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  • Inattentiveness in Girls Has a More Serious Impact on Mathematical Achievement than in Boys

Inattentiveness in Girls Has a More Serious Impact on Mathematical Achievement than in Boys

Inattentiveness in Girls Has a More Serious Impact on Mathematical Achievement than in Boys

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Scientists from the Institute of Education at HSE University have shown that children with high levels of inattentiveness demonstrate lower performance in mathematics in primary school, and that this underachievement is more pronounced in girls than in boys. A similar correlation was not observed in the case of hyperactivity.

The article, entitled ‘Inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, and mathematics: Exploring gender differences in a nonclinical sample’ was published in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.

Many parents and teachers believe that inattentiveness and hyperactivity in children can have an adverse effect on their learning. Research partially supports this: children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often struggle at school, perform less well, spend more time on homework and more often have to repeat a year. However, related research is generally conducted on samples of children who have been given an official diagnosis of ADHD. However, increased levels of inattentiveness and hyperactivity can interfere with school learning even in children without a medical diagnosis.

In general, boys are diagnosed with ADHD and especially hyperactivity more often than girls. This is partially a result of existing prejudices and stereotypes—when girls display characteristics of hyperactivity, it is often dismissed as sensitivity or high sociability rather than signs of a behavioural disorder. Research shows that girls need to demonstrate higher levels of disordered behaviour than boys in order to be classified as having ADHD symptoms.

Much of the research done into the academic impact of ADHD has been conducted on samples that included only boys. Therefore, it is not fully understood whether there is a difference between boys and girls in terms how hyperactivity and inattentiveness affect academic performance.

© iStock

To investigate this, researchers from the Centre for Psychometrics and Measurements in Education (Yulia Kuzmina, Alina Ivanova and Georgijs Kanonirs) conducted longitudinal research involving 1,026 first-year students at 30 schools in Russia. The research was divided into three stages and took place over two years, from the start of the first school year until the end of the second. The researchers measured children’s performance in maths at each stage using the START methodology. During the second research stage, teachers completed a questionnaire on each student and the results were used to assess students’ levels of inattention and hyperactivity.

The researchers did not divide the children into groups of those with or without ADHD or compare them. Rather, they approached inattentiveness and hyperactivity as latent characteristics that are not directly observable and which exist on a spectrum of severity. Under this approach, high levels of these characteristics may indicate the presence of behavioural disorders.

The researchers discovered that inattentiveness is associated with decreased performance in mathematics in both girls and boys. Unexpectedly, hyperactivity was found to be positively connected to high mathematical performance. This result was obtained using a model that accounted for children’s levels of inattention. If the link between hyperactivity and mathematical performance was assessed without accounting for the level of inattention, no significant difference in mathematical performance between children with different levels of hyperactivity was observed.

Yulia Kuzmina, co-author of the research and Senior Research Fellow at the HSE University Institute of Education

‘This outcome may be related to how teachers assess hyperactivity. It is possible that teachers are more inclined to view children who are energetic, emotional and sociable in class as being hyperactive, and this active behaviour may have a positive correlation with their academic success.’

It is interesting to note that at the start of their first year, boys significantly outperformed girls in mathematics, but the gap had become negligible by the end of the second year. However, this did not apply to girls with high levels of inattention. While boys displaying characteristics of inattention were able to catch up to their classmates in terms of mathematical performance by the end of their second year, the same was not observed in girls. Girls with high levels of inattention achieved worse results in mathematics both compared to other girls with low levels of inattention and to boys with high levels of inattention. The authors of the article believe that this may be related to the fact that inattention interferes with cognitive control, which, according to some studies, is more strongly linked to mathematical performance in girls than in boys.

The findings suggest that inattention in girls has a more serious impact on their mathematical performance in the long term. Overall, inattention has a greater negative impact on children’s academic success than hyperactivity. What’s more, inattention is less often identified in a timely manner.

The researchers advise teachers and psychologists to pay special attention to girls with characteristics of inattention—even if they do not display signs of hyperactive or disruptive behaviour, as this group of girls is at particular risk of experiencing difficulties with mathematics.

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