Children’s early attention and social skills may soon be recognized as equally important as their early academic skills in facilitating scholastic success into young adulthood.

A new Duke study found that children with attention problems in early childhood were 40 percent less likely to graduate from high school. The longitudinal study evaluated 386 kindergarteners from schools enrolled in the Fast Track Project, a multi-site U.S. intervention trial designed to investigate and prevent behavioral and psychological problems in adolescents. In addition to examining how early academic and attention skills contributed to academic success at the time of high school graduation, the researchers also assessed proficiency in peer relationships.

David Rabiner—research professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience and a lead researcher in the study—explained that although there were previously several pieces of evidence of the importance of early academic and attention skills in facilitating academic performance through high school, evidence of the relative importance of social competency—the ability to get along with one’s peers—was less conclusive.

“Previous studies had investigated effects of social competence only as measured by teachers’ perceptions of students’ social relationships, but that is different from a child’s eye view,” he said.

Rabiner said he and his colleagues wanted to design a study that would examine the effects of early child characteristics—academic proficiency, attention skills and social competence—in order to measure the relative importance of each to academic achievement in elementary school, middle school and high school.

Rabiner used social competency evaluations completed by the children’s peers. He noted that the extended length of time over which data collection took place would allow the research fill a gap in the current literature.

Kenneth Dodge, William McDougall professor of public policy studies and director of the Center for Child and Family Policy, was another researcher in the study. He said he believes each of the three skill attributes complement one another.

Dodge added that the American educational system should be broadened in order to accommodate the complementary importance of attention and social likability skills in addition to academics moving forward.

“It is a call for developing effective ways for improving attention and social likability skills,” Dodge said.

Rabiner noted it would be short-sighted for school systems to focus exclusively on the academic side of children’s development without also addressing their abilities to pay attention and develop social relationships in the classroom and beyond.

Both researchers explained that children in the study were not necessarily diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, signifying a broader significance of their results.

“Our findings suggest that attention difficulties can arise in—and can have significant implications for—any kid down the road, not just one with ADHD,” Rabiner said.

Dodge said it will be important to distribute future attention improvement programs across the entire child population rather than focusing them only upon children diagnosed with attention disorders.

Both researchers also reflected on the study’s implications for college students.

Dodge said he believes that colleges and universities have to assume that students are not coming in with as much proficiency in attention and social likability skills as they are in academics. Therefore, institutions should focus on immersive extracurricular offerings and other small-group experiences to improve students’ abilities to collaborate and work as a team, he explained.

“Employers aren’t simply looking for proficiency in reading and math,” he said. “More and more success in the business world is reliant upon [social and collaborative skills].”

Rabiner noted that he thinks the abilities to be attentive, to get along with classmates and to perform academically in the first grade are the same abilities that allow students to succeed at Duke or similar institutions.

It is plausible that college students who are not able to develop a supportive social network may be less likely to succeed in their academic endeavors, Rabiner added. 

“I think that students who come into Duke or any other university who are less prepared in any of the three areas are likely to experience a disadvantage with respect to performing academically in college,” he said.

Rabiner said he is hopeful for future investigation into preventing the development of attention problems in young children entering school in the first grade, or even as early as kindergarten.

“Until very recently, there has been remarkably little work in this area, but that is starting to change,” he said.