Health Watch

What Troublemakers Can Teach Us
It's time to question our faith in early-childhood determinism.

By Ann Hulbert
Slate Magazine

Last week brought welcome news for young hellions and their stressed-out parents. "Studies on Students Say Bad Behavior Is Not Dooming" announced the front-page headline of a New York Times article about two recent scientific investigations into children's behavioral development.

One of the studies found that "kindergartners who are identified as troubled do as well academically as their peers in elementary school," according to the Times; in an accompanying online podcast, the reporter concluded it was time for parents to relax. The other study, which compared brain images of kids with and without attention deficit disorder, found that the prefrontal cortex in children with ADHD matures normally, just more slowly. "Hyperactive kids catch up with peers," was the Los Angeles Times' heartening headline.

Usually, the media spin on psychological explorations of childhood isn't nearly so reassuring. But this research lends itself to the latest message making the rounds of our hyperparenting culture: Let children be children; do more for your kids by doing less. Little troublemakers who aren't destined for underperformance make good poster children for the mellow counsel against rushing to pathologize or push kids onto a fast track too soon.

Before we rush to relax, though, it's worth a closer look at the studies. The findings aren't as definitive as the media accounts suggest, and they don't necessarily support the laid-back counsel harried families might hope for. They do something more useful. They reveal that children do indeed seem to be more resilient than we tend to think, but they also show us that isn't a simple recipe for reassurance. Instead, the research is a reminder that for experts, as for parents, predicting how children will negotiate their winding paths toward maturity is an elusive business.

Take the study of kindergartners, published in Developmental Psychology. It was actually a project with an anxious purpose: fine-tuning conceptions of "school readiness," a catchphrase in the No Child Left Behind era. Re-evaluating data from six longitudinal studies, the researchers set out to determine what kinds of preschool preparation help children do well later on in school. The authors examine kindergartners' academic skills, attention skills, and various socioemotional behaviors to pinpoint which of the three areas best predict subsequent achievement—and might therefore be most worth emphasizing in pre-kindergarten programs. What they have found, among other things, is that kindergartners' behavioral skills don't correlate at all with their math and reading achievement down the line.

Though you wouldn't guess it from the Times headline, the researchers decline to draw liberating conclusions from this unexpected discovery. Instead, they caution that behavioral measures can be tricky, and point out that their finding doesn't mean kids' socioemotional problems should be ignored in preschool, or that they have no influence whatsoever in later grades; their study only looked for an impact on math and reading performance. In their analysis, the authors are as interested in another surprising discovery: that early math skills are the most predictive of future achievement—not just in math, but in reading, too. So much for paving the way toward a more rough-and-tumble approach to early education.

The second study, which has just appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, questions the view that ADHD—the most commonly diagnosed childhood behavioral disorder—reflects neurologically deviant development. Instead, the researchers cite brains scans of 446 kids as evidence on the side of delayed development. Among children with ADHD, the prefrontal cortex—the area associated with memory, decision-making, impulse control, ability to focus—was found to follow a normal course but a slower pace of growth; it reached peak thickness at a median age of 10½ compared to 7½ among normal kids.

But it's just as important to note what the scans of kids with ADHD don't yet tell us about their maturing brains. The researchers point out that they don't reveal anything about the adolescent phase of cortical maturation, which evidently involves a thinning process: Does that thinning happen normally, but slowly, too? Nor do the scans have anything to say about the possible influence of medication, which about 80 percent of the subjects were taking, and the study doesn't presume to recommend that fidgeters forgo medication.

Last week a third study of precisely that fraught question—how useful drugs are in controlling ADHD symptoms—failed to make upbeat headlines. But it did inspire an anxious segment on the BBC's Panoramaprogram. Published this summer as part of an ongoing review by the National Institute of Mental Health of treatments for children with ADHD, it is a more dramatic reminder of how the most careful experts can find themselves revising what at the time sounded like a clear-cut prescription for a childhood developmental dilemma.

Previously, NIMH research found that medication alone, or in combination with behavioral treatment, was the most effective approach to managing ADHD. Three years after the initial assessments, new data challenge the drugs' long-term efficacy, and potent side effects persist: The stimulants suppress appetite and growth in lots of kids. But you won't find these sobered scientists swerving radically and saying it's simply time to let nature take its course. As one of the authors of the study emphasized, the new findings should above all fuel more and better efforts to teach nurturers—parents and teachers—behavioral techniques to give antsy troublemakers more of a sense of control.

Figuring out how best to help growing kids handle themselves is important whether or not, say, their cortex development will catch up anyway—or their report cards will be fine despite the hell they raise at the start. It's important because they're small people right now who, no matter where they end up, need plenty of time and tips for navigating an often unpredictable realm of parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and fellow students. "Relax, they'll grow out of it": The homespun corrective to our micromanaging angst isn't the easy directive it may seem. Putting more stock in kids' resilience and less in our own fears about their futures—and in the expert findings of the moment—is a real challenge. Weaning ourselves from our spooked belief in early childhood determinism is wise. But we're still doomed to worried debates about what kids do—and don't—need from us as they make their way in the world.

Ann Hulbert is the author of Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.