Ten reasons for bad behaviour

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Modern life does not agree with children today - a new book reveals why pupils really are much harder to teach than they were 30 years ago.

Graeme Paton reports

Schools were a little bit different 30 years ago. Free milk was still a morning ritual for many, the cane was the ultimate sanction and classrooms were computer-free.

But one thing in particular sets the schools of 2006 apart from those of 1976 ... the children.

In the UK, the number of young people with behavioural problems has doubled over the past three decades and those with emotional difficulties have increased by 70 per cent.

A book to be published later this year attempts to lay bare the reasons for children's shifting emotional, behavioural and social make-up - and identify the 10 problems it has posed for teachers.

Author Sue Palmer, literacy consultant and TES contributor, said: "For some time teachers have been pointing out that children are becoming more difficult to teach; that they find it more difficult to pay attention, their listening is getting worse and they are more distractible, impulsive and self-centred.

"Technological and cultural changes have transformed the lifestyle of people in the developed world - largely for the better. But it has all happened so fast that we haven't noticed that changes which benefit adults are not always so good for children."

Evidence of children's shifting behaviour patterns has emerged across the western world. Research on brain chemistry and nutrition found earlier this year that up to a quarter of school pupils could be suffering learning difficulties because of their poor diets (see box, opposite).

In the United States, a study by the American Academy of Paediatricians found that the number of children with high levels of autism had increased from one in 50,000 in 1980 to one in 166 by 2004.

The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020 mental instability and depression in children will grow by 50 per cent across the globe.

Researchers acknowledge that better diagnosis of conditions such as autism may partially explain the growth of such disorders. However, many argue that there is a tangible link between such emerging patterns and falling levels of educational achievement.

A study of 10,000 children published in January revealed that there had been a dramatic drop in the proportion of pupils able to master basic maths and science as they leave primary school.

The report, in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, found that a third of 11-year-old boys were able to complete a simple scientific test in 1976, compared to just 5.7 per cent in 20034.

In a speech at the Education Show in Birmingham yesterday, Ms Palmer said that she had identified 10 effects on children's lives over the past 30 years to account for the educational slide - almost all linked with technological changes and the breakdown in family structures.

Her research, which is the culmination of a three-year study, including a survey of some 1,000 teachers, pointed towards diet, a lack of playtime, inadequate sleep, poor conversational skills, changes in family structure, poor childcare, educational changes, the consumer culture, technology and attitudes towards manners.

"One key element in detoxing childhood is taking TVs and other technological paraphernalia out of children's bedrooms and keeping them in the family space, so families spend time together," she said.

Ms Palmer, whose work will be published by Orion in her book, Toxic Childhood, in May, said similar shifts were being identified across the world, but that it was no coincidence that they are felt particularly strongly in the four most economically successful countries: the US, Japan, Germany and the UK.

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

Analysis 18, Leader 22 www.suepalmer.co.ukLet us know what you think in our online staffroom: www.tes.co.ukstaffroomYou'll find the thread in our Opinion forum - it's called Ten Reasons for Bad Behaviour


The Government is worried about the use of "pester power" and some politicians want to follow the Swedish model, where TV advertising aimed at children is banned.

The average child in the UK is familiar with up to 400 brand names by the time they reach the age of 10, and one study found that 69 per cent of three-year-olds could identify the McDonald's golden arches, but half of all four-year-olds could not write their own name.

It is claimed that the effect of this hits families on low incomes especially hard, with children desperate for things their parents cannot afford. The NHS reports rising incidence of mental illness among the young, with depression linked to the pressure to consume.


In the past two decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of working mothers with very young children - a fact which Sue Palmer believes has left a "gaping hole" in the home.

Ms Palmer said the trend meant that many children were left to their own devices, often relying on televisions and computers to act as babysitters.

Today more than two-thirds of women with a child aged under a year work.

She said there was a need to provide childcare which nurtured youngsters'

development as effectively as their mothers could.


The link between family breakdown and criminality is well established. In 2003, more than 150,000 children were in families whose parents divorced, twice as many as 30 years ago, and a report by the Family Matters Institute found that almost all juvenile offenders came from broken homes.

