What difference does a grade make? Quite a lot, if we’re to consider the latest findings from Duke University researchers. According to their study, the age at which attention problems emerge makes a critical difference in a child’s later academic performance.

first_gradeOther studies have noted the link between early attention problems and academic achievement. But the new study is the first to identify the impact of attention problems that emerge in first grade versus those that emerge just a year later.

For their work, the researchers analyzed data from the Fast Track Project, a longitudinal study of the development of conduct problems that has followed 891 individuals in four different locales from kindergarten into adulthood. The Duke scientists concentrated their efforts on a subsample of 386 children by looking at grades as well as reading and math scores before and after first grade, and again after fifth grade.

The researchers found that if children were failing to pay attention in class during the first grade, then their performance suffered for years afterwards (more likely to score lower at reading scores after fifth grade). Interesting enough, poor performance continued even though attention problems were fleeting and improved post-first grade. Children that experienced attention problems starting from the second grade, in contrast, performed just as well as their peers in later years.  This suggests that the first grade plays a particular role school performance.

The Duke researchers suggest that during the first grade key academic skills are acquired, and if these building blocks aren’t properly attained than performance suffers in later years as a result. It’s easy to put these results on ADHD, but David Rabiner, one of the Duke psychologists involved in the study, says it’s make little difference they have diagnosable ADHD or not.

“Even when these children overcome their attention problems, they continue to struggle in school,” Rabiner said. “The earlier we can identify children who are struggling with sustaining attention in the classroom and intervene to help them, the better.”

A particular emphasis is made on the first and second grade, but Rabiner hopes future efforts might identify key patterns from as early as kindergarten as well.

Findings were reported in the Journal of Attention Disorder.