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IES Grant

Title: Sluggish Cognitive Tempo: Examining its Impact on Educational Functioning
Center: NCER Year: 2016
Principal Investigator: Becker, Stephen Awardee: Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
Program: Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Context for Teaching and Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (8/1/2016-7/31/2020) Award Amount: $1,393,223
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A160064

Purpose: The purpose of this project was to examine the academic and socio-emotional problems experienced by children with and without elevated sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) symptoms. SCT refers to a specific set of attentional symptoms, including excessive daydreaming, mental confusion, seeming to be "in a fog," and slowed thinking or behavior. It is a unique pattern of attentional difficulties that are not captured by attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This study found that SCT can be reliably assessed by teachers using school-wide screening procedures, with SCT being distinct from ADHD inattention and invariant across sex and grade. This study also found children with elevated SCT symptoms to have poorer academic functioning than children without SCT, with findings across different academic methods (including standardized achievement scores and grade point average) and when controlling for ADHD inattentive symptoms. These findings have important implications for assessing, monitoring, and treating attentional difficulties in elementary students.

Project Activities: The research team first used school-wide screening to identify children with and without elevated sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) symptoms based on teacher ratings. The screening phase included 398 teachers from 24 elementary schools in three school districts who provided ratings on 7,613 students. The screening data was then used to identify students with (n = 103) and without (n = 104) clinically elevated SCT, with groups matched by sex and grade. A multi-method approach was used to compare students with and without SCT, including academic achievement testing, school observations, multi-informant rating scales, and collection of school records.

Products: The findings from this project can inform the development of interventions to mitigate the long-term negative consequences of sluggish cognitive tempo. In addition, researchers are producing peer reviewed publications.

Publicly available data: Data will be made available at the University of Michigan's Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) data repository.

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this exploratory study are as follows:

  • Sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) behaviors, including excessive daydreaming, mental confusion and fogginess, and slowed behavior/thinking, are statistically distinct from inattentive symptoms used to assess and diagnose attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Becker et al., 2019;)
  • The underlying sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) is similar for boys and girls and across 2nd through 5th grades and can be used in school-wide screening to identify children across the at-risk and clinically elevated ranges (Becker et al., 2020;)

Structured Abstract

Setting: The study took place in 24 elementary schools in Ohio and Kentucky, including urban, suburban, and rural schools.

Sample: The screening phase included 398 teachers from 24 elementary schools in three school districts who provided ratings on 7,613 students. The screening data was then used to identify students with (n = 103) and without (n = 104) clinically elevated SCT, with groups matched by sex and grade. The students with and without SCT were primarily male (63%) and White (88%).

Malleable Factor: The negative impact attention problems have on students' academic and socio-emotional functioning is substantial. Historically, attention problems have been examined within the context of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, some children display a unique pattern of attentional difficulties that are not captured by ADHD. This cluster of attentional symptoms is referred to as "sluggish cognitive tempo" (SCT) and includes excessive daydreaming, confusion, seeming to be "in a fog," and slowed behavior/thinking. A growing body of research suggests that SCT symptoms are associated with significant academic and socio-emotional problems. By using a comprehensive multi-method assessment approach, this study will allow researchers to identify the precise academic and socio-emotional problems that differentiate children with and without SCT, in turn pointing to key malleable factors that can be targeted in intervention.

Research Design and Methods: After first using school-wide screening (teacher ratings of 7,613 students), researchers conducted a cross-sectional study of 207 students (103 SCT and 104 comparison children) across Grades 2 to 5. Teacher ratings were used to identify students who did and did not have elevated sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) as observed in the school context. Data collection included a comprehensive battery of teacher, parent, and student self-report measures, along with academic achievement testing and curriculum-based measures, school observations, and school records to evaluate both broad and specific aspects of academic and socio-emotional functioning.

Control Condition: The study included a comparison group of 104 students without SCT.

Key Measures: Key academic outcome measures included the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT-III), Academic Competence Evaluation Scales, Homework Performance Questionnaire, Children's Organizational Skills Scale, Curriculum Based Measurement, and an Analogue Math Task. Social functioning measures included teacher, parent, and child rating scales, in addition to playground observations (e.g., Social Skills Improvement System, Dishion Social Acceptance Scale, Child Behavior Scale, Child Social Preference Scale, Emotion Regulation Checklist). School records and academic grades of participating students were also collected.

Data Analytic Strategy: The teacher screening data were analyzed exploratory confirmatory factor analysis, invariance analyses, item response theory analyses, and regression analyses. The data of students with and without clinically elevated SCT were analyzed using independent sample t-tests and regression analyses controlling for ADHD symptoms.

Related IES Projects: Longitudinal Evaluation of Sluggish Cognitive Tempo: Identifying Mechanisms of Educational Impairment (R305A200028)

Additional online resources and information: The sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) rating scales used in this study are freely available at the PI's website.


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Becker, S. P. (2021). Systematic review: Assessment of sluggish cognitive tempo over the past decade. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 60, 690–709.

Becker, S. P. (2020). ADHD in adolescents: Commentary on the special issue of ripple effects in self-perceptions and social relationships. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 35(4), 311–322.

Becker, S. P., & Barkley, R. A. (2021). Field of daydreams? Integrating mind wandering in the study of sluggish cognitive tempo and ADHD. JCPP Advances, 1, e12002.

Becker, S.P., Burns, G.L., Schmitt, A.P., Epstein, J.N., & Tamm, L. (2019). Toward establishing a standard symptom set for assessing sluggish cognitive tempo in children: Evidence from teacher ratings in a community sample. Assessment, 26, 1128–1141.

Becker, S. P., Mossing, K. W., Zoromski, A. K., Vaughn, A. J., Epstein, J. N., Tamm, L., & Burns, G. L. (2020). Assessing sluggish cognitive tempo and ADHD inattention in elementary students: Empirical differentiation, invariance across sex and grade, and measurement precision. Psychological Assessment, 32, 1047–1056.

Becker, S.P., & Gregory, A.M. (2020). Editorial Perspective: Perils and Promise for Child and Adolescent Sleep and Associated Psychopathology during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61, 757–759.

Becker, S.P., & Langberg J.M. (2017). Difficult to bed and difficult to rise: Complex interplay among ADHD, sleep, and adolescence. The ADHD Report, 25, 7–13.

Becker, S.P., & Willcutt, E.G. (2019). Advancing the study of sluggish cognitive tempo via DSM, RDoC, and hierarchical models of psychopathology. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28, 603–613.

Dvorsky, M.R., Breaux, R., & Becker, S.P. (2020). Finding Ordinary Magic in Extraordinary Times: Child and Adolescent Resilience during the COVID-19 Pandemic. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.