Attention problems diagnosed in students in the first grade may be a sign of long-term difficulty in academic achievement, according to a recent Duke study.The study, led by David Rabiner, professor of psychology and neuroscience and associate dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, expanded upon the already extensive knowledge of the predictive power of early age attention difficulties for future academic performance. What was surprising, however, was that attention difficulties arising in the second grade proved far less significant, Rabiner said.
“For kids who have high levels of attention problems in first grade, [even if] those problems subsequently diminish, that missing out on critical, foundational academic skills in first grade results in adverse effects on long-term achievement, even if the attention problems disappear,” Rabiner said.
The study compared two groups of first graders—those with attention problems and those without—and tracked their academic progress to the fifth grade. The group with attention problems could then be further split into one group that would continue to have attention problems, and another that would become more attentive.
”We found that both groups relative to children without any attention problem did a lot worse in terms of their achievement in fifth grade in both reading and math, and that’s controlling for IQ and controlling for earlier achievement," he said. "Regardless whether or not your problems persist into second grade, if we find you have attention problems in the first grade you do not do as well as you should be.”
The data suggested that the grade in which a student develops attention problems was critical to a persistent damaging effect.
“When those problems emerge right at the beginning of formal schooling, they have a pretty negative impact. If they emerge later in a child’s school career, at least in our sample, we did not find any evidence for a significant detrimental effect,” he said.
Rabiner cautioned, however, that the findings do not apply to all students.
“It is important to realize that this kind of research is looking at differences between group averages," Rabiner said. "There are certainly kids who are doing well. These kinds of group-based findings do not mean that they are true for every individual.”Rabiner also noted that beyond elementary school, attention difficulties developed in the first grade have also been shown to predict high school graduation rates, as well as college admission 12 years down the road.
"If you take into account intellectual ability, academic achievement when kids start school, their socioeconomic status, race and gender, even controlling for all those things, children who show attention problems in first grade are 30 percent less likely to graduate from high school," he said. "On the one hand, it is a statistically important finding. It is clinically significant. But it still means that plenty of those kids will graduate.”
Kenneth Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and co-author of the study, noted that the findings should be used constructively to allow parents to seek avenues of intervention early on.
“One way to see this glass as half-empty is that there is prediction in a child’s life course very early on, but a way to see the findings as a glass half-full is to see that we have an opportunity to identify very early on children who are at risk, and we have an opportunity to intervene with those children and interrupt that development,” Dodge said.
He noted that intervention targeted at students capacity for attention, not just reading or math skills, is not yet effectively carried out in many schools.
“We don’t have a lot of effective interventions yet. Some people would move in the direction of medication. Other people would point towards more educational interventions that help children sustain attention—activities, games and tasks," he said. "Research is still being conducted on these interventions to see whether they are effective or not.”
Dodge hopes that this study will help stimulate appropriate and effective changes in the curricula of many elementary schools. He noted that his research group has already interacted with Durham public schools, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and the Center for Child and Family Policy, which oversaw the study.
“I would put this paper in the middle of an ongoing series of discussions with education policy leaders about what their core curriculum should be in elementary school," he said.
Dodge added that many subjects like reading, math and science, while useful, do not directly develop a student's ability to control their emotions and concentrate for extended periods of time.
"All these skills are not ordinarily taught in reading and mathematics but this research as well as other studies show that schools might as well devote significant curriculum time to these,” he said.
Freshman Melodie Bonanno, who suffers from ADHD, has experienced the lack of framework in schools available to address attention deficit problems. She noted that despite her being a fairly good student, teachers noticed that she was talkative and jittery, something they were not too fond of.
"There are a lot of administrators and teachers who have a lot more of a problem with you clearly not focusing in class," Bonanno said. "When you can't focus on your assignments and are not doing well it’s not that don’t have the potential of doing work, it only means that you are not given a chance. No one wants to work with you.”