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Attention: New Research Is Changing the Picture of Why Children Have Trouble in School

Conventional wisdom often paints a picture of the poorly behaved student as the future flunkee. Even in early elementary school, we're led to believe, the kids who get in trouble will be the ones who struggle academically and eventually come home with failing grades.

Now new research is scrambling that image and bringing a few new culprits into focus. Two of them -- low levels of math and reading skill at early ages -- have received a lot of attention in early childhood circles, driving the movement for academically oriented pre-K programs. But something else may be to blame as well: the inability to pay attention. 

A study in last month's Pediatrics shows that the greater a child's attention problems at age 6, the more likely that child will perform poorly on tests of math and reading in the last few years of high school. Contrary to some of their own expectations, researchers found no connection between achievement and behavioral problems, whether they were aggressive actions (such as children pushing classmates or lashing out at the teacher) or issues like depression or withdrawal. The study examined data on nearly 700 children of varying family backgrounds.

In 2007, a study landed with similar -- and similarly surprising -- results. In an examination of data on thousands of children across the country, researchers found that children with behavioral problems were no more likely to be poor achievers in elementary school. Instead, they said, low achievement was most strongly linked to poor skills in math and reading at an early age and to symptoms of attention disorders. Some preliminary data unveiled in April at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development follows the same narrative.

"What's striking is how consistent the findings are," said Joshua Breslau, an epidemiology professor at the medical school at the University of California at Davis and the lead author of the Pediatrics article.

The same thought came to Greg J. Duncan, an education professor at the University of California at Irvine who led the 2007 research (he was at Northwestern at the time). "The results are strikingly similar," Duncan said.

Neither study involves medical diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. But both relied on teachers' reports of how children fared on a common rating scale of children's attention, such as their ability to focus, follow directions and finish tasks.

If research continues to zoom in on attention problems, there are large implications for early education. The Pediatrics article, for example, suggests screening children for attention problems as soon as they enter school. Whether this would be done by kindergarten teachers or medical professionals, or both, remains to be seen. But it's likely that policies designed to foster collaboration between education and mental health professionals could gather momentum. 

The importance of attention also complicates already hotly debated issues of what should be considered normal behavior in 5 and 6 year old children, what they should be expected to accomplish in the classroom, and how to handle young kids who are so easily distracted and difficult to teach.

And then there's the troublesome thought of kindergarteners taking ADHD medication.

Julie Schweitzer, a co-author of the Pediatrics study and a clinical psychologist at UC-Davis who specializes in ADHD, said she hoped the study would build more awareness among teachers and parents about the impact of attention problems -- and the importance of treating them as soon as possible. She said she encounters many parents whose children are diagnosed as having the disorder but who do nothing about it, often because the disorder still comes with a stigma, as many people continue to believe that it is simply a result of poor parenting or overly high expectations for children's capacity to sit still. Yes, the environment can make a difference, Schweitzer said, but accumulating evidence from the field of neuroscience suggests that ADHD has its roots in a person's physiology.

Still, kindergarten teachers can help children overcome some of the disorder's effects. For example, Tools of the Mind, a teaching method that we've cited at Early Ed Watch, was showcased in an article in Science and the Early Childhood Research Quarterly for its success in improving children's ability to focus and pay attention. In a "Tools" classroom, children are encouraged to engage in pretend-play scenarios, taking different roles and thereby gaining practice in disciplining themselves, keeping their behavior in check and staying "in character."

Teachers can also try simple interventions, Schweitzer said, "such as giving rewards for following rules, listening to the teacher, sitting still in circle time, persistence in their projects, keeping their hands to themselves as well."

 "It may be," she continued, "that the ‘wigglers' might also benefit from being allowed to do more socially acceptable wriggling in the classroom."

But, she added, if those efforts don't work, teachers should refer children for an evaluation. "You don't want to waste time," she said. "It will mean worse outcomes for the children in the long run."