Research from a multi-disciplinary team at Duke University has identified a relationship between the long-term effects of attention disorders and the age at which they develop. The researchers used data from a longitudinal study about the development of behavioral issues and they found that when children develop attention problems in first grade, their long-term academic performance is compromised, but when children develop the same problems just a year later—in second grade—they are able to attain the same level of academic achievement as their peers by fifth grade.

Data for the study came from the Fast Track Project, a longitudinal study that tacked 891 people from kindergarten to adulthood. The Fast Track Project focused on learning how conduct problems develop. The researchers utilized a subsample of 386 children, assessing the children’s grades, reading scores, and math scores before and after first grade, as well as after fifth grade.

The results suggest that first grade plays a pivotal role in academic development. Children who were affected by attention problems in first grade faced challenges in their academic performance for years after. Among other things, they scored lower than their peers in reading after fifth grade. Even if the attention problems were mitigated after first grade, the effects were still felt later on. However, children whose attention problems did not develop until second grade performed just as well as their peers later on.

This study was among the first to examine how the timing of the development of attention disorders can affect academic performance. The research team suggests that future studies should examine if there is a similar effect with the development of attention issues in kindergarten; the data for this study was gathered in the early 1990s and kindergarten has since assumed a more prominent academic role.

“Even when these children overcome their attention problems, they continue to struggle in school. The earlier we can identify children who are struggling with sustaining attention in the classroom and intervene to help them, the better,” explained David Rabiner, psychologist at Duke and one of the study’s authors.

This research is published in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

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