Skip to main content

Disadvantage, behaviour and cognitive outcomes: Longitudinal analysis from age 5 to 16

The importance of children’s social and emotional skills for life outcomes is well established, as is the link between these skills and family income. The combination of both of these can serve to entrench the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage. Previous work has shown that poorer children exhibit more behavioural and emotional problems on average than their wealthier peers, and that this gap appears early in childhood; less is known about the reasons why this might be and how long it persists for. There is also limited evidence on what might drive the interplay between early behaviour and later cognitive skills such as literacy and numeracy.

In this report we present findings from new research on the following questions:

(1) What is the relationship between economic disadvantage and child behavioural and emotional problems?

Our analysis shows that there is a higher prevalence of behavioural and emotional problems among disadvantaged children. We also find that this discrepancy can be fully accounted for by differences in maternal psychological wellbeing and parental education.

This does not mean that economic disadvantage does not matter. However, it does suggest that it is factors associated with disadvantage, rather than economic disadvantage itself, that lead to the social gradient in child behavioural and emotional problems.

Poor maternal psychological wellbeing explains around half of the socioeconomic disparity in behavioural and emotional problems. However, its association with these problems is only present in low‐ and medium‐income families, and the effect is strongest for children in poverty. This suggests that higher family income (or factors associated with it) may act as a protective factor against the risks from poor maternal psychological wellbeing, or that factors associated with poverty may amplify those risks.

There is a lower incidence of behavioural and emotional problems in children with highly educated parents. It is likely that parental education is capturing a range of influences, such as the quality of parenting, of the home learning environment and of parent–child interactions. All of these factors may contribute to children’s socioemotional development and behaviour throughout childhood.

(2) How do child behavioural and emotional problems influence later cognitive skills and attainment?

Children with higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems at age 5 do less well, on average, in cognitive assessments – specifically, literacy and numeracy scores – at age 10 and age 16. This correlation remains, but to a lesser extent, after taking into account other individual and family factors that may contribute to this relationship. For example, parental education and maternal psychological wellbeing together explain half of the correlation between age 5 behavioural and emotional problems and age 10 cognitive skills.

There is a statistically significant link between behavioural and emotional problems at age 5 and cognitive scores at age 16. However, this is fully explained when we control for cognitive scores and behavioural and emotional problems at age 10. In other words, after this is taken into account, there is no independent link between behavioural and emotional problems at age 5 and cognitive skills at age 16. One potential way to interpret this is that early childhood behavioural and emotional problems need not present a risk for future educational attainment if they can be turned around by age 10.

Higher parental education is associated with higher cognitive scores, even after taking into account earlier cognitive scores and behaviours. This may reflect ongoing features of the home environment or parenting style that continue to influence children’s learning and ability even into adolescence.

Our findings highlight the interplay between cognitive and non‐cognitive outcomes, and the family‐level factors that may contribute to these outcomes. Parental education and poor maternal wellbeing contribute to higher behavioural and emotional problems and lower cognitive scores, especially in early childhood. Behavioural and emotional problems at age 5 then contribute to behavioural and emotional problems and lower cognitive scores at age 10, which in turn contribute to lower cognitive scores at 16. As a result these factors can cast ‘long shadows’ into adolescence and early adulthood, if unaddressed through interventions or additional support.

Implications for policy

Our results indicate that early behaviour may have a significant influence over future outcomes, especially for children born into poverty. Parental education and maternal mental health are important factors that help drive this relationship, and explain much of its interaction with disadvantage.

However, more research is needed to understand whether these results hold for more recent cohorts; as well as the underlying mechanisms at play; and what, if anything, might serve as protective factors. The Department for Education should consider the need for more work in this area as part of its commitment to improving social mobility.

Addressing educational inequalities between adults could have a role to play in improving outcomes for children, although this is clearly a long‐term project. In the shorter term, improving maternal psychological wellbeing and early child behaviour may be suitable targets for intervention.

Assuming the relationships we have uncovered are genuinely causal, then our results suggest that evidence‐based programmes targeted at low‐income families – which successfully improved maternal wellbeing, early child behaviour or early learning – could undo much of the socioeconomic disparities in children’s outcomes. Such programmes might take advantage of funding for disadvantaged two‐year‐olds while being embedded within a wider local early‐years system. This would be another tool to consider as part of attempts to promote social mobility and break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage. Local commissioners and directors of public health are well placed to lead work in this area as part of the Healthy Child Agenda.

Our findings reinforce the value of investing in evidence‐based early‐years programmes. Although work is needed to develop the evidence base around
identification and successful intervention for this target population, there are a number of programmes that have been found to be effective, which EIF has reviewed in its major review of parenting programmes, Foundations for Life. Our findings can also be used to support the cost–benefit analysis of investing in these programmes, which will be of interest to a range of local and national commissioners.