Behaviour problems are significantly more common among children from disadvantaged backgrounds – and are strongly apparent in the pre-school years – according to the preliminary findings of new research commissioned by the Sutton Trust from Dr Liz Washbrook of Bristol University.

The study, which drew on data of several thousand children, found that 35% of boys from the poorest fifth of households had clinical-level symptoms of behaviour problems at age three, compared with 15% of those in the higher four-fifths of the income distribution.  By age seven, 22% still experienced behaviour problems, compared with 10% of those from wealthier homes. Rates were lower amongst girls in general, but nevertheless 29% and 20% of low income girls at ages three and seven respectively exhibited behaviour problems.

The research also finds that, according to most measures, inequalities in behaviour across socio-economic groups have widened over the last ten years, even though the overall picture has improved.  For example, low income girls born in the early 1990s were twice as likely as their better off peers to record behavioural issues at age seven – but this had risen to three-and-a-half times as likely for those born around the Millennium. In general the widening socio-economic gap reflects the fact that behaviour problems fell among better-off groups of children, while problems among the lowest income groups remained constant or fell only slightly.

Behavioural problems at a young age are a strong indicator of poor attainment in later stages of life and may limit the chances of upward social mobility. It is therefore vital to intervene early, before gaps widen further.  The Sutton Trust is partnering with Impetus Trust to launch an early years initiative to narrow gaps in school readiness, so that children from low income homes are equally prepared for the start of school in cognitive, emotional and behavioural terms.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Trust said: “This study builds on earlier evidence from the Trust showing that children from poorer homes are already one year behind their middle income peers on cognitive tests when they start school. We now know that disadvantaged children are also much more likely to have difficult and challenging behaviour.  It is no wonder that the gaps in achievement grow during primary school.  More than anything, the research shows once again why it is so important to intervene pre-school to stem problems before they develop. We are delighted that our partnership with the Impetus Trust will allow us to do so in such a concrete and significant way.”

Daniela Barone Soares, Chief Executive of Impetus Trust, said: “Nobody’s life chances should be determined at birth and the research from Dr Washbrook confirms the vital importance of intervening early. That is why we have launched the Impetus-Sutton Early Years Initiative, which will identify and provide support in the form of funding and capacity-building skills for charities that support disadvantaged children aged 0 – 5, and their parents. Our goal is to break the present link between poverty at birth and life chances, with the goal of creating equal life opportunities for all children in the UK.”

Notes to editors

The Impetus – Sutton Early Years Initiative will invest in successful early years interventions specifically working with disadvantaged parents and their children aged 0 to 5 with the goal of closing the gap in school readiness for those children.  It is looking to work with ambitious organisations that wish to significantly enhance and improve their current impact. Organisations will receive, over a period of 4 / 5 years, a support package comprised of unrestricted funding of up to £350k in addition to tailored capacity-building support from the investment team and network of consultants and advisers.  To find out more about the Impetus investment approach and how to engage with the initiative, as an investee or a contributor, please go to

The research uses a common instrument to measure behaviour (the parent-reported Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire – SDQ), comparing behaviour problems for young children (aged 3 to 7) in the ALSPAC cohort of children born in the Avon area of England in the early 1990s and the MCS cohort born in the early 2000s The SDQ is a widely-used measure that asks parents to rate their children’s behaviour across four domains: hyperactivity/inattention, conduct problems, emotional symptoms and peer problems.  Clinical levels of symptoms are measured by an SDQ score in the borderline / abnormal range, as recommended by the questionnaire’s originators.  The estimation samples are 3,141 boys and 3,196 girls from the MCS, and 7,224 boys and 6,762 girls from ALSPAC.

The full paper will be released later in the year. A summary of the preliminary findings is available here.

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