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Attention Problems in Kindergarten Could Spell Long-Term Academic Trouble

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Children with attention problems in kindergarten often struggle academically through high school. Those are the results of a new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine.

The study is among the first to show how attention problems early in life can shape and predict future academic performance.

“The evidence suggests what many educators may already suspect, that kids with attention problems don’t learn as much,” said Joshua Breslau, lead researchers. “This starts very early for many children and is cumulative.”

The study used data collected by Breslau’s mother, Naomi Breslau, an epidemiologist at Michigan State University, for research she had conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. In her study, researchers followed more than 800 children from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds in the Detroit area, examining the impact of low birth weight on psychological development.

The California researchers used information collected on 693 of these children, from ages six through 17. The zeroed in on three types of behaviors as scored by their teachers — “internalizing” behaviors such as anxiety and depression; “externalizing” behaviors such as acting out and breaking rules; and attention problems such as restlessness and the inability to focus on one activity.

Compared with other childhood psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety and disruptive behavior, Breslau and his team found that attention problems, including symptoms of ADHD, had the strongest impact on a child’s future academic success. Signs of ADHD often begin showing up in kindergarten, a child’s first school experience that demands a higher level of learning and cognitive skills.

“Ultimately, students who do poorly may lose motivation to invest in academic work, become more open to competing interests, including substance abuse, and more likely to drop out of school,” the study authors wrote. The article appears in the June 2009 issue of Pediatrics.

The study stopped short of making specific recommendations, but suggested that school officials need to focus more resources on identifying and helping young children who are struggling with attention problems.

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