School behavior: Is there a link between vocabulary and behavior?

When children present behavioral problems at the start of primary school at the age of five, what impact can we predict that this will have on the rest of their school career?

This is the question of a new research paper from the Institute of Education (IoE) at University College London, published in the British Journal of Educational Research, attempted to answer by comparing the links between misconduct at age five and subsequent performance in a multiple-choice vocabulary test at age 15, and also comparing results between two different generations at age 30 d ‘interval.

The researchers used data from the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) which tracks the lives of over 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales during a week in 1970, and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a similar study involving approximately 19,000 people. babies born between September 2000 and January 2002.

The results are vast, but the two main results of note for schools are:

  • Children who reported behavioral problems at age five performed worse on a vocabulary test as a teenager in both cohorts.
  • The adolescents in the MCS performed worse on the vocabulary test compared to the 1970s cohort.

Your spoke with Professor Alice Sullivan of the UCL Institute of Education, who participated in the study, to discuss what the results mean for teachers.

What did the behavior and vocabulary data tell you?

“We found that children with emotional and behavioral problems at age five (start of elementary school) had relatively limited vocabulary in adolescence, and children with severe behavioral and hyperactivity problems did. fact scored 12% less on a multiple choice vocabulary test at 14 and 16 years old.

“This was true for nationally representative two-generation cohorts born 30 years apart, in 1970 and 2000.”

Why do you think the children with behavioral difficulties in both cohorts performed worse on the vocabulary test?

“Using longitudinal data, following these children over time, has allowed us to demonstrate that these emotional and behavioral issues have a continuing impact on learning throughout the school years.

“This will come as no surprise to teachers because when you look at the types of factors that feed the scales for measuring childhood emotional and behavioral problems – irritable, disobedient, restless – these types of behaviors make learning more difficult. “

If the vocabulary test was the same in each study, why did the next generation perform worse? Were the words out of date?

“We wondered if the nature of the test made it less valid over time, but we looked at it very carefully and made sure to select the right items that worked for both cohorts.

“We looked to see if there was a drop in the use of the words used and we found no indication of a problem in the words we tested.”

What then could have been the cause of the decline?

“It could be a decrease in reading books compared to time spent on other activities, such as online activities, could have resulted in a decrease in vocabulary. [What we have] is only one piece of evidence, but it suggests the need for further investigation. “

What can schools do to help solve the problem?

“Behavioral issues are a major challenge for teachers because they affect the whole class, not just the disruptive child.

“In this study, the problems were reported by a parent, usually the mother. This tells us that parents are able to report their child’s problems accurately, suggesting that early communication between the teacher and the parents on behavioral and emotional issues could be helpful.

“As children with behavioral problems and / or poor vocabulary acquisition at school entry are often socio-economically disadvantaged as well, to best support children and their families, it is essential that policy solutions take into account all aspects of the family environment.

“If we tackle this early, children will have a better chance of avoiding the range of social and economic disadvantages in adulthood that research has shown are associated with early behavior problems and poor language acquisition.” .

Where do we go from here?

The results are clearly noticeable – and perhaps not a surprise. After all, like Alex Quigley, National Content Manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, former teacher and author of Close the reading gap, Notes, poor vocabulary mastery has always been considered a precursor to bad behavior.

“We know that having the vocabulary to express yourself is so crucial to learning, alongside your vast social and emotional development,” he says.

“Imagine, for example, if you are a young child at the reception who cannot confidently express your emotions verbally. Frustration and struggle are likely to characterize many of your school days. These small daily losses can inhibit your learning and turn out to have a long-term impact – from five to 15 years.

However, he adds that it is necessary to take a closer look at the links between behavior and vocabulary to avoid drawing incorrect or simplistic conclusions.

“It’s hard to disentangle the causes and correlations when it comes to a child’s vocabulary, language development and behaviors at school,” he says.

“Does their behavior and inability to self-regulate hamper their ability to learn in the classroom or does their limited vocabulary cause children to act and behave badly? “

It seems clear that the data will confirm to teachers and school leaders what we already know: paying close attention to vocabulary development is likely to pay academic dividends and offer vital behavioral, social, and emotional gains for students. children as well.

What should schools do now?

The other big issue raised by the research is why vocabulary test scores declined in the MCS group in the 2000s compared to the BCS study in the 1970s – and the impact this has on the behaviour.

A key question Quigley draws from this is that it is important to address the vocabulary needed to describe emotions with young children.

“[This data] highlights why it is so important to teach social and emotional skills, and the language of emotions, in elementary school, ”he says.

“Likewise, it is clearly important to teach vocabulary to access the curriculum explicitly and effectively in every classroom. Of course, we also need to support every teacher with healthy behavior systems so that they can establish those crucial daily routines that promote consistency and effective communication in the classroom.

However, the fact that this has diminished over time – despite the heavy emphasis on improving PSHE and broader mental health challenges – is concerning, Quigley notes.

“The evidence that teens today have more limited vocabulary than 30 years ago is striking and disturbing,” he says.

“More research is needed here, but the potential implications must be recognized by principals and teachers.”


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