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First grade critical to child's development, Duke study says

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The difference between first and second grade is profound when it comes to children's attention problems, according to a new study from Duke University.

The study, which appears online in the November issue of the Journal of Attention Disorders, says the age at which attention problems emerge makes a critical difference in a child's later academic performance.

When the problems emerged in first grade, children's performance suffered for years afterward, Duke said. Those children scored lower than their peers on reading achievement scores after fifth grade. The Duke report said the poor performance occurred even if the attention problems improved after first grade.

But children who developed attention problems starting in second grade performed as well as their peers in later years.

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

Duke psychologists David Rabiner, Madeline Carrig and Kenneth Dodge conducted the study. It draws on data from the Fast Track Project, a study of the development of conduct problems that has followed 891 individuals in four different locales from kindergarten into adulthood.

The attention study examined academic performance among 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.  

Rabiner said the results may reflect the critical importance of first grade as an academic building block. Children who suffer from attention problems in first grade fail to acquire key academic skills, and their performance suffers in later years as a result.

"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."

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