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Study: Early-childhood attention skills help predict long-term academic success better than IQ, socioemotional skills, or socioeconomic status

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Which ear­ly child char­ac­ter­is­tics pre­dict long-term aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment and edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment? Research has focused on the role of ear­ly aca­d­e­m­ic skills, learn­ing enhanc­ing behav­iors, and socioe­mo­tion­al com­pe­ten­cies as pre­cur­sors of aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess. Iden­ti­fy­ing the rel­a­tive con­tri­bu­tion of each to children’s long-term aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment is impor­tant as it can inform the skills on which ear­ly edu­ca­tion pro­grams should focus.

The study

Along with my col­leagues Jen­nifer God­win and Ken Dodge, I recent­ly pub­lished a study in School Psy­chol­o­gy Review that exam­ined how ear­ly child char­ac­ter­is­tics pre­dict aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes through young adult­hood. Data from this study came from the Fast Track Project, a large, mul­ti-site study led by researchers from Duke, Penn State, Vanderbilt,and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton. As part of this study, near­ly 400 chil­dren were fol­lowed from the time they began first grade until they were in their mid-20s. We had mea­sures of their ear­ly read­ing and math skills as they began school, teacher rat­ings of their atten­tion skills dur­ing first grade, and peer rat­ings of how well liked they were dur­ing first grade. These ear­ly child char­ac­ter­is­tics were to pre­dict aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes after ele­men­tary school, across mid­dle school, high school grad­u­a­tion, and years of edu­ca­tion com­plet­ed by young adult­hood. Oth­er impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tics that would be expect­ed to pre­dict these out­comes, e.g., IQ and socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus were also tak­en into account.

At the end of 5th grade, their read­ing and math achieve­ment scores along with their school grades were col­lect­ed. Sev­er­al years lat­er children’s grades across mid­dle school were obtained and sev­er­al years after that, we learned whether they had suc­cess­ful­ly grad­u­at­ed from high school. Final­ly, when par­tic­i­pants were in their mid-20s, they were inter­viewed about their edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment to that time in their lives.


Here’s what we found.

At the end of 5th grade, chil­dren with greater teacher-rat­ed atten­tion dif­fi­cul­ties in 1st grades had sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er read­ing skills and sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er school grades. Chil­dren who were less pop­u­lar with peers in first grades also had sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er grades. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, low­er read­ing scores enter­ing 1st grade pre­dict­ed poor­er read­ing achieve­ment after 5th grade; sim­i­lar find­ings were evi­dent for math. Ear­ly read­ing and math achieve­ment scores did not pre­dict grades, how­ev­er.

Ear­ly atten­tion prob­lems also pre­dict­ed low­er grades dur­ing mid­dle school; this effect oper­at­ed thru the adverse impact of ear­ly atten­tion prob­lem on 5th grade grades. Sim­i­lar­ly, children’s peer pop­u­lar­i­ty in 1st grade also pre­dict­ed mid­dle school grades; as with atten­tion dif­fi­cul­ties, this effect oper­at­ed thru the impact of ear­ly pop­u­lar­i­ty on grades dur­ing 5th grade. In con­trast, ear­ly read­ing and math achieve­ment scores did not pre­dict mid­dle school grades.

The most strik­ing results were obtained for high school grad­u­a­tion where we found that par­tic­i­pants in the top 15% for teacher-rat­ed atten­tion prob­lems in 1st grade were 40% less like­ly to grad­u­ate than par­tic­i­pants with aver­age lev­els of atten­tion prob­lems. This effect seemed to oper­ate through the adverse impact of ear­ly atten­tion prob­lems on school grades. At age 25, ear­ly atten­tion prob­lems was also asso­ci­at­ed with sig­nif­i­cant­ly few­er years of for­mal edu­ca­tion com­plet­ed. Nei­ther ear­ly aca­d­e­m­ic skills nor ear­ly peer pop­u­lar­i­ty was found to have a direct impact on either of these impor­tant out­comes.

Summary and implications

Results from this study indi­cate that ear­ly aca­d­e­m­ic skills, atten­tion skills, and the abil­i­ty to estab­lish pos­i­tive peer rela­tions all con­tribute to at least aspects of longer-term aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes. Thus, atten­tion to each of these domains should be part of ear­ly edu­ca­tion pro­grams.

While all three ear­ly child char­ac­ter­is­tics con­tributed to some sub­se­quent aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes, ear­ly atten­tion skills emerged as hav­ing the broad­est impact, pre­dict­ing grades, achieve­ment results, high school grad­u­a­tion and years of edu­ca­tion. Par­tic­u­lar­ly note­wor­thy was that high lev­els of ear­ly atten­tion prob­lems, i.e., being in rough­ly the top 15% of the sam­ple, reduced the odds of grad­u­at­ing from high school by 40 per­cent. This like­ly reflects the fact that ear­ly atten­tion dif­fi­cul­ties reduce both read­ing achieve­ment and grades in fifth grade, both of which adverse­ly impact sub­se­quent aca­d­e­m­ic out­comes.

As we wrote in the dis­cus­sion sec­tion of our pub­lished paper, “The con­sis­tent­ly adverse impact of atten­tion dif­fi­cul­ties on sub­se­quent achieve­ment argues for the ear­ly iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of chil­dren whose atten­tion skills lag their peers and inter­ven­ing to pre­vent them from falling behind aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly. Sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly screen­ing chil­dren for atten­tion prob­lems dur­ing first grade could iden­ti­fy many chil­dren whose prob­lems might oth­er­wise go unno­ticed. Iden­ti­fy­ing young chil­dren who strug­gle with atten­tion may be eas­i­er than keep­ing them on track aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, as approach­es that are effec­tive for chil­dren with ade­quate atten­tion skills, e.g., tutor­ing, are sub­stan­tial­ly less help­ful with high­ly inat­ten­tive chil­dren. Devel­op­ing inter­ven­tions to enhance aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment in stu­dents with atten­tion dif­fi­cul­ties should thus be an impor­tant research pri­or­i­ty.”

From a pre­ven­tion per­spec­tive, our find­ings high­light the impor­tance of devel­op­ing effec­tive meth­ods for enhanc­ing ear­ly atten­tion skills so that few­er chil­dren enter for­mal school­ing with sig­nif­i­cant atten­tion deficits. How­ev­er, despite find­ings that con­sis­tent­ly doc­u­ment the adverse impact of ear­ly atten­tion prob­lems on aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment attempts to devel­op and test such inter­ven­tions have been lim­it­ed. For­tu­nate­ly, that is begin­ning to change — see a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing approach here. Find­ings from the cur­rent study will hope­ful­ly stim­u­late addi­tion­al efforts to devel­op atten­tion train­ing pro­grams for young chil­dren and to mak­ing such efforts an impor­tant research fund­ing pri­or­i­ty.

Rabiner_David– Dr. David Rabin­er is a child clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and Direc­tor of Under­grad­u­ate Stud­ies in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy and Neu­ro­science at Duke Uni­ver­sity. He pub­lishes the Atten­tion Research Update, an online newslet­ter that helps par­ents, pro­fes­sion­als, and edu­ca­tors keep up with the lat­est research on ADHD, and helped pre­pare the self-paced, online course How to Nav­i­gate Con­ven­tion­al and Com­ple­men­tary ADHD Treat­ments for Healthy Brain Devel­op­ment.

Relat­ed read­ing:

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