The study, which drew on data of several thousand children, found that 35 per cent of boys from the poorest fifth of households had clinical-level symptoms of behaviour problems at age three, compared with 15 per cent of those in the higher four-fifths of the income distribution. By age seven, 22 per cent still experienced behaviour problems, compared with 10 per cent of those from wealthier homes. Rates were lower amongst girls in general, but nevertheless 29 per cent and 20 per cent of girls from low-income homes at ages three and seven respectively exhibited behaviour problems.
The research also finds that, according to most measures, inequalities in behaviour across socio-economic groups have widened over the last ten years, even though the overall picture has improved. For example, girls from low-income homes born in the early 1990s were twice as likely as their better-off peers to record behavioural issues at age seven – but this had risen to three-and-a-half times as likely for those born around the Millennium. In general the widening socio-economic gap reflects the fact that behaviour problems fell among better-off groups of children, while problems among the lowest income groups remained constant or fell only slightly.
Behavioural problems at a young age are a strong indicator of poor attainment in later stages of life and may limit the chances of upward social mobility. It is therefore vital to intervene early, before gaps widen further. The Sutton Trust is partnering with Impetus Trust to launch an ‘early years initiative’ to narrow gaps in school readiness, so that children from low-income homes are equally prepared for the start of school in cognitive, emotional and behavioural terms.
Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Trust said: “This study builds on earlier evidence from the Trust showing that children from poorer homes are already one year behind their middle income peers on cognitive tests when they start school. We now know that disadvantaged children are also much more likely to have difficult and challenging behaviour. It is no wonder that the gaps in achievement grow during primary school. More than anything, the research shows once again why it is so important to intervene pre-school to stem problems before they develop. We are delighted that our partnership with the Impetus Trust will allow us to do so in such a concrete and significant way.”
Daniela Barone Soares, Chief Executive of Impetus Trust, said: “Nobody’s life chances should be determined at birth and the research from Dr Washbrook confirms the vital importance of intervening early. That is why we have launched the Impetus-Sutton Early Years Initiative, which will identify and provide support in the form of funding and capacity-building skills for charities that support disadvantaged children aged 0 – 5, and their parents. Our goal is to break the present link between poverty at birth and life chances, with the goal of creating equal life opportunities for all children in the UK.”
The research was carried out by Dr Liz Washbrook, Research Associate, at the University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol.
Please contact Dr Liz Washbrook for further information.