One in five pupils in the UK experience emotional and behavioural problems

Around one in five children and young people in the UK experience emotional and behavioural problems according to the first findings from a survey of over 30,000 young people (aged 11 to 14), which were collected as part the National Lottery-funded HeadStart programme.

Pupils in the 114 participating HeadStart schools were asked to complete the online Wellbeing Measurement Framework. This report, by Jessica Deighton and colleagues, explores the data related to the prevalence of mental health problems in young people and how this varies by gender, ethnicity, special educational needs status, free school meal eligibility, and child-in-need status. The findings reveal that:

  • Pupils in Year 9 are more likely to report mental health problems than those in Year 7.
  • Girls are more likely to say they had experienced emotional problems (with 25% of girls saying they had a problem compared to 11% of boys) but in contrast, boys are more likely to say they have experienced behavioural problems (with 23% of boys saying they had experienced them compared with 15% of girls).
  • Pupils from Asian, Black, Mixed, and other ethnic groups were less likely to indicate they were experiencing emotional problems than young people in the White ethnic group.
  • Pupils with special educational needs, those eligible for free school meals, and those classified as children in need were also more likely to say they were experiencing both emotional and behavioural problems.

The report concludes that there is a consistent association between deprivation and mental health problems, however, the schools involved in HeadStart are typically located in less socially and economically advantaged areas of the UK and differ from the national average in terms of proportions with special educational needs and proportions of white pupils, so all results must be understood in this context.

Source: Mental health problems in young people, aged 11 to 14: Results from the first HeadStart annual survey of 30,000 children (January 2018), Evidence Based Practice Unit (EBPU) Evidence Briefing #1:11

Links between pre-school absenteeism and academic learning

A new study, published in Child Development, found that children in the US pre-school programme Head Start who missed 10% or more of the school year had fewer academic gains than their peers who attended pre-school more regularly.

Arya Ansari and Kelly M Purtell used data from the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) 2009 cohort (n=2,842) to examine the effects of absenteeism among 3- and 4-year-olds on early academic learning. Their findings revealed that, on average, children missed eight days of the school year. However, 12% of children were chronically absent – defined as missing 10% of the school year or more – and missed an average of 22 days of school. Children who missed more days of school, especially those who were chronically absent, demonstrated fewer gains in maths and literacy during the pre-school year. For maths, this was equivalent to approximately two months of lost academic skill gains. In literacy the loss was three months.

The study also found that Black and Latino children were less likely to be absent than white children. Children from households with married parents were less likely to be absent than those from households without two parents. In addition, children were less likely to be absent when they were enrolled in classrooms that operate for more hours per week and in larger and bilingual classrooms. Children were more likely to be absent if their mother showed more depressive symptoms and was unemployed. The quality of interactions between teachers and children positively affected children’s development of literacy skills, and the benefits were roughly twice as large for children who were absent less often.

Source:  Absenteeism in Head Start and children’s academic learning (May 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12800

One versus two years of ExCELL in preschool

While the effects of preschool programmes have often been studied, it is less common to find studies examining the effects of programme duration on student learning. Annemarie Hindman and Barbara Wasik from Temple University, Pennsylvania, examined the effects of providing one year versus two years of the teacher professional development programme Exceptional Coaching for Early Language and Literacy (ExCELL) on the language development and learning outcomes of three- and four-year-old children in the US preschool programme, Head Start.

ExCELL provides teachers with individualised coaching by providing a background in the concepts underlying preschoolers’ language and vocabulary development, evolving into ways to develop these skills in the classroom. Teachers are provided with curriculum materials and an academic year of month-long coaching, each month cycling through a group workshop, a coach modelling targeted techniques in the classroom, the teacher using these techniques independently, and finally the coach observing the teacher and providing feedback.

In the present study, 159 four-year-old children in Head Start experienced either one year (n=88), starting at age four, or two years (n=71), starting at age three, with teachers using ExCELL. Children were in 10 Head Start centres in the urban Northeastern United States in adjacent neighbourhoods with demographically similar populations. Almost all students and teachers were African-American and all were native English speakers.

