2011. Vol. 2, No. 1, 53-59
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.21009
Attention Problems and Learning Disabilities in Young
Offenders in Detention in Greece
Katerina Maniadaki1, Efthymios Kakouros2
1Department of Social Work, TE I of Athens, Athens, Gr eece;
2Department of Early Childhood Education, TEI of Athens, Athens, Greece.
Received June 22nd, 2010; revised December 10th, 2010; accepted December 13th, 2010.
Background: The relationship between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency is widely established.
However, the nature of learning disabilities and the pathway through which they are linked to delinquency are
not well understood yet. The contribution of third variables, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
(ADHD) seems as a promising field of research. The primary aim of this study was to investigate the schooling
history of young offenders detained in Greek Correctional Centers in order to examine the extent to which
learning disabilities may co-exist with psychosocial adversity and/or specific learning disabilities, in particular,
attention problems. Method: The Greek version of the Youth Self Report (YSR), the Self-Perception Profile for
Children (SPPC) and a questionnaire constructed by the authors were used in the study. Results: Schooling his-
tory of the young offenders was characterized by low attendance, high levels of dropouts, grade retention and
academic failure. High co-existence of both psychosocial adversity and attention problems, indicating possible
presence of ADHD, was found as well. Conclusions: These findings underline the need for routine ADHD
screening at schools for the identification and treatment of those children who are at particular risk to get in-
volved in criminal activities. Moreover, the need for the identification of incarcerated youth with ADHD and/or
learning disabilities as well as prison staff training are discussed.
Keywords: Juvenile Offenders, ADHD, Juvenile Delinquency, Learning Disabilities, Gree ce
There is a general agreement that juvenile delinquency may
be better understood within a developmental psychopathology
framework, wherein a paucity of protective factors and an ac-
cumulation of risk factors during adolescence result in psycho-
logical and behavioral disruption (Steiner, Williams, Ben-
ton-Hardy, Kohler, & Duxbury, 1997). In addition, adult crimi-
nal activity is often the result of a developmental progression
from childhood conduct problems to later offending (Babinski,
Hartsough & Lambert, 1999). Based on such evidence, Pajer
(1998) suggested that the relationship between delinquent be-
haviour among boys and criminal behaviour among men is an
excellent example of “homotypic continuity”, meaning that
there is a strong correlation between a disorder at one develop-
mental stage and the same symptoms in the same or a similar
disorder at a further developmental stage. Therefore, early
identification of the factors that predispose some children for
later persistent criminal involvement would provide a target
group for prevention efforts in early childhood.
Among multiple types of risk factors, learning disabilities are
closely related to the likelihood of an adolescent becoming
involved in the juvenile justice system (Maniadaki, Kakouros,
& Karaba, 2009; Maniadaki, Kakouros, & Karaba, 2010;
Shelley-Tremblay, O’Brien & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2007).
Although the prevalence rate of learning disabilities among de-
linquent youth varies from study to study according to different
definitions of what constitutes a learning disability, evidence
accumulates that this rate is disproportionate as compared to the
general school-aged population (Skaret & Wilgosh, 198 9; Sno w-
ling, Adams, Bowyer-Crane & Tobin, 2000). A broad definition
of learning disabilities refers to a discrepancy between student
performance and his/her academic age–or expected grade-level.
In this sense, the U.S. Government General Accounting Office
study found that nearly 100% of 129 randomly selected delin-
quents from U.S. institutions had learning problems (Skaret &
Wilgosh, 1989). More conservative estimates are given in a
meta-analysis by Casey & Keilitz (1990) who reported that
35.6% of juvenile offenders were learning disabled and 12.6%
were mentally retarded. These figures are three to five times
higher than the percentage of students labelled as disabled in
public schools (Leone & Meisel, 1997).
These high prevalence estimates have raised the question
about whether learning disabilities are contributing to juvenile
delinquency and in what ways. Regarding the latter, a pertinent
issue is the nature of the learning disabilities which frequently
co-occur with delinquent behavior (Snowling, Adams, Bow-
yer-Crane, & Tobin, 2000). In particular, it is important to
establish the extent to which academic under-attainment can be
explained in terms of environmental factors, such as psychoso-
cial adversity or is associated with biological factors, such as a
specific learning disorder.
