Children with behavioural problems at age five may need extra literacy support at school

21 July 2021

Children with severe conduct and hyperactivity problems at school entrance tend to gain lower scores in vocabulary tests during adolescence, according to a new study.

Researchers from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies analysed data on more than 30,000 British people born in 1970 and 2000-02, who are taking part in the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

They examined information about study members’ behavioural problems when they were age five, using reports by parents at the time, and then studied scores from multiple choice vocabulary tests taken when the earlier born generation were age 16, and when the later born group were age 14.

The study found that for both cohorts, out of 12 words, children with severe conduct and hyperactivity problems at school entrance knew 1.4 fewer words, compared to their peers with no behavioural issues: a 12% word gap.

Previous research has shown the negative effects of poor literacy in childhood on later educational attainment and subsequent labour market outcomes. The authors of this new study urge educational policymakers and practitioners to intervene as early as possible to help ensure children get the support they need to fulfil their potential.

Co-author, Professor Alice Sullivan (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) said: “Children with behaviour problems at school entrance may require additional input at school to support the development of their vocabulary. Teachers are well placed to identify children with problematic behaviour who need additional support.”

The results remained after accounting for family socioeconomic background and scores from vocabulary assessments during childhood.

The research was funded by the Health Foundation’s Social and Economic Value of Health research programme.

Media coverage of this research

Times Educational Supplement – The alarming link between poor vocabulary and behaviour

Times Educational Supplement – The link between behaviour and language development

Further information

‘The relationship between child behaviour problems at school entrance and teenage vocabulary acquisition: a comparison of two generations of British children born 30 years apart,’ by Sam Parsons, Alice Sullivan, Vanessa Moulton, Emla Fitzsimons & George B. Ploubidis was published on The British Educational Research Journal website in July 2021.

This research was funded as part of the Health Foundation’s Social and Economic Value of Health programme (grant ID: 789112). The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.

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