New Duke study: Early attention skills most consistent predictor of academic success

A Duke study finds problems with attention to classroom instruction in the early grades can be a harbinger of lower academic performance later. (AJC File)

A new Duke University study suggests problems paying attention in school in early childhood can foreshadow academic challenges later, including graduating from high school. Such students are 40 percent less likely to graduate, according to the study.

The study also found likability — as reported by peers — has a small impact on academic performance.

The study confirms what many teachers have pointed out on the blog: Patterns are set early. Teachers often say they can predict in fifth grade which students will fail to finish high school.

The study found young students with early attention difficulties had lower grades and reading achievement scores than their peers by fifth grade. The gap persists, culminating in lower graduation rates.

In an earlier study, Duke researchers found it was significant whether the inattention occurred in first or second grade, noting: “When these difficulties are pronounced during first grade there are adverse consequence for children’s academic achievement and performance during elementary school, perhaps because first grade is such a critical year for the acquisition of fundamental academic skills. When children’s attention problems emerge later, however, the acquisition of important academic skills in grade one remains intact and there is no evidence that academic outcomes through elementary school are compromised. In our sample this was reflected in the fact that children whose attention difficulties became prominent in second grade showed nearly identical patterns of achievement gains during first grade as comparison children.”

The study finds early attention skills are the most consistent predictor of academic success.

Here is the official release from Duke:

Children with attention problems in early childhood were 40 percent less likely to graduate from high school, says a new study from Duke University that examines how early childhood characteristics affect academic performance.

“There’s not a lot out there about how early attention problems affect academic outcomes over such a long time frame,” said David Rabiner, an associate dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and a faculty fellow of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “This study is one of the first to focus on how attention problems as early as first grade relate to such an important educational outcome as high school graduation.”

The study, published in School Psychology Review, included 386 kindergarteners from schools in the Fast Track Project, a multi-site clinical trial in the U.S. that in 1991 began tracking how children developed across their lives.

With this study, researchers examined early academic, attention and socioemotional skills and how each contributed to academic success into young adulthood.

They found early attention skills were the most consistent predictor of academic success, but that likability also had a modest effect on academic performance.

By fifth grade, children with early attention difficulties had lower grades and reading achievement scores than their peers. As fifth-graders, children with early attention problems experienced average reading scores at least 3 percent lower than their contemporaries’ and grades at least 8 percent lower than those of their peers. This was after controlling for IQ, socioeconomic status and academic skills at school entry.

Although these may not seem like large effects, the impact of early attention problems continued to reverberate throughout the children’s academic careers. Lower reading achievement scores and grades in fifth grade contributed to reduced grades in middle school and thereby contributed to a 40 percent lower high school graduation rate.

“The children we identified as having attention difficulties were not diagnosed with ADHD, although some may have had the disorder. Our findings suggest that even more modest attention difficulties can increase the risk for negative academic outcomes,” said Rabiner, whose research has focused on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and interventions to improve academic performance in children with attention difficulties.

Social acceptance by peers in early childhood also predicted grades in fifth grade. Children who were not as liked by their first-grade peers had slightly lower grades in fifth grade, while those with higher social acceptance had higher grades.

Researchers said this is the first study to use children’s own reports of their peers’ likability to look at whether peer relations can help predict academic outcomes when accounting for other factors such as early academic skills and attention problems.

“This study shows the importance of so-called ‘non-cognitive’ or soft skills in contributing to children’s positive peer relationships, which, in turn, contribute to their academic success,” said Kenneth A. Dodge, the director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and a professor of public policy and neuroscience at the university.

The results highlight the need to develop effective early interventions to help those with attention problems stay on track academically and for educators to encourage positive peer relationships, the researchers said.

“We are learning that student success requires a more comprehensive approach, one that incorporates not only academic skills but also social, self-regulatory and attention skills,” Dodge said. “If we neglect any of these areas, the child’s development lags. If we attend to these areas, a child’s success may reinforce itself with positive feedback loops.”


Reader Comments 0


Do kids who are "inattentive" in class “attend’ to video games?  I'd like to know more about what being "inattentive" consists of for these researchers and whether the inattentiveness is cross-situational.

If children diagnosed as having ADHD perform equally well in video games, that would suggest that we don't know nearly as much about what "being attentive" is as we think that we do.

Maybe young kids need recess, occasionally. 


I am almost 50 years old, been teaching for 25 years, have four degrees and many certifications, and I can't sit still for more than 30 minutes!  I need to be moving to be engaged and attentive.  Quit telling kids they have to be immobile to be attentive!  My son would draw while listening to his teachers and he could tell them everything they said when they stopped the lecture.  I write and fidget with my legs, and can do the same.   I get so upset about this type of "study" and what impact it will have on early childhood teachers and their instructional strategies. 

MaureenDowney moderator

@southerntchr There has always been a strong compliance component in American education. I can remember  kids in my Catholic school who were in trouble every day because they could not sit still.  

I was in a class of 41 kids, and still remember two boys in particular who paid a price for being unable to sit with their hands folded for long periods. Those boys ended up being seated in the corner, dispatched to the office or sidelined from recess. 

We sat in rows all day and seldom got out of our seats. I don't see that too often any more. 


@MaureenDowney @southerntchr Thank you! I get so tired of reading about how schools today discriminate against boys because female teachers force them to sit still all day. As a student in the '70s and '80s, we were expected to sit still, listen, and be quiet almost all the time. There were no centers, no group work, just silent repetition of whatever we were working on memorizing, reading, writing, or calculating. I think kids now get a lot more movement throughout their day than we did. And my students still get 30 minutes daily of recess. This is not to say that the curriculum isn't very prescribed (my teachers had more latitude in what they taught) and kids don't still have to sit and listen, but it's nothing new and it's not as bad as many of us experienced in our childhoods.


inattentive kids could be very bright and bored stiff with the pace of 1st or 2nd grade teaching.

One of my kids was singled out by his 2nd grade teachers as having problems paying attention and subsequently diagnosed by a quack psychologist as having ADHD/ADD.  

Because I believed he was just very smart and bored, we moved him to a different school and never treated his alleged ADHD.

He grew into a highly disciplined, self-motivated student who chose to take and pass 9 AP exams before graduating high school; he scored a 3, a 4, and seven 5s.  He is currently studying engineering at Georgia Tech.


@AlreadySheared exactly!   My own son, I feel, was early on put into this "box" and never able to overcome the label.  We, as parents, did all the "right" things, doctors, medication, behavior modification, working with teachers, and still he was so, so bored.  He is a highly creative artist who never had an opportunity in our school system to be excited about his passion, art.  In fact, he was discouraged.  I blame myself, but I really wasn't in a position to pick up and move, but I should have, so that he would have had a chance.  We have to quit expecting young kids to sit still all day.  I am so sick of hearing that a kid was "on red" or green or orange.  All this professional development and I can still walk into a kindergarten or 1st grade class, and they are are sitting in chairs expected to be silent while the teacher talks. 


@AlreadySheared May I ask what school you moved your son to?


One can too easily imagine the angst that went into making sure this article's accompanying photo was politically-correct.

The sort of thing a liberal journalist loses sleep over.


@trifecta_ Seriously?  Two little white girls suggest political correctness? You're seeing things.

Jim Garew
Jim Garew

So let's differentiate, that will fix it!