Study links inattentiveness and bad behaviour in kindergarten to lower incomes in Canadian adults

By | June 24, 2019

In 1985, a group of kindergarten teachers in Quebec got together at the end of the school year and filled out a series of detailed questionnaires about their students.

They rated the five- and six-year-olds’ behaviour on a three-point scale on measures of attentiveness (Does this child have their head in the clouds all the time? Are they easily distracted?); hyperactivity (Is this kid a fidgeter? Are they always moving?); opposition and aggression (Do they refuse to share? Do they bite?); and anxiety (Do they worry about everything and cry all the time?). There were also questions about children’s “prosociality,” or, in layman’s terms, their ability to be good. The teachers reported whether kids intervened to break up fights, comforted children who were sad, or invited classmates who looked lonely to join in a game.

Now, researchers at the University of Montreal have pulled 2,850 of those kids’ tax returns to try to figure out if their incomes from age 33 to 35 had any relationship with what they were like back in the days of daily nap times. The  authors expected that kids who spent their school years pestering their classmates and ignoring their teachers would underperform in school and subsequently in the workplace.

And they were right: Even after accounting for IQ and some basic demographic and family information, they found that being a handful in kindergarten is a small, but significant risk factor for having a lower income as an adult.

Children’s behaviour is telling us what their words cannot

The study, published Wednesday in the

American Medical Association’s psychiatry journal, looked at a representative sample of people who were born in 1980 or 1981 and went to French-speaking schools across Quebec. It found that inattentiveness in kindergarten was associated with lower earnings in adulthood for children of all genders.

Aggressive and defiant behaviour correlated with income only in boys. And boys who were little angels as kids — those with higher prosociality scores — also earned more in their thirties. No such relationship was detected among the girls, who tended to be more sociable overall.

The research found that earning about two more points for attentiveness on one of those behaviour questionnaires in kindergarten would theoretically translate to an extra $ 4,060 per year for men and $ 2,530 for women. That works out to $ 97,000 for men and $ 61,000 for women over the course of a career.

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“It’s clear, in terms of behaviour, that boys have more problems than girls. It starts at age two onwards,” said Richard Tremblay, a child development expert and associate pediatrics professor at the University of Montreal, and one of the authors of the study.

“There’s so much more variability among boys than there is among girls,” he said. “The girls are doing much better in school. We need to do something about our boys.”

However, the results showed one of the biggest risk factors for having a lower income was being female.

The pay gap in the sample was profound: Average annual income was $ 44,237 for men and $ 25,771 for women between 2013 and 2015, when they were 33 to 35 years old.

But “that’s not new,” Tremblay said. The early to mid-thirties are prime child-bearing years. Women in the study were more likely than men to be married, cohabitating or have children at home. Pay equity is also not what the study was investigating.

The results showed that the biggest risk factor for having a lower income was being female. Getty Images

The results are correlational: The research doesn’t show that the kids’ behaviour caused them to have a lower income, only that the two are associated.

However, Tremblay said, previous studies have shown that giving specialized training to teachers and parents who are dealing with hyperactive, difficult-to-handle kids can help them succeed at school and at work later on. Tremblay also has funding secured for a randomized control trial in which a group of 1,300 Quebec kids entering daycare this fall will be evaluated for behaviour issues. Some will get specialized support and training for their parents and teachers, and others will get just one of those two. A control group will get no special support. Tremblay hopes this will help establish whether it’s really possible, as the current study speculates, to improve children’s future prospects by treating their behavioural issues.

The ideal time to intervene, he added, is as early as possible. “We say, ‘Well, they’re small, they’ll learn,’” he said. “People wait until they are tall and strong and really disruptive.”

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Susan Rodger, an associate psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario and an expert on school-based mental health, cautioned against over-interpreting correlational studies, because they strip away context.

“Children’s behaviour is telling us what their words cannot,” she said. “Kids may be quote-unquote ‘acting out’ because they’re hungry, or they’re distressed because there’s conflict going on at home.” These factors, along with others, such as family violence and trauma, were not accounted for in the study.

The pathway is not inevitable

Rodger also said the IQ measure used in the study measures only one narrow facet of intelligence, and is largely dependent on the level of family literacy and kids’ access to the printed word.

This is not the first time inattentiveness and other behaviours associated with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been linked to problems later in life — including everything from lower education and work achievement, to car crashes and reduced lifespan.

This study “has confirmed what other studies have found, but in a more rigorous way,” because it’s based on relatively impartial, third-party data, not self-reports, said Andrea Gonzalez, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University.

Gonzalez said it’s understandable for parents of kids with behaviour problems to freak out about studies like this. It’s easy to understand how kids with inattentiveness and hyperactivity, including those with diagnosed ADHD, struggle at school and work.

“One of the major underlying issues with ADHD is executive function,” Gonzalez said, referring to the set of mental skills that help us complete tasks and promote educational attainment and successful functioning in the world.

“But the pathway is not inevitable,” she said. There’s a lot of variation in the study, so more research is needed to look into the factors that lead to success, she said. Plenty of kids in the study whose behaviour was atrocious in kindergarten successfully adjusted to the working world as adults.

The ideal time to intervene is as early as possible. Getty Images

Hannah Weinstein knows all about that. The 27-year-old harm reduction worker hosts a podcast about living with ADHD and other disabilities called Channel Thirty Six, and was diagnosed with ADHD herself in elementary school. She regularly interviews adults who are living with ADHD.

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“People with ADHD tend to have high unemployment rates and get fired a lot,” she said. Lateness and time management is a constant work issue for “pretty much everybody” with this problem, as is inattentiveness, which is just what the study showed.

Being occasionally bored at work is a normal inconvenience for most of us, but for Weinstein it’s “agitating — a very physical feeling of being bored.”

She also goes on “brain tangents” when she is supposed to be listening to instructions.

“There’s a lot of pressure to stay focused and listen to what your boss is saying. You don’t want to say you didn’t get it and ask them to repeat something a billion times,” she said.

Like a lot of people with attention problems, she sometimes tries to mitigate the issue by retreating and not interacting much with others, another thing that doesn’t always go over well.

“I do definitely think having therapy earlier on would have been a lot more helpful,” she said.

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