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Elementary school becomes a distant memory once you enter high school and beyond. Those days are usually only brought to mind when work becomes so tiring that a nap is needed or when nostalgia sets in with the mention of a playground. People very rarely compare their current success to the work ethic they developed sitting at a wooden desk, despite knowing that habits form early.
From the relationships formed to the chores assigned, childhood experiences can impact nearly every corner of our adult life – the person we will become, the paths we will choose, and the success we will have. But considering grades are just letters and numbers, and not always a true sign of intelligence or the effort one is willing to put in, are elementary and middle school achievements accurate predictions of future success?
Do the friends we make, the rules we break, and the reprimands we receive during this stage impact our success in high school, college, and even our career? We surveyed over 1,000 people about their grade school experiences and successes in adulthood to learn more. Keep reading to see what we found.
Why So Serious?
You don't have to be a parent to know the difficulty adults face when getting young children to sit down and complete their homework. But parental encouragement can push students to perform their best. Looking back, the majority of respondents were serious about doing well in elementary school, with 20.6% claiming they were somewhat serious, 28.3% moderately serious, and 30.6% extremely serious. As they got older, however, seriousness about succeeding in school increased. By the time they reached middle school, the majority of respondents were at least moderately serious about doing well.
While children's habits were found to take root by age 9, or around the third grade, and stick throughout high school, the majority of people thought their early childhood habits had a major impact on their academic achievement. Compared to nearly 34% believing early habits majorly impacted academics, fewer than 20% believed they impacted life satisfaction, career success, and salary.
Pass or Fail
As seriousness increased during the transition from elementary to middle school, students' grades fell slightly. In primary school, 62.6% of respondents earned above-average grades (A's), while that percentage dropped to 54.7% in middle school. Instead, people earned slightly more B's and C's and over two times the number of D's and F's in middle school than in elementary school. Of course, the material and amount of work change drastically as students progress, but the social changes students experience can also make it more difficult to excel in middle school.
Despite the increased challenges, those who earned above-average grades early on were significantly more likely to earn a postgraduate degree. On the other hand, 22% and 27% of students earning average or below-average grades, respectively, in elementary and middle school cut ties with formal education after high school. However, struggling to succeed in elementary and middle school doesn't always mean limited education or success in the future – 20% of those who earned D's and F's in their younger years went on to earn a postgraduate degree.
While the highest grades don't necessarily lead to millions or billions in the bank, the highest-paying jobs often require higher education. Considering early grades are linked to more advanced degrees, what role do grades play in predicting a student's future salary? When it came to elementary school grades, the difference in salary was quite slim – while above-average students earned an average of $38,355, those who got below-average grades went on to earn an average of $38,049 per year.
Despite money habits solidifying at the age of 7 – which determines how people will spend their money – the grades students earned as they got older seemed to be a better indicator of how much they earned later on. Students earning A's in middle school grew up to earn more than their average or below-average counterparts. While those who got D's and F's in middle school went on to earn an average of just $30,419 annually, straight-A students grew up to earn an average of nearly $11,000 more per year.
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
Grades are often the most emphasized aspect of the education system – the higher GPA, the better chance of success – or so society says. But behind the most successful businesses is not academic perfection or the highest GPA. In fact, the average college GPA of American millionaires is just 2.9. Instead, success is often determined by attitude. While those with perfect grades know how to navigate school and follow the rules, the most successful people know how to break them.
Once students hit middle school, calls home from the school increased, along with parent meetings and visits to the principal's office. However, spending time in the principal's office doesn't necessarily lead to a life of delinquency. On the contrary, it seems to increase the chances of students becoming business owners as adults. Of those who said they were sent to the principal's office as a kid, 20.5% became business owners, compared to just 11.5% of those who had never been sent to the principal's office.
Satisfied Rule Breakers
In nearly every school setting, there can be pressure to fit in. Whether the rules are detailed in codes of conduct or implied, following rules typically means conforming to those around you. As students get older, the pressure to fit in increases and can often cause children and teenagers to withdraw from their peers and, ultimately, be unhappy.