The first case concerns, for example, dysfunctional families
where low educational and socio-economic level might co-exist
with problems like poor parenting or a history of offending in
parents themselves. A child growing up in such a family has
usually limited opportunities to systematically attend school,
displays low academic motivation and reduced effort to meet
school demands. Each one of these factors alone - and in
combination as well - may lead to discrepancy between a
child’s performance at school and his/her academic age level,
and, in turn, to the development of learning disabilities.
Consequently, children and adolescents showing little interest
in school and minimal involvement in school-related activities
are more likely to engage in later violent behaviour (Bonny,
Britto, Klostermann, Hornung, & Slap, 2000). Furthermore,
incomplete schooling is often associated with disadvantages in
the job market, which together with pre-existing conduct prob-
lems may increase the risk of subsequent delinquent involve-
ment (Bonny et al., 2000).
The second case refers to the presence of neuropsychological
deficits in the child, which interfere with learning abilities.
Until recently, the majority of studies considering the relation-
ship between specific learning disabilities and delinquency
examined isolated learning domai ns, focusing mainly on sp eci fi c
reading disabilities. Gellert and Elbro (1999) cite a number of
studies pointing out a high occurrence of reading disabilities
among juvenile delinquents. In a study by Meltzer, Levine,
Karniski, Palfrey & Clarke (1984), it is reported that, by second
grade, 45% of the delinquents were delayed in reading and 36%
in writing. In a review by Snowling et al. (2000), 44% of 91
juvenile offenders was found to have specific reading difficult-
ties. However, such epidemiological findings do not provide
evidence for a direct role of reading disability in the genesis of
antisocial behaviour and fail to shed light in the pathways
through which specific learning disabilities may lead to delin-
quency (Fergusson & Lynsky, 1997; Williams & McGee, 1994).
As a result, the study of third variables, which may underlie
both learning disabilities and delinquency, appears as a prom-
ising research field.
One factor that is emerging as a potentially important cor-
relate of both learning disabilities and delinquent behaviour is
the presence of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
(Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Unnever, 2002). ADHD is
associated with neuropsychological deficits, poor academic and
cognitive skills, impulsivity, defiance and aggression (Barkley,
1998; Brown, Freeman, Perrin, Stein, Amler, Feldman et al.,
2001). The combination of the above, coupled with negative
parental and teacher responses, predisposes a child with ADHD
both to the development of conduct problems and academic
failure (Jorm, Share, Matthews & MacLean, 1986). Truancy
may evolve as a result, which increases the likelihood of the
child initiating delinquent acts. In other words, it seems possible
that, on the one hand, cognitive deficits associated with ADHD
may cause specific learning disabilities and school failure,
which, in turn, facilitates delinquency. On the other hand,
behavioural correlates of ADHD like impulsive behaviour, low
threshold for emotional aro usa l and l o w s e l f-c o n t r o l may d i rec t l y
facilitate both academic failure and delinquency (Goldstein,
1997). Thus, ADHD may lead to delinquency through both an
indirect and a direct pathway.
Epidemiologic studies provide support for the above scena-
rios. Research has revealed that children with ADHD are at
high risk of embarking on a criminal career (Langhinrichsen-
Rohling, Rebholz, O’Brien, O’Farrill-Swails, & Ford, 2005;
Mannuza, Gittelman-Klein, Bessler, Malloy & LaPadula, 1993;
Moffitt, 1990). In a longitudinal study conducted in Greece
with a sample of 41 children diagnosed with ADHD at school-
age, it was found that 75% of those who still met the criteria of
ADHD at adolescence had also developed Conduct Disorder
and had some kind of involvement with justice (Kakouros,
1998). On the other hand, Otto, Greenstein, Johnson & Fried-
man (1992) identified between 19% and 46% of youth in the
juvenile justice system as having ADHD. Finally, the comor-
bidity rate of ADHD with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and
with Conduct Disorder, which, almost by definition, overlap
with criminal offences, is 20% - 67% and 20% - 56% respec-
tively (Barkley, 1998). Therefore, as Pratt et al. (2002) point
out, to the extent that ADHD is a consistent predictor of
youthful misconduct, its role in crime causation warrants fur-
ther investigation and integration into extant theoretical ex-
Within this framework, the primary aim of this study was to
investigate the schooling hi story of ninety-three young of fen ders
in order to delineate the extent to which possible learning diffi-
culties of the participants may co-exist with psychosocial ad-
versity and/or specific learning disabilities, in particular, at-
tention problems. Additionally, we sought to examine the par-
ticipants’ self-perceptions regarding their academic competence
and their relationships with their parents. We expected to find
poor schooling history in the majority of the participants, low
perceived academic competence, problematic behaviour with
parents and higher percentages of attention problems compared
to the general same-age population.
