• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Wednesday 18th August, 2010

On the TRAIL of the value of a good education

A high proportion of children badly misbehave. Some carry on in the same vein, ending up as persistent offenders in adult life, but many more seem to grow out of trouble. Researchers in the Netherlands are among the latest to investigate the environmental factors that set the two populations apart.Writing in the Journal of Early Adolescence, the team led by Rene Veenstra from the University of Groningen acknowledge that looking back over a troubled life it is all too easy to identify the early signs of antisocial behavior. Looking forwards it is a different story. Many children who behave very badly as young children go on to lead normal lives.The research team gathered data on children’s behavior as they were making the transition from primary to secondary school, first at age 11 and then at 13 and a half. Parents, teachers and the children themselves were interviewed.The inquiries were part of the TRacking Adolescents Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS), which is following the progress of over 2,000 children from five regions in northern Holland from childhood until they are 25.  After comparing their behavior before and after they embarked on secondary school, the researchers separated the children who continued to behave poorly from those who were better disciplined two and a half years later. Differences were detected in the support that children had received. Both groups had drawn on a similar level and range before they were 11, but the ones who subsequently made better progress had generally received more special educational services, than anything specifically intended to tackle behavior problems. Interventions for problematic behavior were generally associated with continuing decline; special educational help was linked to improving behavior. The two groups performed similarly badly at primary school, but those whose behavior improved also achieved better grades at secondary school. The authors theorize that failure at school can make it difficult for children to improve their behavior. “Under unfavorable conditions learning difficulties can create a serious deficiency in social approval, which feeds a vicious circle of aggressiveness of the child and coerciveness of the teacher, with loss of support form peers and possibly also parents.”The children who continued to behave poorly were also less able to self-regulate. They considered their parents to be overprotective but they were more likely to have an unstable family background. These confusions may have contributed to their failure to take advantage of special educational services they were offered, the researchers suggest  That apart, and contrary to expectations, both groups were similar in terms of their socio-economic status, intelligence, tendency to frustration and the emotional warmth of their parents. Other research among maladjusted children has found that an improvement in behavior is often associated with other difficulty – the onset of depression, for example. However, this has not been the case with the young people in the TRAILS study: better behavior was accompanied by improvements in terms of peer rejection, academic results, anxiety and depression. There is no guarantee that the trends detected by the survey will persist, the authors acknowledge. Many children experience phases of good behavior but also setbacks. Further studies using data from TRAILS will follow. See: Veenstra R, Lindenberg S, Verhulst F C and Ormel J (2009), “Childhood-Limited Versus Persistent Antisocial Behavior: Why Do Some Recover and Others Do Not? The TRAILS Study,” Journal of Early Adolescence, 29, 5, pp 718-742

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