An analysis of data from the longitudinal Dutch TRAILS study showed that children with ADHD often don’t get as much help from teachers and classmates, and the functioning of their families tends to be poorer. Having better family functioning and more support from others appears to help these kids feel better mentally, but it doesn’t seem to make their school performance better. The study was published in Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology.
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by persistent patterns of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity that can significantly impact an individual’s daily functioning. It typically begins in childhood and can continue into adulthood. Individuals suffering from ADHD have difficulty sustaining attention, make frequent careless mistakes, and tend to be forgetful in daily activities. These individuals are prone to making hasty decisions and are often restless. They have difficulty waiting for their turn in social games and activities.
ADHD can adversely affect academic performance, work, and relationships. It is a clinically diagnosed condition. Children with ADHD are at a particular disadvantage in selective education systems in which different academic tracks are opened or closed based on academic performance. That is why researchers are particularly interested in identifying protective factors that might mitigate the adverse effects of ADHD on academic performance.
Study author Heiko Schmengler and her colleagues wanted to explore the effects of family functioning, social support by teachers, and social support by classmates on educational performance of children with ADHD. They hypothesized that these three important factors might mediate the relationship between ADHD and school performance.
In other words, ADHD symptoms can make these children demanding on people in their environment. This may, in turn, lead to poorer functioning of the family of ADHD children and reduce the social support they receive from their teachers and classmates. This poorer family functioning and reduced social support would then adversely affect the academic performance of children with ADHD.
These researchers used data from the first four data collection waves of the Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS). TRAILS is a large-scale longitudinal study of Dutch adolescents. Adolescents were followed between the years 2000 and 2010 and assessed when they were 11, 14, 16, and 19 years of age. This study analyzed data from 2,229 participants. About 49% of participants were males and 13.5% were of non-Dutch ethnicity.
ADHD symptoms were assessed by calculating the average score of assessments completed by parents (the DSM-oriented ADHD symptom scales of the parent-report Child Behavior Checklist) and participants themselves (the Youth Self-Report of the Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment). Assessment of the educational level of adolescents was based on the educational track they were in. The Dutch educational system features early selection of children into four different educational tracks ranging from the lower vocational track (for lowest performers) to the academic track (for highest performers). Children can move between educational tracks if their educational performance changes.
Data on family functioning was obtained from parents (a modified Dutch version of the General Functioning Scale of the McMaster Family Assessment Device). Social support by teachers was reported by adolescent-participants (subscales of the Social Production Function questionnaire) themselves and the same was the case with social support by classmates.
The results showed that greater ADHD symptoms at age 11 were strongly associated with lower education level (i.e., being in a less demanding educational track) at age 14. Children that were about to attend lower educational tracks at age 14 tended to come from families with poorer functioning, economically poorer families, or have non-Dutch parents.
Girls more often attended higher educational tracks than boys. Higher intelligence scores at age 11 were strongly associated with higher educational tracks at age 14. Overall, adolescents in higher educational tracks tended to have somewhat better family functioning and more social support by teachers and classmates around the ages of 14 and 16.
Further analysis revealed a small direct effect of ADHD symptoms at around 11 years of age on lower educational level at age 14. The link between higher ADHD symptoms at age 14 and lower educational level at age 16 was stronger. However, statistical analysis showed that social support and family functioning do not mediate the link between more ADHD symptoms and lower educational level. Also, children in different education tracks at age 14 did not differ in the social support they perceived from teachers and classmates at age 11. At all ages, participants with more ADHD symptoms tended to have poorer family functioning and perceive lower social support from classmates and teachers.
“Our findings suggest that ADHD symptoms are robustly associated with lower educational attainment over the course of adolescence. Yet, this association was not mediated by general measures of family functioning and social support by teachers and classmates. Furthermore, we found no evidence that these measures amplify the association between ADHD symptoms and lower educational level,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on links between academic achievement and ADHD. However, it also has limitations that need to be considered. Notably, data came from a relatively low-risk sample of adolescents, with relatively few participants with clinical levels of ADHD symptoms. Additionally, the assessment of social support was based on self-reports and individuals may differ in how they judge social relationships.
The paper, “ADHD Symptoms and Educational Level in Adolescents: The Role of the Family, Teachers, and Peers”, was authored by Heiko Schmengler, Margot Peeters, Gonneke W. J. M. Stevens, Catharina A. Hartman, Albertine J. Oldehinkel, and Wilma A. M. Vollebergh.