Participants in this study were ninety-three males, aged 13-
24 years, (mean age = 19.29; sd = 2.83) recruited at random
from three Correctional Centers in Greece, described below
(Ministry of Justice, 2003). It should be noted that these are the
only correctional centers for minors in Greece.
1) Volos Education Institution for Male Minors. This insti-
tution has a capacity of 25 detainees, who are normally
aged between 8 and 18 years of age and have been sub-
jected to the reformative measure of placement to an
education facility. Thirteen participants (14%) were re-
cruited from this setting.
2) Special Juvenile Detention Facility for Males in Avlonas.
This institution has a capacity of 280 detainees. Thirty-
one participants (33.3%) were recruited from this setting.
3) Special Juvenile Detention Facility of Kassavetia. This
institution has a capacity of 308 detainees. Forty-nine
participants (52.7%) were recruited from this setting.
Detention in the last two institutions can be imposed on
youths between 8 to 18 years when the Juvenile Court consid-
ers that a penal sanction is necessary to deter them from re-
offending. However, young adults are also held in the above
facilities if they have committed an offence before the age of 18
and are tried afterwards, due to administrative delays, or if they
need to complete the vocational program they attend (Ministry
of Justice, 2003; Spinellis & Tsitsoura, 2006).
Three questionnaires were used in the present study:
1) A questionnaire constructed by the authors, in order to
obtain information about demographic and family char-
acteristics, a n d youth’s schooling history.
2) The Greek version of the Youth Self Report (YSR;
Achenbach, 1991), as translated and standardized by
Roussos, Francis, Zoubou, Kiprianos, Prokopiou &
Richardson (2001). The YSR is a self-report question-
naire for subjects aged 11-18 years for the assessment of
adolescent competencies and behaviour problems. The
response format for the 112 items is 0 = not true, 1 =
somewhat or sometimes true, 2 = very true or often true.
The YSR can be scored on a total problem score and on
eight syndrome scales. Only data from the ‘Attention
Problems’ scale will be reported here as the rest has been
reported in detail elsewhere (Kakouros & Maniadaki,
2007; Maniadaki & Kakouros, 2008). The participants
exceeding the 18th year of age were asked to complete
the Young Adult Self-Report (YASR; Achenbach, 1997),
which is the equivalent of the YSR for subjects aged
18-30 years. The reliability of the YSR is strongly sup-
ported by a great number of international studies. (c.f.
Ivarsson, Gillberg, Arvidsson & Broberg, 2002, for a
comprehensive list).
3) The Self-Perception Profile for Children (SPPC; Harter,
1985), as adapted by Makri-Botsari and Robinson (1991)
for use with Greek students. This scale contains nine
separate subscales measuring eight specific domains of
self-perception, as well as global self-esteem. Two sub-
scales were used in the present study, regarding: a) scho-
lastic competence and b) relationship with parents. Each
subscale consists of five questions, which are written in a
“structural alternative format” designed to reduce the
tendency to give socially desirable responses. Items are
scored 4, 3, 2, or 1, where a score of 4 represents the
highest self-perception and 1 represents the lowest self-
perception. The scale has good psychometric properties,
as reported in a great number of studies (G ranl eese & J o-
seph, 1994; Muris, Meesters & Fijen, 2003).