Britain has the highest rate of family breakdown in Europe and 98 per cent of young criminals are from split families: a factor the FMI says costs the taxpayer some pound;15 billion every year.


Two-thirds of children are not getting enough sleep, researchers from Loughborough university have found. Yet sleep is a necessary fuel to regenerate the bodies of young and old alike. During sleep many of the body's major organ and regulatory systems continue to work actively, some parts of the brain increase their activity dramatically, and the body produces more of certain hormones.

The Loughborough academics surveyed 500 parents and found that most accepted that lack of sleep impaired their children's academic performance and behaviour.

Two out of three parents had no idea of the recommended levels of sleep suggested for children - around 10 hours for those aged four to six.

The research, released in 2003, also found that one in 10 never read their children a bedtime story. Instead, children fell asleep to television shows, computer games or videos. More than half of the parents said their children had TVs in their bedrooms.


The limited amount of time that today's children play outside may be hampering their personal development, Sue Palmer believes.

"Children are interacting with each other and learning about their world through activities like hide and seek or climbing trees," she said.

"They are trying to find out how much they can get away with and how much they can trust other people.

"These are all valuable social skills that children cannot get sat in their own bedrooms."

In the United States, researchers at Illinois university interviewed almost 100 parents of children with attention deficit disorder, and found that they reacted better after playing in "green spaces".

They concluded that time spent in a natural setting fostered more creative play, required greater interaction between children and ultimately boosted their communication and thinking skills.


A lack of communication between children and adults could also be harming their long-term development.

In an article for The TES last year, Sue Palmer said that potential for children to "understand, think, communicate, learn" was damaged if adults failed to interact with them from a young age.

"For those parents who feel obliged to return to work soon after their babies are born, time for gazing into their offspring's eyes and chatting about the world is limited," she said.

She said that even when parents were at home, there are demands on their time that "break the communicatory triangle".

"Health workers on home visits frequently report seeing mothers with a baby in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, or failing to make eye contact with their suckling infant because they're simultaneously checking the email or watching Tricia on TV," she said.


The poor diet of 21st-century pupils was drawn into sharp focus by Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef.

In one episode of Jamie's School Dinners, parents of tearaways were urged to replace junk foods, fizzy drinks and sweets with healthier alternatives.

The majority of parents noticed an amazing difference for the better in behaviour which was reversed almost instantly when they allowed their children processed food and soft drinks.

Alex Richardson, a senior researcher at Oxford university, says up to a quarter of the school-age population have some form of learning impediment, probably caused by lack of the omega-3 fatty acid, found in oily fish and green vegetables, in their grandparents' or parents' diets. She analysed a sample of 117 underachieving primary children with motor difficulties as part of a six-month study, presented in Edinburgh last month.

Half were given fish oil supplements and half a placebo for three months; they were then switched for a further three months. Both groups made stunning gains in reading and spelling when using the supplements.


Today's children have access to PCs, laptops, email, the internet, 24-hour satellite channels, DVDs, computer games and mobile phones. The net effect, according to Sue Palmer, is a breakdown in relationships between parents and children, less time spent outdoors and more exposure to potentially damaging influences.

"Parents would never leave their children alone with strange adults, but they seem quite prepared to leave them alone with strangers in their own bedroom, by giving them unchecked access to television and the internet,"

she said.

"Around 80 per cent of children under 12 now have a TV in the bedroom. We need to get electronic paraphernalia out of the bedroom and into the family space."


Sue Palmer said that the increasingly competitive ethos in education had contributed to children's poor social and behavioural skills. She said the testing and target culture in schools - fuelled by parents' attempts to accelerate their child's performance - meant that other skills were neglected.

Recently both Ofsted and the Basic Skills Agency have raised concerns about the poor language, behavioural and social skills of five-year-olds coming into reception classes. But Ms Palmer found that teachers have little time to address linguistic and social handicaps because they have to concentrate on literacy and numeracy targets, and key stage 1 tests.


Sue Palmer said children were being raised in a "morally-relative society", where modern life had eroded good manners. The problem was a by-product of increased pace of life, breakdown of family and the influence of modern technology. She said: "Wisdom that used to get handed down, along the female line, seems to have been eroded. At the same time, the social support among groups of adults is no longer there."

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