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Kindergarten Behavior Affects High School Scores


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

Scientists from the UC Davis Medical School and Michigan State University report that there is a link between attention problems early in school - as early as kindergarten - and lower scores on high school tests.

According to a lead author of the new study, Joshua Breslau, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine and a researcher with the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities, the study found that when children are not able to pay attention during early school years, it has the strongest negative impact on how they perform at the end of high school, regardless of their intelligent quotient (IQ). He said that addressing attention problems early in life could prevent some kids from entering "a downward spiral of failure."

In the study, "The Impact of Childhood Behavior Problems on Academic Achievement in High School," Breslau and his team examined the data on nearly 700 children who were tracked from kindergarten, between the ages of 5 and 6 years, through the end of high school, when they were 17 through 18 years old. The study analyzed the three categories of behavior as scored by the teachers: "internalizing" behaviors that implied anxiety and depression; "externalizing" behaviors that included aggressive behavior, such as acting out and not obeying the rules; and attention problems that included restlessness and inability to concentrate on a single task.

The analysis took into consideration a variety of potentially confounding factors, including IQ and the fact that kids with one psychiatric disorder are likely to often have other ones, as well. The findings of the present investigation are rare in the field of pediatric mental health research and were made possible only because of the availability of data that was gathered 20 years ago, Breslau noted.

The investigators revealed that lack of attention in kindergarten-age kids was the only type of behavior that consistently resulted in lower scores on reading and math achievement tests that the student had to take ten years later.

A study co-author Julie Schweitzer, a UC Davis associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) researcher at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, said that

the message for parents/caregivers and teachers is to not ignore signs of inattentiveness in young children. The findings really demonstrate that, if a child experiences attention problems at the age of 5 or 6, adults must not just wait in order to see if the problems go away, but should ask for evaluation from a trained professional, Schweitzer said.

The study adds to a growing number of evidence according to which attention problems can interfere with a learning process and that early onset psychiatric disorders are to a certain extent responsible for lower scores in high school. The new research, along with previous studies, demonstrates that if kids are going to use their potential, they need to be able to concentrate on tasks and put their thoughts in order, Schweitzer said.

However, the experts say that more research is needed on the matter in order to find successful models of providing mental health services in school settings. In addition, Breslau said, more long-term research is required to determine what other factors come into play between kindergarten and the end of high school that have an impact on academic performance.

The study results are published online on May 26, in the June issue of the medical journal Pediatrics. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) and the UC Davis Children's Hospital Children's Miracle Network.

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