One in five boys in year 3 have an emotional or behavioural problem, according to new research. Photo: Virginia StarOne in five boys in year 3 have an emotional or behavioural problem that sees them lag a year behind their peers in reading and numeracy, according to research that stresses the mental health of young people needs to be a focus in primary schools.
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute study looked at common emotional and behavioural problems and academic performance in more than 1000 eight and nine-year-old children.
The research found about one in five boys and one in seven girls had at least borderline emotional and behavioural problems.
Boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties – 20 per cent of the sample- were 12 months behind their peers in both reading and numeracy, based on data from NAPLAN tests.
The study’s lead author, Lisa Mundy, said it was unlikely increasing academic pressure was causing emotional and behavioural problems, which were more common in secondary school.
“A more likely explanation is that mental health and behavioural problems are directly contributing to poor academic performance, possibly through reduced attention to school work or school absence,” Dr Mundy said.
“Children with emotional and behavioural problems are at high risk for academic failure. This risk is evident in mid-primary school.”
Previous research showed that children with behaviour problems tended to struggle at school but this was the first study to show that boys with emotional problems were also falling behind in their learning, according to the authors.
For girls with emotional and behavioural difficulties, the results were more modest but peer problems were associated with lower numeracy scores for girls.
“Our findings that emotional and behavioral problems are associated with poorer academic performance after only three full years of school carry further significant implications for school policies,” the report, published in the Journal of School Health, said. “Social and emotional skills are increasingly seen as important for educational achievement.
“Taking steps to prevent the onset of emotional and behavioral problems in children and responding effectively to those with visible problems are likely to bring multiple further benefits, including educational, for children in primary school.”
The study said the major focus of many mental health initiatives in school had been with adolescents in secondary school.
“The current study suggests we will need to begin these efforts earlier to optimise education achievement, reduce rates of later mental disorder and ultimately improve the quality of life of many children,” the report said.
Senior author George Patton said the mid-primary school years were a time when emotional and behavioural problems commonly emerged and these were often the precursor to health problems in adolescence and adulthood.
Professor Patton said it was increasingly clear that students would not reach their academic potential unless schools also promoted the social and emotional development of students.