Externalizing Behavior Problems and Low Academic Achievement: Does a Causal Relation Exist?

Tara Kulkarni, Amanda L. Sullivan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Children’s low academic skills are associated with a variety of behavior problems and maladaptive outcomes throughout childhood and adulthood. Given the prevalence of behavioral disorders is approximately 19% of all US children, understanding of the mechanisms through which academic achievement and externalizing behavior problems interact can inform effective intervention to prevent persistent academic failure, chronic behavioral difficulties, and related negative long-term outcomes. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to systematically review research on the association between low academic achievement and externalizing behavior problems, as well as evaluate the research indicating causal linkages, if any, between the two domains. Five databases were searched, including OVID Medline, PsycInfo, Academic Search Premier, ERIC, Education Resource, and PROQUEST. Search terms included statistical designs that could support a hypothetical causal association (e.g., structural equation modeling). We screened a total of 1990 studies, of which 26 met the final inclusion criteria. In total, ten studies reported significant negative effects between the two domains, of which only six reported effect sizes that could be considered meaningful. All but two reported these effects in the direction of early externalizing behavior problems to later academic achievement. Overall, there was inconclusive evidence for either causal or predictive relations. Implications for future research and educational practice are discussed.

Original languageAmerican English
JournalEducational Psychology Review
StatePublished - Nov 19 2021


  • Education
  • Psychology

Cite this