Starting school – why disabled children need more help

Much more could be done to help disabled children with the challenges they face on entering school, new research suggests. Professor Lucinda Platt argues that stringent anti-bullying measures are needed in schools alongside other support strategies to ensure that disabled children do not fall further behind in school and risk increasing disadvantage and potential isolation.

Photo credit: Green MPs

The behavioural problems of many disabled children worsen between the ages of 3 and 7. They encounter increasing difficulties in terms of hyperactivity, emotional problems and getting on with other children. At age 7 they are much more likely than other children to be frequently bullied. At the same time, as they enter school, they make tangibly less progress than their non-disabled peers, even than those with the same starting scores.

In the first of three papers, which made use of the  Millennium Cohort Study (MCS),  non-disabled children were compared with children who had:

  • a longstanding limiting illness (such as type 1 diabetes or asthma)
  • special educational needs at age 7 (stemming from learning difficulties or impairments such as hearing loss)

The research analysed assessments of MCS children’s behaviour at ages 3, 5 and 7 as parents had been asked a series of questions about conduct problems, hyperactivity, emotional difficulties and whether their sons and daughters got on with children of the same age.

This enabled us not only to record the emergence of any problems but establish whether the behaviour of disabled and non-disabled children followed the same trajectory.

Family background factors known to be associated with child behaviour, such as income poverty, parental discipline and the closeness of the parent-child relationship were also taken into consideration.

Behaviour problems

Disabled children consistently presented more conduct problems than their non-disabled peers between the ages of 3 and 7. However, the conduct of both groups of children followed the same development pattern, improving between 3 and 5 and then slightly worsening at about age 6.

At age 3, children with longstanding limiting illnesses and special educational needs 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.

But, worryingly, unlike conduct problems, these particular behavioural difficulties became more pronounced among these disabled children between the ages of 3 and 7.

The findings suggest that some early school environments may exacerbate behavioural problems for disabled children and imply that there is a need for schools to pay attention to the multiple challenges disabled children face and that may affect their ability to adjust these settings.


A second piece of research investigated whether disabled children were bullied more than other children. At age 7, 12 per cent of children with special needs and 11 per cent of those with a statement said they were bullied ‘all of the time’ by other pupils, compared to just 6 per cent of their non-disabled peers.

As disabled children are also more likely to have disadvantaged backgrounds, it has previously been difficult to determine whether it was their disability, their family’s disadvantaged socio-economic position, or some other factor, that led to the bullying. However, the research was able to single out the effects of disability from other bullying risk factors. This reinforces what disabled children themselves identify as their single biggest concern in school, which can have long term consequences on their wellbeing.

Falling behind

In a third study, researchers looked at disabled children’s cognitive skills prior to school entry, their progress as they started school and across the early years.

This research shows that while non-disabled ‘late developers’ may catch up to some degree with their higher scoring peers, disabled children are not only behind when they enter school, but also appear to fall further behind as they turn 5 and then 7.

The results are consistent with those found by the Department for Children Families and Schools (2010) which showed that, while the gaps in progress were less than the gaps in attainment, nevertheless, children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) made less progress than other children who started out with scores similar to theirs.

There is little evidence that periods of poor progress are compensated by some catching up, or that school intervention for learning support needs is able to equalise performance among children facing different sorts of challenges.

Despite the richness of the data to which we had access, we were unable to identify any clear contextual factors that might account for the reduced levels of progress of disabled children over time.

Socio-economic background, home learning environment, bullying and worsening behavioural problems all impacted on children’s progress in general, but they were not specifically able to account for the relative lack of progress made by disabled children.

Understanding and improving the learning environment

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.

It is also clear that disabled children would merit from greater targeted investment in their learning in the early years, if we are to stop them facing cumulative disadvantage across childhood and into adult life.

Work in schools to address bullying and behaviour is likely to pay dividends in terms of overall performance and welfare of children. But such measures are not likely to reduce the educational gap between disabled and non-disabled children specifically. Nevertheless, increased awareness of the bullying and victimisation of pupils, particularly during the ‘non-teaching’ part of the school day when children with characteristics vulnerable to bullying may be particularly beneficial for disabled children.

Being bullied contributes to social inequalities later in life – people who were victims in childhood often grow up to have low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and perform less well in the labour market than their peers. Our findings suggest that bullying reinforces the inequalities experienced by disabled children, putting them at a double disadvantage.

The relatively high level of emotional problems for disabled MCS children is a particular concern. It is true that most children – disabled and non-disabled — 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. Nevertheless, we should seriously consider the implications of the marked increase in emotional problems for disabled girls, in particular, in terms of future risks such as depression.

Those working most closely with disabled children say that given that a key goal of the Children and Families Act is improved outcomes for children with special educational needs, our research findings only go to emphasise the importance of focusing on improving the learning environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children.

Further information

Convergence or divergence? A longitudinal analysis of behaviour problems among disabled and non-disabled children aged 3 to 7 in England, is research by Rebecca Fauth from the National Children’s Bureau, Samantha Parsons (Institute of Education) and Lucinda Platt (London School of Economics and Political Science). The research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Bullying experiences among disabled children and young people in England: Evidence from two longitudinal studies is research by Stella Chatzitheochari (University of Warwick), Samantha Parsons (Institute of Education) and Lucinda Platt (London School of Economics and Political Science).

Disabled children’s cognitive development in the early years is research by Samantha Parsons (Institute of Education) and Lucinda Platt (London School of Economics and Political Science)

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