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Durham University

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Why it is important to spot inattention in children

(28 April 2016)

Inattention in reception pupils

Young children with mild attention problems can go unnoticed at primary school and fall behind their peers academically, according to new education research.

It is crucial and possible for teachers and parents to work together to identify and help these children manage their learning in class, suggest the researchers.

The findings show that the progress of children with mild attention problems at the age of five could be around three months behind their peers by the time they reach the end of primary school.

Inattention and ADHD

In the study, one of the largest to date in this area, the attainment and behaviour of 46,369 children from 1,812 primary schools in England was analysed. The research is published in the academic journal Learning and Individual Differences.

Inattentive behaviour is one of the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is already well known that the academic attainment of children with severe attention problems or those diagnosed with ADHD can suffer but children with mild difficulties in attention may be slipping through the net, according to the researchers.

Inattentive behaviours, such as being easily distracted, not following through instructions and being forgetful, can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint as being specific problems with attention and different to typical behaviours of young children.

Guidance for schools

Research has already found that early identification and intervention can improve children’s progress in reading and maths. The Durham researchers have produced guidance for schools on teaching and classroom management strategies which have shown to help children with attention problems as well as all children in class.

The strategies, which are often already used by teachers generally in the classroom, include presenting tasks in bite-size chunks, providing visual prompts through wall charts or posters, and letting children work in pairs. However, the researchers recommend using these techniques more often and in a systematic way with this group of children.

Support for children

The researchers point out that a child’s behaviour in the first year of school is likely to change and some children may only behave in certain ways temporarily while they settle into school, and as a result the attainment of these children may not be affected in the long term.

Lead author, Dr Christine Merrell, Director of Research at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, said: “Children who have been diagnosed with ADHD will already receive extra support in schools. However, children with milder attention problems are not always identified but are nevertheless at risk of falling behind their peers.

“It is clear from our findings that early detection of these mild attention difficulties is crucial so that teachers and parents can help the child reach their potential. As is so often the case, the earlier we can intervene, the better our chances are of addressing the issues.

“It is however important to say that not all children with mild attention problems will fall behind academically as each individual child is different.”

Hyperactivity and impulsivity

In the study, children’s early reading and mathematics were assessed at the start of school using a baseline assessment, called PIPS, and again at the end of primary school through the Key Stage 2 statutory tests. Teacher’s ratings of the children’s behaviour were collected at the end of Reception using behaviour scales similar to those used to diagnose ADHD.

The study also looked at the impact of hyperactivity and impulsivity on children’s academic results, two of the other symptoms of ADHD. Hyperactivity in children did not negatively or positively influence attainment but impulsivity showed as having a small positive impact on academic progress.

The research team is continuing to track this cohort of children and will analyse their academic attainment in their GCSEs in future.

The study forms part of a larger body of international research, conducted by CEM and the School of Education at Durham University, which is looking at the effectiveness of the early years of education, primarily pre-school and the first year of formal schooling, with the aim of improving education practice based on clear and objective evidence.

Free download: Working with difficult children in primary schools – a guide for teachers