Children with even minor disabilities, such as asthma, find it difficult to adapt to the "structured social concept" of schools, resulting in a higher chance of suffering hyperactivity and depression in later life, new research has shown.
The study, which looked at more than 6,700 children, showed that behavioural problems, such as hyperactivity, emotional problems and getting on with peers, worsened once SEND pupils entered full-time education.
In addition, children with “long-standing limiting illnesses”, including asthma and diabetes, were far more likely to exhibit negative behaviour traits between the ages of 3 and 7 than their non-disabled peers.
“Our findings suggest that some early school environments may exacerbate behavioural problems for disabled children in ways that cannot solely be solved by learning support – because the underlying issue is behavioural rather than cognitive,” the researchers said.
“Many disabled children find it increasingly difficult to engage with the social world as they pass from toddlers to the mid-primary school age. They also struggle with structured social contexts such as school. 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.”
The researchers – from the Institute of Education, London School of Economics, and the National Children’s Bureau – found that disabled children consistently presented more conduct problems than their non-disabled peers between the ages of 3 and 7.
But while disabled children had more behaviour issues, they shared a common trajectory of behaviour with their non-disabled peers: improved behaviour between the age of 3 and 5, with slightly worsened behaviour at age 6.
Despite this similarity, researchers found that children with disabilities found it more difficult to get on with their peers and were more likely to suffer hyperactivity and emotional problems such as depression as they got older.
The issue, they added, would be greatly reduced if more schools introduced anti-bullying measures and better support strategies.
The study looked at children with special educational needs, infants who had a “nine month developmental delay” in relation to motor skills such as hand-eye coordination and also children with non-cognitive issues such as diabetes and asthma.
Philippa Stobbs, assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children, said that a key goal of the Children and Families Act, which started to come into effect on 1 September, is to improve outcomes for children with special educational needs.
“These research findings emphasise the urgency with which we need to act,” she said. “They make it imperative that we focus on improving the learning environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children.”