School can worsen disabled children’s behavioural problems, researchers say

3 October 2014

Much more could be done to help children with physical and learning disabilities cope with the challenges they face on entering school, new research suggests.

A study from the Institute of Education, University of London, has found that the behavioural problems of many disabled children worsen between the ages of 3 and 7. They encounter increasing difficulties in terms of hyperactivity, emotional problems and getting on with other children.

However, disabled children might have fewer behavioural issues in their early years if more schools introduced stringent anti-bullying measures and other support strategies, the researchers conclude.

The authors of the study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also recommend that more support is provided for mothers and fathers of children with an impairment or special educational need.

The long-term benefits of such interventions could be very substantial, the researchers believe, as behavioural difficulties are likely to compound disabled children’s problems and reduce their chances of having a happy and successful adult life.

The study’s authors — from the IOE, London School of Economics and Political Science, and National Children’s Bureau — base their conclusions on an analysis involving 6,371 English children born in 2000 and 2001 who are being followed by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

The researchers compared non-disabled children with infants who had:

  • a developmental delay at age 9 months (in relation to hand-eye coordination, for example, or early communication gestures)
  • a longstanding limiting illness (such as type 1 diabetes or asthma)
  • special educational needs at age 7 (stemming from learning difficulties or impairments such as hearing loss).

They were able to analyse assessments of MCS children’s behaviour at ages 3, 5 and 7 as parents had been asked about conduct problems, hyperactivity, emotional difficulties and whether their sons and daughters got on with children of the same age.

This enabled the researchers not only to record the emergence of any problems but establish whether the behaviour of disabled and non-disabled children had followed the same trajectory.

They also took into consideration family background factors known to be associated with child behaviour, such as income poverty, parental discipline and the closeness of the parent-child relationship.

The researchers found that disabled children consistently presented more conduct problems than their non-disabled peers between the ages of 3 and 7. However, the conduct of both groups of children followed the same development pattern, improving between 3 and 5 and then slightly worsening at about age 6.

At age 3, children with longstanding limiting illnesses and special educational needs were also more likely than non-disabled infants to exhibit the other three negative behaviours that were assessed: difficulties with peers, emotional problems and hyperactivity. But, worryingly, unlike conduct problems, these particular behavioural difficulties became more pronounced among children in these two disability categories between the ages of 3 and 7.

“Our findings suggest that some early school environments may exacerbate behavioural problems for disabled children in ways that cannot solely be solved by learning support – because the underlying issue is behavioural rather than cognitive,” the researchers comment.

“Many disabled children find it increasingly difficult to engage with the social world as they pass from toddlers to the mid-primary school age. They also struggle with structured social contexts such as school. We need to gain a better understanding of the effects that schools have if we are to develop environments that do not, in effect, disable children further.”

The relatively high level of emotional problems for disabled MCS children is a particular concern, the researchers say. “It is true that most children – disabled and non-disabled — experience increased emotional problems as they get older, since as they become more advanced cognitively there is more room for negative thoughts to fester and grow. Nevertheless, we should seriously consider the implications of the marked increase in emotional problems for disabled girls, in particular, in terms of future risks such as depression and self-harm.”

Philippa Stobbs, Assistant Director of the Council for Disabled Children, said that a key goal of the Children and Families Act, which started to come into effect on September 1, is improved outcomes for children with special educational needs.

“These research findings emphasise the urgency with which we need to act,” she said. “They make it imperative that we focus on improving the learning environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children.”

The researchers are members of a team that earlier this year published research showing that primary school children with special needs are twice as likely as other pupils to be persistently bullied. The current study provides further evidence about the ways in which disabled children may be considered different by their peers – and the potential consequences.

Read the full paper

Convergence or divergence? A longitudinal analysis of behaviour problems among disabled and non-disabled children aged 3 to 7 in England’, by Rebecca Fauth (NCB), Samantha Parsons (IOE) and Lucinda Platt (LSE), is the latest working paper to be published by the IOE’s Department of Quantitative Social Science (QSS).

Further information:

David Budge
Institute of Education
University of London
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
Institute of Education
University of London
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

  1. The Millennium Cohort Study is following the lives of more than 19,000 children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 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. Surveys of the cohort have been carried out at the ages of 9 months, and 3, 5, 7 and 11 years. The MCS was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments. The study is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. More at
  2. The research reported in this press release is part of a wider study focusing on disabled children and young people in England. When the first survey of Millennium Cohort Study children was conducted, at age 9 months, 11,533 of the MCS families lived in England. Of these families, 7,387 took part in all of the first four waves of data collection. Missing information on disability status, behaviour and family and child characteristics reduced the size of the sample analysed to 6,371. The rates of disability within this sample were: developmental delay (10% mild and 2% severe), longstanding limiting illness (10%) and special educational needs (3% with a statement and 12% without one).
  3. This study is part of a project being carried out by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, the National Children’s Bureau and the Council for Disabled Children. The project was funded under the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Secondary Data Analysis Initiative (SDAI). The SDAI aims to deliver high-quality high-impact research through the deeper exploitation of major data resources created by the ESRC and other agencies.
  4. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. 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’.
  5. The National Children’s Bureau is a leading charity that for 50 years has been improving the lives of children and young people, especially the most vulnerable. It works with children and for children, to influence government policy, be a strong voice for young people and practitioners, and provide creative solutions on a range of social issues. For more information visit
  6. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) is the world’s leading dedicated social science institution. Founded in 1895, the School has an outstanding reputation for academic excellence, with 16 Nobel Prize Winners to its credit.
  7. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

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