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Early years see growth in emotional problems for children with SEN

School environments must not “disable children further”

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 (IOE), University of London, has found that the behavioural problems of many disabled children worsen between the ages of three and seven. 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 SEN.

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.

Patterns of behaviour

The study’s authors – from the IOE, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the 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 children who had a range of conditions, including infants with a developmental delay at age nine months and those with SEN at seven years.

They were able to analyse assessments of MCS children’s behaviour at ages three, five and seven 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. 

The study found that disabled children consistently presented more conduct problems than their non-disabled peers between the ages of three and seven, although the conduct of both groups of children followed the same development pattern, improving between three and five and then slightly worsening at about age six.

At age three, children with SEN 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. These particular behavioural difficulties became more pronounced among children with SEN between the ages of three and seven.

“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 report says.

Growing pains

The researchers also stress that many disabled children find it increasingly difficult to engage with the social world as they pass from being 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 report says.

The relatively high level of emotional problems for disabled MCS children is a particular concern. Most children 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. However, the marked increase in emotional problems for girls with SEN, in particular, in terms of future risks such as depression and self-harm, have serious implications for these children as they grow up.

“These research findings emphasise the urgency with which we need to act,” says Philippa Stobbs, Assistant Director of the Council for Disabled Children. “They make it imperative that we focus on improving the learning environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children.”

The study, Convergence or divergence? A longitudinal analysis of behaviour problems among disabled and non-disabled children aged 3 to 7 in England, can be found on the IOE’s website:


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