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Breaking News: Distracted Elementary Students Less Likely to Graduate High School

Blog Breaking News: Distracted Elementary Students Less Likely to Graduate High School

“Kids who struggle with attention have a harder time benefitting from classroom instruction,” says Ann Lagges, PhD.


Children who have trouble paying attention in elementary school can fall behind year after year, making it less likely they will graduate high school.

New research shows that first graders whose teachers pinpointed their attention issues were more likely to have lower reading skills and poorer grades in fifth grade and middle school. These students were 40 percent less likely to graduate high school.

“Kids who struggle with attention have a harder time benefitting from classroom instruction,” says Ann Lagges, PhD, a child psychologist at Indiana University Health. “If kids don’t learn the foundational skills, they fall behind. If they’re falling behind in reading, by the time they hit fifth grade and then middle school they’re going to struggle in everything because every subject requires reading.”

Researchers at Duke University followed 386 students for two decades, starting in kindergarten. The students were part of the Fast Track Project, which selected kids at risk for conduct problems. Teachers assessed the students’ academic skills the summer after kindergarten and their attention levels in first grade based on six criteria related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), although the students were not diagnosed with ADHD. The students’ math and reading skill levels and subject grades were gathered in fifth grade and middle school.

While early inattention predicted lower grades later on, first-grade class grades did not predict fifth-grade class grades or high school graduation directly. And middle-school grades alone could not be predicted based on first-grade academic or attention skills.

The study results show that early attention skills are one of the most consistent predictors of academic performance and high school graduation, according to the researchers.

Social Ranking Affects Grades

The study also showed that peer acceptance can affect academic work. Children who were not as popular with their peers had lower grades in fifth grade and middle school and were less likely to graduate. But social likability had no relation to reading or math skills at the end of elementary school. (Social acceptance was measured by interviewing children individually.)

“Sometimes what we see are these kids that are checking out from school may also get involved with other kids who are also checked out from school and then start getting into some trouble,” Lagges says.

Lagges points out that this study screened kids for attention issues, but did not diagnose ADHD. An ADHD diagnosis could open the door for more treatment options, she says.  Medication is first-line treatment for children with ADHD, especially for those ages 6 and up, ideally combined with behavioral therapy, particularly for kids up to about age 12, she says.

However, treatments have not been well-studied for children who haven’t met ADHD criteria but still have attention challenges, Lagges says. The study called for more research to discover effective programs to help students with attention issues earlier, such as in preschool, so they can perform better in school.

-- By Melanie Padgett Powers 

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