The research team studied 11, 640 women and their children who were part of the University of Bristol’s Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in the UK – also known as the ‘Children of the 90s’ study. Parents were asked to complete a questionnaire when their children were aged 47 months (just before their fourth birthday), to assess whether the children showed signs of hyperactivity/attention problems and conduct problems. The children’s academic achievements were assessed at age 16 by looking at the results of their GCSE examinations.
After adjusting for variables such as IQ, maternal and paternal education and parental social class, the researchers found that boys who displayed high levels of hyperactivity/inattention at 47 months were 33 per cent more likely to not achieve a minimum level of five good GCSE grades (A*-C) at age 16.
For boys, both hyperactivity/inattention and conduct problems were associated with worse academic outcomes. For example, on average, boys with abnormal hyperactivity/inattention scores at 47 months scored ten fewer points (equivalent to 1.67 GCSE grades) and boys with abnormal conduct problem scores scored 15 fewer points (equivalent to 2.5 GCSE grades) than boys with normal scores.
For girls, the effect of conduct problems on educational achievement was comparable to boys. Girls with borderline scores for conduct problems scored nine fewer points (equivalent to 1.5 GCSE grades), and girls with abnormal scores scored 12 fewer points equivalent to 2 GCSE grades) than girls with normal scores.
Dr Kapil Sayal, one of the lead researchers and Reader in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Nottingham, said: “Our study shows that behavioural problems present at the age of 3 years have an impact on academic attainment at the age of 16 years. Our findings raise questions about early identification of children with hyperactivity and attention problems. Although there is little evidence that routine screening for ADHD-type problems in the early school years is effective, teachers are well placed to identify young children with high levels of behavioural problems. Teachers should be encouraged to enhance their awareness of the long-term implications of early behavioural difficulties, and to take parental concerns about behaviour problems seriously.
Dr Sayal added: “Health professionals should also inform the parents and teachers of young children with high levels of hyperactivity/inattention and conduct problems about the long-term academic risks, so that help can be offered at school. Early academic support for children with these problems may help reduce the long-term risk of poorer academic outcomes.”
Dr Elizabeth Washbrook, Lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education, noted that: “Previous studies have shown that children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with lower IQ are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems at the age of three. But the results of our study indicate that the consequences of these early behavioural difficulties apply across the spectrum of social position and academic ability.”
Washbrook E, Propper C and Sayal K. Pre-school hyperactivity/attention problems and educational outcomes in adolescence: prospective longitudinal study. British Journal of Psychiatry, bjp.bp.112.123562, ePub ahead of print, 22 August 2013