young children’s attention and persistence have a stronger relationship with their learning than deprivation, and highlights the importance of focusing on young children’s physical development as well as their academic skills.

Key findings from the reports are outlined below:

Children’s attention and persistence are more strongly related to their learning outcomes than deprivation.
Children who were on task to a large extent during the direct IELS assessments had greater development than children who were not on task at all, after taking other characteristics (including deprivation) into account. The differences were equivalent to about nine months in emergent numeracy (counting, working with numbers, shape and space, measurement and pattern), nine months in emotion identification (the ability to recognise others’ emotions – an important part of empathy), ten months in emergent literacy (which focused on children’s oral language) and 14 months in mental flexibility (the ability to apply different rules or adapt your thinking to changing circumstances).

The analysis also revealed that children who were always persistent had greater development than children who were never persistent. The difference was equivalent to about seven months in emergent literacy, emergent numeracy and mental flexibility and about eight months in emotion identification.

Both family-level and school-level deprivation are related to children’s development at age five.
The research reveals that the difference between children from high and low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds (in terms of parental occupation, parental education and income) was equivalent to about two months in emergent literacy, two months in mental flexibility and around one month in emergent numeracy.

Children attending schools in the most deprived areas were found to be approximately five months behind in emergent literacy development and approximately four months behind in emergent numeracy development, compared with children attending a school in the least deprived areas.

In addition, children attending schools with a high proportion of Free School Meals (FSM) pupils were found to have lower development in emotion identification compared to children attending schools with a low proportion of FSM pupils. The difference was equivalent to approximately four months.


Children’s physical development is related to other key learning outcomes at age five.
The report underlines the importance of supporting young children’s physical development as well as their academic skills as part of the Covid-19 recovery. Focusing exclusively on cognitive skills runs the risk of less development in that area than a balanced focus on physical, cognitive and social-emotional skills.

Physical development has two key components: fine motor skills – the ability to use the smaller muscles of the hands to achieve small-scale movements, commonly in activities like using pencils and scissors; and gross motor skills – the ability to use the large muscles of the body for walking, running, jumping and other activities.

Fine motor development was associated with larger differences: children with greater fine motor development had greater development in other areas, equivalent to about five months of difference in emergent literacy and emergent numeracy, and four months in emotion identification and mental flexibility.

Greater gross motor development was associated about four months of difference in mental flexibility, three months in emergent literacy and emergent numeracy, and two months in emotion identification.


Having a special educational need is a risk factor for gross and fine motor development.
As previous research has found, difficulties with motor skills can be an indicator of unidentified special educational needs (SEN). This underlines the importance of early intervention and support for children with SEN.  

For fine motor development, the analysis found a difference of approximately nine months of development between children with an identified SEN and those without. This is the case even though the majority of children in the study with an identified SEN had difficulties with communication and interaction, rather than physical disabilities.

Additional risk factors for fine motor skill development are being younger (closer to four years 11 months than six years 0 months) and being a boy, with the research identifying that boys’ fine motor skills were approximately eight months behind those of girls’ at age five.

Commenting on the research findings, Caroline Sharp, Co-Author and Research Director at NFER said:
“These new findings show that young children’s attention and persistence are related to their development and we know that families and educators can help children to develop these important skills. They help us to understand more about the impact of disadvantage on young children’s development and the relationship between cognitive and physical development. This will enable early intervention to be targeted on those in greatest need so that all children have the opportunity to thrive, and any learning challenges they may experience at an early age don’t affect their future chances in life.”