Diversity Champion: Todd Elder

July 22, 2022 - Katie Nicpon

Champion Todd Elder, PhD, is an MSU Foundation Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the MSU Department of Economics. His research focuses on the factors that cause children to be diagnosed with a disability. The main theme of his research – and, in part, what sparked his interest in these topics – is the idea that disability diagnoses are not made in a vacuum. His research raises awareness on how the identification of disabilities and socioemotional disorders in children is based not only on a child’s own characteristics, but on those of the child’s peers and classmates. 

“A child can be diagnosed with a disability in a particular environment, but that same child might not be diagnosed (or treated) with a disability in a somewhat different environment,” Dr. Elder said. “It is important to research these topics because they can shed light on inequality in the underlying causes of disabilities and in their identification and treatment.”

Dr. Elder’s most well-known paper on this topic investigates the role of a child’s age-for-grade on the diagnosis of socioemotional disorders, particularly attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

“This was an exciting paper to write because I was really blown away by what the data revealed: the youngest children in a particular grade are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as the oldest children,” he said. 

Dr. Elder gave Michigan as an example: the kindergarten enrollment cutoff date is September 1 – meaning that a child may begin kindergarten in a given school year if they turn five by September 1 of that year. According to his research, Dr. Elder found that children who are born in August, who typically end up being the youngest children in their grade, are much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children born in September, who are forced to delay entry into kindergarten until the following year and who are the oldest in their grade. 

“It was fascinating to discover that something that seems so inconsequential at first glance – the difference of a few days of when a child is born – can have long-lasting consequences,” he said. 

“The findings from this paper strongly suggest that ADHD diagnoses are heavily influenced by teachers’ comparisons of children with others in the same grade , rather than the same age .”

Dr. Elder’s more recent research involves analyzing the factors that cause a child to be identified as having a disability. He has worked with several other colleagues on this research, including fellow MSU Economics professor Dr. Scott Imberman. Similar to the research on ADHD and birth dates, they uncovered evidence that factors that have seemingly little to do with underlying disability appear to play a large role in whether children are identified as disabled. 

“Most notably, we found a key role for race and ethnicity: Black and Hispanic students in schools with few minorities tend to be identified as disabled at much higher rates than observationally identical students in schools with larger shares of minority students,” Dr. Elder said. “These findings could have important implications for the long-run academic success of minority students, and they shed light on a substantial source of inequity in disability diagnoses and treatment.” 

Dr. Elder’s research raises awareness about the importance of having education professionals who diagnose children to examine their perspectives.

“My research related to disability has really opened my eyes to issues related to equity and inclusion in the context of disability,” he said. “Seemingly small differences in how individuals are treated can lead to large differences in opportunities and outcomes.”


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