Mothers help to unlock the mystery of why some children behave worse than others

15 October 2012

Why do some children behave badly while others seem almost angelic? Is it nature, or nurture, or a bit of both?

The Millennium Cohort Study, which is tracking the development of children born in the UK between 2000 and 2002, is helping to piece together the answer to this remarkably complex problem.

Almost 13,500 mothers of Millennium children were asked to rate different aspects of their child’s behaviour at age 7. The questions covered hyperactivity, conduct, emotional problems, and difficulties with other children, as well as positive behaviour. Their answers were then converted into scores that enabled researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, to place each child in one of three categories: ‘normal’, ‘borderline’ or ‘serious behaviour problems’.

“In classifying the children in this way we were not making a judgment on their mental health,” explains Professor Ingrid Schoon. “We were simply trying to establish whether a child was exhibiting the range of responses to be expected at this age or whether their emotional health and wellbeing was under strain.”

This classification exercise revealed that stepchildren and children with lone parents were most likely to exhibit serious behaviour problems. Fifteen per cent of stepchildren and 12 per cent of children with lone parents fell into this category, compared with 6 per cent living with both natural parents.

Most children were said to be considerate, helpful and happy to share with others but boys were twice as likely as girls to display serious behaviour problems (10%:5%). They were also much more likely to be hyperactive and have problems relating to children of their own age.

Mothers of Black African children reported the lowest rate of serious behaviour problems (5%). However, ethnicity, gender, and parents’ marital status are by no means the only potential influences on children’s behaviour, Professor Schoon and her colleague Matthew Brown say.

Significantly fewer behavioural problems were reported for children living with two working parents, or parents with higher educational qualifications. The impacts of other factors, such as parent-child interactions, the school environment, housing, and neighbourhood characteristics, need to be examined too, the researchers say.

“Early behaviour problems can hold back a child’s educational and social development, which can have damaging long-term consequences,” they add. “Identifying which children are at greatest risk of behavioural maladjustment is therefore an ongoing challenge, especially as there is evidence that targeted parenting programmes can not only help parents to improve their relationship with their child but improve their child’s behaviour.”

The findings appear in a report published today by the Institute of Education’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies: Millennium Cohort Study, Fourth Survey: A User’s Guide to Initial Findings. Copies of the report can be downloaded from (from 10am on Friday, October 15).

Further information from:

David Budge

(off) 020 7911 5349

(mob) 07811 415362

Notes for editors

  1.  Child behavioural adjustment at age 7 was assessed via the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The SDQ is a 25-item questionnaire, which is suitable for 3 to16-year-olds and is commonly used to identify emotional and behaviour problems. The 25 items of the SDQ generate scores for five sub-scales: emotional problems, conduct problems, hyperactivity, peer problems and pro-social behaviour, with scores for each subscale ranging between 0 and 10. Higher scores indicate greater presence of each behaviour. The scores for the four problematic behaviours (emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity and peer problems) are then summed to produce an overall ‘total difficulties’ score which ranges between 0 and 40.  Scores between 14 and 16 are classified as borderline, and scores of 17 and above are classified as indicating serious behaviour problems. “Normal” is not a judgement on the child’s mental health and wellbeing, rather it refers to the “norm”, the population of children of that age at large. Young people falling into this band have a range of responses which would be expected from a group of their peers. Young people with a “borderline” score fall slightly outside the expected range of responses. It is likely that their emotional health and wellbeing is under strain. “Serious problems” refers to the fact that the SDQ score is considerably outside the range of expected responses. It is very likely that the emotional health and wellbeing of children falling into this band will be under considerable pressure.
  2. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking the Millennium children through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample areas with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families. Previous surveys of the cohort were carried out when the children were aged nine months, three years and five years. The study is housed at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. It was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments.
  3. Data from the fieldwork for the fourth survey of the Millennium cohort are now available from the UK Data Archive
  4. The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, who in turn sub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  6. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

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