ADHD News & Research

Early Attention Struggles May Predict Academic Problems Down the Road

Academic and social skill challenges early on in school may lead to a higher chance of a child’s not graduating from high school.

July 11, 2016

Children who struggle to pay attention and make friends as early as kindergarten may be less likely than their peers to graduate from high school, according to a new study conducted by Duke University.

The study, published this month in School Psychology Review, looked at children from the Fast Track Project, a research undertaking from Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy that studies behavioral and psychological development in children across the country. Researchers with the Fast Track Project have been following more than 900 children since 1991. In this case, researchers selected 386 kindergartners and measured early academic, social, emotional, and attentional skills — based on quantitative data, as well as peer reports and self-evaluations — and tracked each child’s success throughout elementary, middle, and high school, ending at their high school graduations.

The results showed that children who had attention challenges in kindergarten were much more likely to struggle in middle school and beyond, culminating in a lower likelihood that they would graduate from high school. The problems started small: As they entered fifth grade, the children who had early attention difficulties were just 3 percent behind their classmates in reading scores and only 8 percent behind in overall grades. But as the children grew, the problems got worse: by middle school, their grades were even lower, and by the time they finished high school, they were graduating at a rate that was 40 percent lower than their peers.

“There’s not a lot out there about how early attention problems affect academic outcomes over such a long time frame,” said David Rabiner, Ph.D., a faculty fellow of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and the lead author of the study. “This study is one of the first to focus on how attention problems as early as first grade relate to such an important educational outcome as high school graduation.”

Early social skills had an impact too, though it was less consistent. Children who were considered less “likeable” by their kindergarten peers had lower-than-expected grades by the time they hit fifth grade. Conversely, children who were socially accepted in kindergarten had better grades throughout their academic careers. These results held true even when researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, IQ, and overall academic skills when the children started school.

The children with “attention difficulties” did not have formal diagnoses of ADHD — though the researchers believe they would have been warranted in some cases. But the findings suggest that even a slight problem with focusing, even if it’s not enough to require a diagnosis or any formal treatment, has a negative impact on a child’s academic career.

“We are learning that student success requires a more comprehensive approach, one that incorporates not only academic skills but also social, self-regulatory, and attention skills,” said Kenneth A. Dodge, the director of the Center for Child and Family Policy. “If we neglect any of these areas, the child’s development lags. If we attend to these areas, a child’s success may reinforce itself with positive feedback loops.”