Permission to carry out the investigation was granted by the
Ministry of Justice. The details of the procedure for the collec-
tion of the data were determined by the Social Service of each
institution. The participants were assured about confidentiality
and were informed about the aims of the study. The main crite-
ria for inclusion in the study were: 1) consent to participate, and
2) a good understanding of the Greek language. The first ques-
tionnaire was completed jointly by each participant and the
social worker of each institution. The YSR and the SPPC were
completed by the participants themselves, on an individual
basis, in the presence of one of the researchers and the teacher
or the social worker who read aloud and explained the ques-
tions, whenever needed.
Demographic and Family Chara cte ri stics
The majority (72%) of the participants were Greeks and the
remaining 28% were immigrants, half of which Albanians.
Most of the participants (60.2%) came from fairly large fami-
lies, with at least four children. Fifty seven percent of the par-
ticipants’ mothers and 60.4% of fathers were totally illiterate or
of very low educational level. The family’s economic situation
was very bad for more than one third of the families (37.7%). In
the 39.9% of cases, offending history of another member of the
family had also been reported.
Schooling History
Inspection of Table 1 suggests that half of the participants
had dropped out school while at primary school, one third had
never attended school and one third had finished either the pri-
mary school or the high school. In addition, almost half of those
who attended school had repeated class once or more.
Furthermore, it has been found that almost half of the parti-
cipants (43.9%) had not been attending school systematically
although the majority (60.9%) believed that they had their fam-
ily’s support to do so.
Attention Problems and Perceived Competence
The percentages of participants scoring in the normal, bor-
derline or abnormal range on the scale “Attention problems” of
the YSR and in the high, normal or low range on the two SPPC
scales are reported in Table 2. As indicated in the data, 25.8%
of the participants fell at the abnormal band of the “Attention
problems” scale and 18.3% at the borderline band, thus indi-
cating a clearly higher prevalence of such problems in our sam-
ple compared to the general population of same-age counter-
parts. It is of importance to notice that, despite the above find-
ing, only one of the participants had ever been referred to a
special class during his schooling trajectory. Furthermore, it has
been found that 40.9% of the participants had low perceived
scholastic competence and 39.4% had low perceived compe-
tence regarding their ability to effectively communicate with
their parents.
Finally, when perceived competence of the participants in the
basic academic domains was examined, it was found that above
60% reported that, while in school, they performed bad or very
bad in reading, writing and maths, with reading receiving the
lowest ratings (Table 3).
Table 1.
Schooling trajectory and g r ad e r e t ention rates (percentages).
Schooling trajectory Grade retention
Finished primary
school 12.9 Never 54.5
Finished high sch oo l 7.6 Once 22.7
Dropped ou t at
primary sc hool 50.5 Twice 7.6
Never attended
school 29 Three times 15.2
Total 100 Total 100
Table 2.
Ratings (%) on the YSR ans the SPPC Scales.
YSR Scale NormalBorderline Abnormal Total
problems 55.9 18.3 25.8 100
SPPC scales High Normal Low Total
competence 2.2 56.9 40.9 100
with parents 2.8 57.8 39.4 100
Table 3.
Perceived performance (%) on the basic academic domains.
domain Perceived performance
Very good/
good Average Bad/
very bad Total
Reading 4.3 22.8 72.9 100
Writing 10.3 29.4 60.3 100
Mathematics 8.7 30.2 61.1 100
The primary aim of this study was to collect data regarding
the schooling history of young people within the juvenile jus-
tice system in Greece and to investigate the possible presence
of specific learning disabilities, in specific, attention problems.
The results showed that the schooling history of the young
offenders was characterized by low attendance, high levels of
dropouts, non-systematic effort, grade retention and academic
failure. These findings are in accordance with a number of st ud-
ies, reporting that typical inmates of correctional institutions are
school dropouts (Winters, 1997). Moreover, it has been repeat-
edly found that grade retention is an educational experience for
approximately 40%-50% of incarcerated youth (Fejes-Men-
doza, Miller, & Eppler, 1995; Mazerolle, 1998; Zabel & Nigro,
1999). Low school attendance has also been found in two stud-
ies conducted in Greece. In the first one, the average duration
of education was approximately four years in a sample of 55
juvenil e off enders (L ivaditis, Fot iadou, Koulouba rdou, Samakouri,
Tripsianis, & Gizari, 2000) whereas in the second one, 63.3%
of 60 juvenile offenders was not registered with any school at
the time of the study (Papageorgiou & Vostanis, 2000).
