When researchers and policymakers talk about closing “achievement gaps,” they are usually referring to gaps in academic performance correlated with students’ socioeconomic statuses. Now a new study suggests that classroom behavior problems may be, in fact, an even more significant factor than family income on students’ test scores, as early as kindergarten.
“Links Between Young Children’s Behavior and Achievement: The Role of Social Class and Classroom Composition” was published by the journal American Behavioral Scientist last month. Its authors, Annie Georges and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and Lizabeth Malone of Mathematica, found that students’ attention problems had a bigger impact on their academic performance than their family income level, and that the classmates of students with attention problems experience a negative impact on their own test scores.
The researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 1998-1999 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to sample and track more than 14,000 kindergarten students across nearly 900 private and public programs. Students were rated on two factors, attention skills and aggressive behavior. They were also identified by their socioeconomic statuses, race and gender. The authors analyzed the reading and math scores of students within each group.
Students with attention problems had the lowest scores of all four groups, scoring 8 points lower on a 100-point math exam and 7 points lower on a 100-point reading exam. This group also had a higher proportion of black and Latino children than the full sample; 20 percent of the children with attention problems were black students, while black students made up only 16 percent of all the children in the study.
The discrepancy in scores between the full sample and students with attention problems exceeded the gap between low- and higher-income students. But that wasn’t all. In classrooms with students who had attention problems, other students were also negatively impacted; a higher proportion of those students’ reading and math scores averaged 5 percentile points below average than in classrooms without students who had attention problems.
The researchers also found that children with attention problems showed slower growth in learning new material in reading and math. That suggests that addressing attention problems in early childhood could help many children make academic gains throughout their school careers. Report co-author Jeanne Brooks-Gunn said, “New interventions…are suggesting that we can help preschool and early elementary school children do a better job at self-regulation and attention. Tools of the Mind is a good example of a really interesting intervention that seems to work.” (For more details on the Tools of the Mind curriculum, check out previous posts from Early Ed Watch here, here, and here.)
The study found that students who demonstrated aggressive behavior were substantially less disadvantaged academically than those with attention problems. Aggressive students’ scores were only a few points behind those of students with no behavior problems: 2 points lower in math and 3 points lower in reading. Students who had both attention and aggression problems scored roughly as low as those students who only had attention problems. In all cases, the researchers found that these results were independent of socioeconomic status, race or gender. Moreover, the study did not show any negative test-score effects on the classmates of aggressive students. But Brooks-Gunn cautions that the study’s results don’t mean that aggression problems can be ignored. She notes that other research shows that “early and sustained aggression” can lead to more behavior problems and increased rates of juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy and high school dropouts down the line.
Given that the authors of this study found attention problems can lead to a dramatic disparity in exam scores, the practical applications of this study are substantial. The researchers conclude that “it makes sense to align teacher training and school intervention to foster children’s attentive behavior.” Helping teachers – or school psychologists and social workers, as the study recommends – diagnose and correct attention problems in the early grades could give those children a better chance for high academic achievement and, ultimately, help them succeed later in life.
Clarification 1/26: The study found significant effects on academic performance for individuals and for classrooms only with attention-based, not aggression-based, behavioral problems.