Addressing behavior problems of 5- to 12-year-olds is as important for their future schooling as teaching them math and language

Photo: Yellow. Creative Commons.

A recent study has confirmed once again the importance of addressing problem behavior, particularly if such behaviors are still present between the ages of 9 and 12. Persistent antisocial behavior across the middle childhood years is linked to a greater chance of dropping out of school and a smaller chance of attending college.

Educational attainment is vital for functioning in society, but the growth in numbers completing college has slowed down in the past several decades. The search is on for solutions.

Knowing that educational attainment is linked to a variety of factors in a child’s life, Greg Duncan from the University of California, Irvine, and three other researchers, set out to look at the relative influence of three things: (1) purely academic achievement as measured by language and math tests, (2) behavior problems between the ages of 5 and 12, and (3) attention problems at the same ages.

They used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Children and Young Adult cohort on 9,182 children aged between 5 and 12, each observed up to four times. Many of these children had siblings who were also included in the study. They then looked at how these children were doing later, when they were 20 to 21.

The children took four sets of language and math tests, each consisting of 84 questions. Behavior and attention problems were measured through four sets of mothers’ accounts of their children across ages 5 to 12. Other environmental factors known to influence educational attainment—such as family income, family structure and urban/rural residence—were controlled for. In one set of analyses, sibling differences in educational attainment were related to sibling differences in achievement and behavior.

Low educational attainment at age 20 to 21 was just as strongly linked to behavior problems across middle childhood as it was to poor performance in the math and language tests. On the other hand, attention problems among 5- to 12-year-olds did not correlate with lower attainment later on.

Why might poor social behavior at school be linked to poor achievement later? Children who show persistent antisocial behavior between 5 and 12 tend to be headed for a troubled relationship with learning institutions, particularly if they end up in the juvenile justice system, which is highly disruptive of any study.

To improve educational attainment, schools need to improve their efforts to tackle persistent antisocial behavior problems.


Magnuson K, Duncan GJ, Lee KTH & Metzger MW (2016), Early School Adjustment and Educational Attainment, American Educational Research Journal