Recent reports have shown worrying rises in young people suffering from mental health problems. A study for the Department of Education showed more than a third of teenage girls reporting depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. To try to understand this growing problem, Dr Afshin Zilanawala and fellow researchers from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have investigated how certain aspects of learning in the primary school years and success affect the behaviour and wellbeing of early adolescents.
Young people who drink, smoke and have behavioural problems are known to be at risk of suffering poor health as adults.
Understanding what causes this risky behaviour, and the anxiety and low self-esteem associated with it, can help professionals to target those most likely to drop out of school, become pregnant as a teenager, become obese or to suffer other long-term health issues.
By planning support and prevention programmes during childhood, they can improve the likelihood of a successful and healthy adulthood for our most vulnerable young people, and reduce the pressure on health and social services.
A recent YouGov survey of Britain’s university students revealed that more than a quarter of them report depression and poor mental health.
But could the roots of these problems be found by looking more closely at how children develop and learn throughout the primary school years?
Information on more than 11,000 children collected by the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) was used in our research, which explores the links between children’s verbal abilities and their behaviour and well-being as they make the move to secondary school.
Using information collected at ages three, five, seven and 11, we were able to see how well they could read, the range of their vocabulary and their verbal reasoning skills.
Then, at age 11, the children were asked about their school work and life, their family and friends and their appearance. There were questions about how happy they were, whether they felt good about themselves. They were also asked if they had tried cigarettes or alcohol, and if they had stolen anything or damaged property.
In terms of how well they were getting on, the children were divided into three groups (low, average and high verbal achievers).
This in itself produced a startling and worrying view of the diverging paths these different children follow over time, particularly between the ages of seven and 11. One in five of the children (the high achievers) did better and better at the verbal tests, stretching away from their peers as they prepared to head to secondary school. The majority (around three quarters) of children were on the middle path, making steady progress but then plateauing off. But, most striking of all was what happened to the low achieving group (around one in 17 of the children), whose verbal abilities declined steeply.
Millennium Cohort Study
Having established these pathways, we went on to look at which children at age 11 were involved in risky behaviours and then to dig deeper to see how these behaviours related to their progress to date. We also looked at what other factors, especially those related to their family circumstances, might be at play.
Boys were more likely than girls to be smoking and drinking or getting involved in anti-social behaviour. Girls were more likely to suffer from low self-esteem. First-born children were happier and had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to smoke, drink and have problem behaviours than second or later birth-order children. Children with younger mums were also more likely to engage in risky behaviour.
Those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with more unsupervised time were more likely to suffer from poor mental health. We also found those whose mothers suffered from depression were more at risk of mental health problems.
Looking at the raw data, the low achieving children were three times more likely to smoke than their high achieving peers and twice as likely as the average group. Low achieving and average achieving children were also more likely to drink.
One in three of the low achieving children compared with one in five of the high achievers had been involved in anti-social behaviour and were more than four times more likely to have behaviour problems as reported by their parent. They also had much lower levels of self esteem.
When we took a range of family factors into account including the child’s age and gender, mother’s age and mental health and socioeconomic circumstances, many or all of the differences between the groups disappeared or became smaller, confirming the overriding importance of the family and social environment.
However, we can say, for the first time, and with considerable confidence, that how well children are reading, talking and reasoning, can and does influence their health and well-being as they become adolescents. Indeed, we found clear evidence that children who were performing below average in this area across childhood were more at risk of poor mental health and risky behaviour than their consistently above-average performing peers.
If we want those children to stand a better chance of a healthy and happy life, we need to focus a great deal of attention on what is happening at home and at school in those early years, particularly, our research would seem to show, between the ages of 7 and 11.
Our results are consistent with other research, which demonstrates the huge challenge for young people with poor verbal skills, who arrive at the doorstep of adolescence with mental health, self-esteem and behavioural issues, which are likely to continue into adult life.
Recent reports that child poverty figures in the UK are continuing to rise, despite successive Governments’ promises to reduce them, does not bode well in this context. Indeed, it would seem to indicate that it will be some time before the yawning gaps in inequality that we see at primary school and their knock-on effects on children’s wellbeing in adolescence can be closed.
Longitudinal Latent Cognitive Profiles and Psychosocial Well-being in Early Adolescence is research by Afshin Zilanawala, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly and is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health
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