Low-income boys’ inattention in kindergarten associated with lower earnings 30 years later

Disruptive behaviors in childhood are among the most prevalent and costly mental health problems in industrialized countries and are associated with significant negative long-term outcomes for individuals and society. Recent evidence suggests that disruptive behavioral problems in the first years of life are an important early predictor of lower employment earnings in adulthood. A new longitudinal study examined boys from low-income backgrounds to determine which behaviors in kindergarten are associated with earnings in adulthood. The study concluded that inattention was associated with lower earnings and prosocial behavior with higher earnings.

The study was done by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Montreal, University College Dublin, Ste-Justine Hospital Research Center, L’Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Économiques, Centre pour la Recherche Économique et ses Applications, Statistics Canada, and Université de Bordeaux. The research is published in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Identifying early childhood behavioral problems associated with economic success or failure is essential for developing targeted interventions that enhance economic prosperity through improved educational attainment and social integration,” explains Daniel Nagin, professor of public policy and statistics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, who coauthored the study.

The study looked at 920 boys who were 6 years old and lived in low-income neighborhoods in Montreal, Canada, beginning in 1984 and continuing through 2015. The boys’ kindergarten teachers were asked to rate the boys on five behaviors typically assessed at that age: inattention, hyperactivity, physical aggression, opposition, and prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is social behavior that benefits others, like helping, cooperating, and sharing.

Findings revealed that the teachers’ ratings of boys’ inattention–characterized as poor concentration, distractibility, having one’s head in the clouds, and lacking persistence–were associated with lower earnings when the students were 35 to 36 years old. In addition, prosocial behavior was associated with higher earnings; examples of prosocial behavior included trying to stop quarrels, inviting bystanders to join in a game, and trying to help someone who has been hurt.

Both findings took into account children’s IQ (assessed at age 13) and their families’ adversity (parents’ educational level and occupational status. Earnings were measured by government tax return data.

The study found that hyperactivity, aggression, and opposition were not significantly associated with changes in later earnings.

Because the research was observational in nature, causality was not assessed. In addition, the study did not examine earnings obtained informally that were likely not reported to Canadian tax authorities. And because the study focused on boys in low-income neighborhoods, its generalizability to other genders or individuals of different socioeconomic status is limited.

“Monitoring inattention and low levels of prosocial behavior should begin in kindergarten so at-risk boys can be identified early and targeted with intervention and support,” suggests Sylvana Cote of the Univeristy of Montreal and the University of Bordeaux, who coauthored the study.


The study was funded by the Quebec social and health research funds (Fond de Recherche du Québec-Société et Culture and Fond de Recherche du Québec-Santé), the Idex Fund from the University of Bordeaux, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Program under a European Research Council Consolidator Grant, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Molson Foundation, the National Consortium 10 on Violence, and Statistics Canada.

Summarized from an article in JAMA-Pediatrics, Association of Behavior in Boys From Low Socioeconomic Neighborhoods With Employment Earnings in Adulthood by Vergunst, F (University of Montreal), Tremblay, RE (University of Montreal, University College Dublin, Ste-Justine Hospital Research Center), Nagin, D (Carnegie Mellon University), Algan, Y (L’Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Économiques), Beasley, E (Centre pour la Recherche Économique et ses Applications), Park, J (Statistics Canada), Galera, C (Université de Bordeaux), Vitaro, F (University of Montreal, Ste-Justine Hospital Research Center), Côté, SM (University of Montreal, Ste-Justine Hospital Research Center, Université de Bordeaux).Copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

About Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College

The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy is home to two internationally recognized graduate-level institutions at Carnegie Mellon University: the School of Information Systems and Management and the School of Public Policy and Management. This unique colocation combined with its expertise in analytics set Heinz College apart in the areas of cybersecurity, health care, the future of work, smart cities, and arts & entertainment. In 2016, INFORMS named Heinz College the number one academic program for Analytics Education. For more information, please visit http://www.heinz.cmu.edu.

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