At four years old, children were tested in the spring and autumn using standardised tests measuring vocabulary, sound awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Results showed that although the four-year-olds who had already received one year of the programme entered their second year with stronger vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and alphabet knowledge than their peers who had not yet experienced the programme, by the year’s end, these peers had caught up to them. The authors state that these findings suggest that ExCELL is most effectively taught in the second year of preschool.

Source: Is dosage important? Examining Head Start preschoolers’ language and literacy learning after one versus two years of ExCELL (2016), Early Childhood Development and Care

Motor skills development linked with school readiness

A study published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport finds that preschool children who performed better on fine and gross motor skill assessments early in the school year were more likely to have better social behaviour and ability to pay attention, follow directions, and stay on task (known as “executive function”) later in the preschool year.

For the study Megan MacDonald and colleagues used a range of assessments to measure the fine and gross motor skills and the executive function and social behaviour of 92 children aged three- to five-years-old. The assessments were conducted in the autumn and again in the spring. Fine motor skills include visual motor integration, which includes activities such as stacking blocks, copying circles on a page, or playing with creative toys such as Lego or crayons. Gross motor skill development could include games and activities that require reciprocal play, and object manipulation skills such as ball games.

The results showed that children’s visual motor integration skills in the autumn of preschool had modest relations with their executive function scores assessed in the spring. Children who demonstrated better object manipulation skills in the autumn had statistically significant better social behaviour in their preschool classrooms in the spring, including more self-control, more co-operation, and less externalising/ hyperactivity. These findings have implications for early learning initiatives and school readiness, although additional research is needed to better understand how or why motor skills are linked.

Source: Relations of Preschoolers’ Visual-Motor and Object Manipulation Skills with Executive Function and Social Behavior (2016), Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

The varying impact of an earlier years programme

A paper from MDRC analyses variation in the effects of the Head Start programme in the United States using data from the Head Start Impact Study.

Head Start is the largest US federal programme for early years development of disadvantaged children and has served more than 30 million children since 1965.

The MDRC paper confirms previous studies that suggested substantial variation in the effects of Head Start in relation to the individual, subgroup, and between Head Start Centers.

The main findings were:

  • Head Start improved cognitive outcomes in children with the lowest cognitive skills and tended to reduce disparities between children in key cognitive outcomes.
  • Dual-language and Spanish-speaking children with low pretest scores gained the most from Head Start.
  • Much of the positive effect of Head Start came from mitigating for limited prior English; the positive effect on children with limited English persisted for at least three years.

The added value of Head Start compared with local alternatives varied substantially between Centers and reflected differences in provision (such as hours of care, teacher education, and classroom quality).

Some Head Start Centers were much more effective than alternatives (including parental care) and others were much less effective than alternatives.

Source: Quantifying Variation in Head Start Effects on Young Children’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Skills Using Data from the National Head Start Impact Study (2015), MDRC.

Interventions for four-year-olds help three-year-olds, too

A new report from MDRC presents the findings for three-year-old children from the Head Start CARES demonstration. This was a large randomised controlled trial in more than 100 Head Start centres across the US. It tested the effects of three different approaches for improving children’s social-emotional competencies: The Incredible Years, PATHS, and Tools of the Mind – Play. The main trial looked at the impact on four-year-old children and this further analysis examines the impact on three-year-olds who were in the same classes.

The results show:

  • Overall, the approaches increased teachers’ social-emotional instruction, but did not affect other aspects of practice or classroom climate in mixed-age classes. The approaches also improved teacher reports of three-year-olds’ social behaviours and closeness with teachers.
  • The Incredible Years did not produce a statistically significant improvement in teachers’ use of classroom and behaviour-management strategies, but it improved teacher reports of three-year-olds’ social behaviours and closeness with teachers.
  • PATHS improved teachers’ social-emotional instruction and Tools of the Mind – Play improved scaffolding of children’s play. However, there was little evidence that the approaches improved teacher reports of three-year-olds’ social-emotional outcomes.

The findings suggest that it is possible for the benefits of social-emotional interventions to extend to three-year-olds, even when the interventions are designed primarily for four-year-olds. In this study, these benefits were driven primarily by The Incredible Years.

Source: Impacts of Social-Emotional Curricula on Three-Year-Olds: Exploratory Findings from the Head Start CARES Demonstration (2014), MDRC.