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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.

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