Unhappiness derived from conformity seemed to follow students into adulthood – those who followed school rules all the time ranked in the 54th percentile for life satisfaction, while those who hardly ever followed school rules reported the highest average life satisfaction (61st percentile). Interestingly, students who only sometimes followed the rules had the lowest average life satisfaction across all respondents.
Impact on Success
Healthy and productive habits early on can set people up for success, but how far they go may be all in their head. People who believed that habits formed in early childhood had no impact on their academic achievement, career, life satisfaction, or salary ended up earning the lowest average salary compared to those who believed early habits had at least a minor impact.
While believing early school habits had just a minor impact on academic achievement led to the highest average salary of $39,770, those believing early habits had a major impact on their career, life satisfaction, and salary ended up making the most, with each average salary totaling more than $41,000. The types of habits people form early on are certainly important, but believing they matter can make a significant difference.
Making an Impact
It sounds cliche to "believe in yourself," but there's a reason it's such a common phrase – believing in yourself not only leads to greater success but also it can lead to increased happiness. Those who thought their early school habits had no impact on life satisfaction ultimately reported the lowest average life satisfaction, scoring in the 35th percentile. On the other hand, those believing early school habits had a major impact on their life satisfaction were more satisfied than 65% of all respondents.
Prepare to Succeed
There's no perfect path to success, but one thing is for sure: Forming habits early is a great way to start. Elementary and middle school students with a strong work ethic and above-average performance were more likely to earn higher degrees, make more money, and be more satisfied with their life.
Forming good habits early on can be a helpful tool in achieving success down the road. At Office Depot, we believe every student should have the supplies they need to achieve their goals throughout the school year and beyond. From backpacks and planners to tablets and desks, we have everything you need to ensure you or your loved one is ready to start the school year right. To browse our products, visit us online today.
- Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction with Life Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71-75.
We surveyed 1,007 people about their experiences in elementary (first through fifth grade) and middle school (sixth through eighth grade). Respondents were 46.6% men and 53.4% women. The average age of respondents was 38.5 with a standard deviation of 12.9.
Respondents were asked about the impact that early childhood habits have on academic achievement, life satisfaction, career success, and salary. They were given the following scale to rate their perceived impact:
- No impact
- Minor impact
- Moderate impact
- Major impact
In our final visualization of the data, we presented the percentage of people who rated early childhood habits as having a "major impact" on each of the elements listed.
Respondents were asked what grades they typically received during their early school years. They were given the following options:
- Above average (A's)
- Average (B's and C's)
- Below average (D's and F's)
The letter grades were used as examples and context when answering the question. While some may classify B's as above average grades, grade inflation has been increasing rapidly in recent decades. For this reason, we included B's in the "average" category as that better reflects today's grading landscape.
All respondents reported their current personal annual salary. We then compared this to their grades earned in elementary and middle school, as well as their perceptions of the impact that early school experiences have on a person's adult life. The average salaries by education level were calculated to exclude outliers. This was done by finding the initial average and standard deviation of the data. The standard deviation was then multiplied by three and added to the initial average. All data points above this sum were then excluded.
When reporting their experiences with various disciplinary actions, respondents were asked about the frequency with which they experienced each on the following scale:
In our final visualization of the data, we combined all the data except those who answered "never" for disciplinary action. This represents the number of people who had ever experienced each action in elementary and middle school.
All respondents completed the Diener et al. validated life satisfaction scale. Based on their responses, each was given a life satisfaction score. Data were scaled using a normal cumulative distribution function. In our final visualization of the data, the data are represented percentiles based on the average life satisfaction scores of people reporting particular responses.
The data presented in this study rely on self-reporting. Among the issues with self-reported data are exaggeration, selective memory, and telescoping. Due to the nature of the study and the topic being explored, telescoping could have played a role in how respondents answered questions. Given the average age of respondents was 38.5, many were being asked to remember and answer based on experiences potentially 20-plus years in the past.
Fair Use Statement
It can be difficult to engage your kids in good habits, especially if they can't grasp the impact it can have on their life later. If you know someone looking to motivate a child to excel, feel free to share our findings with them. All we ask is that you link back here so that they can see the study in its entirety and review the methodology. This also ensures our contributors get credit for their work.