When asked about their academic achievement during their
school attendance, the vast majority of the participants reported
low and very low achievement in reading, writing and mathe-
matics and overall low scholastic competence. This is consis-
tent with studies reporting high prevalence rates of learning
disabilities among young offenders, who seem to perform at
significant lower levels than those expected for their academic
age level (Shelley-Tremblay, O’Brien & Langhinrichsen-
Rohling, 2007; Wang, Blomberg, & Spencer, 2005).
Taken together, the above findings reveal that learning dis-
abilities and antisocial behaviour co-exist to a high degree. The
question that can be raised consequently concerns the nature of
these learning disabilities and the ways through which they are
linked to delinquency.
The findings support the existence of high levels of psycho-
social adversity within our sample, as indicated by the large
family size, low parental educational level, bad financial situa-
tion and parental offending history in a great number of cases.
Psychosocial adversity may be related to delinquency in two
ways. First, dysfunctional families may not encourage children
to systematically attend school and invest in school effort
which, in turn, may facilitate their engagement in delinquent
activities. Alternatively, being raised up in deprived families
might directly create the prerequisites for the development of
antisocial behaviour, even without the mediation of school
failure, through loose socialisation practices.
However, a further finding of this study might shed more
light to the possible link between learning disabilities and anti-
social behaviour in the majority of the young offenders. About
one quarter of the participants displayed attention problems at a
clinical level, according to the YSR and another 18.3% of them
displayed such problems at a borderline level. Although these
rates represent screening estimates and not clinical diagnoses of
ADHD, similar rates are reported by a number of other studies
as well (Chae, 2001; Moffitt & Silva, 1988; Richardon, 2000).
In addition, similar rates have been reported in studies using the
CBCL, on which the YSR was modelled (Moser & Doreleijers,
The possible presence of ADHD in young delinquents raises
the hypothesis that, at least in a number of cases, learning dis-
abilities were the result of neuropsychological deficits, thus
leading to under-attainment, poor school attendance and low
effort rather than resulting from them (Maniadaki & Kakourou,
2007). This point of view is also supported by other researchers
who pinpoint that attention difficulties might underlie the asso-
ciation between learning problems and delinquency (Manguin,
Loeber, & Lemahieu, 1993; Shelley-Tremblay, O’Brien &
Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2007). Of course, once a child who
presents specific learning difficulties goes undiagnosed and
experiences repeated academic failures, he or she may avoid
school effort in general and enter a vicious cycle where specific
learning difficulties causes abstinence from school and absti-
nence of school aggravates learning difficulties (Wang, Blom-
berg, & Spencer, 2005).
Research on the academic characteristics of incarcerated
youth supports the above scenario. It has been found that these
adolescents usually function in the low-average to belowaver-
age range of intelligence (Foley, 2001) and show general verbal
deficits (Rincker, Reilly, & Braaten, 1990) and language im-
pairment (Gellert & Elbro, 1999). On the other hand, children
with ADHD also present wit h si milar cognitive profiles (Barkley,
1998). Therefore, it is possible that much of the cognitive deficit
associated with delinquency could be e xplai ned b y the pres ence
of a significant number of cases with histories of ADHD among
delinquent samples (Moffitt & Silva, 1988). In other words, it is
possible that ADHD underlies, to a certain degree, learning
disabilities experienced by a lot of juvenile delinquents.
Besides learning disabilities, other individual risk factors
usually associated with juvenile delinquency include impulsive-
ity, inability to grasp future consequences of behavior, inability
to delay gratification, difficulty to self-regulate emotion, need
for stimulation and excitement, low frustration tolerance, etc.
(Keilitz & Dunivant, 1986; Thornberry, 1994). These inborn
traits, related to personality, temperament and cognitive ability,
make children more susceptible to other risks in the environ-
ment. Most of the above characteristics are very common in
children with ADHD (Hawkins, 1995; Sonuga-Barke, 2003).
