TORONTO - Kids who have trouble paying attention in kindergarten fare poorly academically in high school, according to a study published online Tuesday in the medical journal Pediatrics.
Regardless of a child's IQ, inattention in the early years was the strongest predictor of lower math and reading scores at age 17, more than aggression, anxiety or other behavioural problems, say the researchers from the University of California at Davis.
''Among the mental health problems kids have early on, inattention stands out as having consequences for educational achievement all the way through high school,'' says the study's lead author Joshua Breslau, assistant professor of internal medicine at UC Davis medical school.
Previous studies had also pinpointed inattention but had followed students only as far as age 12.
''It surprised us that, with all the changes that go on in the high school years, this pattern remained identical,'' says Breslau, an epidemiologist.
The researchers analyzed data on 693 children from inner city Detroit and suburbs taken when they turned six. Their teachers assessed them for behavioural problems including anxiety, depression, acting out, breaking rules and inattention. At age 17, the same group took standardized academic achievement tests for math and reading.
The lead author's mother, Naomi, had originally collected the information to investigate the effects of low birth weight.
Attracted to such long-term data, the UC Davis researchers wanted to tease out what contributed in the early school years to poor performance later on.
They found that attention difficulties were the principal predictor. The data analysis controlled for a variety of factors, including IQ.
More boys than girls were deemed inattentive, but the long-term effect was the same.
''The important, take-home point is that those struggling at age 17 were identified in kindergarten,'' says study co-author Elizabeth Miller, assistant professor of pediatrics at UC Davis. ''The teachers knew. With aggressive intervention, we can, hopefully, shift the trajectory.''
At age six, these children had not been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Their teachers had simply scored them as ''always'' or ''often'' having trouble paying attention. Presumably, over the years, some may have been diagnosed and treated, though the study didn't look at that.
''To whatever extent they were treated, it did not totally compensate for deficits,'' explains Breslau.
Even when a child is diagnosed, the ADHD treatments - medication and behavioural interventions - are often poorly followed through, says study co-author Julie Schweitzer, a clinical psychologist.
Attention difficulties may also be caused by other factors, such as poor sleep or family stresses, she says.
An inattentive child learns less efficiently, losing ground as the academic tasks become harder.
''Tiny differences become amplified over time,'' Miller explains.
''What didn't seem like a big deal in kindergarten becomes a very big deal by high school.''
Many parents and educators may think an unfocused six-year-old will just grow out of it.
''Our results show that you don't just let it sit,'' Schweitzer says.
Teachers need to look at how to work with and accommodate inattentive students, says University of Toronto professor Judith Wiener, commenting on the study.