Therefore, it seems reasonable to suggest that ADHD, with
its cognitive and behavioural deficits may be linked to delin-
quency: 1) indirectly through school failure which results from
specific learning disabilities, which usually co-exist with the
disorder, and 2) directly through functional deficits in self-
control abilities which have been consi stently related to ele vated
involvement in delinquency and crime (Pratt et al., 2002).
Impulsive children have little ability to draw from past ex-
periencees or to anticipate future consequences. In addition,
lack of impulse control reflects handicaps in verbally mediated
control over one’s behaviour (Tarter, Hegedus, Alterman, &
Katz-Garris, 1983). Due to the above deficits, children with
ADHD usually experience repeated failures at school and face
peer rejection as well. Parents and teachers who struggle on a
daily basis with getting these children to adhere to family and
school rules often display disapproval, fewer rewards and over-
all negative behaviour towards them (Johnston, 1996). These
reactions usually lead to the escalation of conflicts and increase
the likelihood of the establishment of cycles of reciprocated
aggression. The accumulation of negative experiences may lead
to low self-esteem at adolescence and facilitate linkage with
deviant peers. Such a choice seems promising for these children
in order to prove themselves through their participation in de-
linquent acts since they don’t consider themselves able to do
this through positive ways (Tarolla, Wagner, Rabinowitz &
Tubman, 2002).
However, all children with ADHD do not become delin-
quents and all delinquent juveniles do not display ADHD
(Moffitt & Caspi, 2001). It has been suggested that there is a
specific subgroup of children with ADHD who are at special
risk for delinquent offending. These children are characterized
not only by neuropsychological dysfunction and aggressive
behaviour, but by adverse family circumstances as well (Moffitt
& Silva, 1988). Thus, ADHD appears to be a catalyst with
primarily family variables increasing the risk that ADHD be-
haviour will lead to delinquency (Goldstein, 1997). This study
strongly supports the existence of such a pathway to delin-
quency, among others.
These findings have important public policy implications.
Routine ADHD screening at schools seems critical for the
diagnosis and appropriate treatment of underperforming stu-
dents. The identification of those children with ADHD who are
at particular risk to get involved in criminal activates due to the
presence of additional risk factors, such as psychosocial adversity,
and the consequent administration of support and treatment,
might be a powerful preventive method of juvenile delinquency
(Schweinhart & Weikart, 1980).
Furthermore, the identification of those incarcerated youth
who present ADHD and/or learning disabilities is of the utmost
importance. It seems likely that ADHD is impairing the ability
of offenders to cope effectively with the strains and demands of
imprisonment (McCallon, 2000). In addition, educational re-
mediation that can help young people with ADHD overcoming
their literacy deficits may be these people’s last opportunity to
acquire academic and vocational skills. Juvenile offenders that
possess higher literacy levels have been found to have lower
rates of recidivism and enjoy a more successful transition from
the correctional facility to the community (Foley, 2001).
Finally, the criminal justice community may benefit consi-
derably from an expanded understanding of ADHD, as this
could assist law enforcement personnel to better understand the
dysfunctions that bring a significant number of offenders into
conflict with the criminal justice system (Goldstein, 1997).
Despite general agreement of our findings with similar stu-
dies, there are a number of methodological limitations which
need to be considered. First, the study shares in the weakness of
all self-report studies regarding the prevalence of attention pro-
blems. However, this method is widely accepted for use with
this population (Corneau & Lanctot, 2004). Second, this study
cannot yield any causal relationships as it was restricted to
prevalence estimates. Thus, the scenarios proposed are highly
speculative and need testing through longitudinal studies and
more sophisticated statistical analyses. Finally, it is acknow-
ledged that antisocial behaviour is the result of the interaction
of multiple risk factors and we do not claim that the identi-
fication and treatment of ADHD would be a panacea for the
elimination of juvenile delinquency.
However, this study provides a basis for future studies that
will move from the investigation of the correlation of delin-
quency with disabilities in specific learning domains, for exam-
ple reading, to the investigation of more complex interactions,
including disorders with both cognitive and behavioral correlates,
like ADHD, taking into account psychosocial adversity as well.
Furthermore, future studies should consider gender differences
in the study of juvenile delinquency since it is very possible
that different pathways to crime may exist for boys and gir ls.
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