Behavioural problems in young boys are contributing to increasing numbers falling behind academically, which can cascade into emotional and mental health issues later in life. By Lindy Alexander.

Boys’ behaviour and teaching challenges

Boys’ behavioural problems are affecting their academic performance.
Boys’ behavioural problems are affecting their academic performance.

Walking around her primary-school classroom, Jacinta Goldman – not her real name – is on high alert. She knows the sound of a tub full of books being pulled to the floor, of tempers starting to flare and the quickest way to evacuate.   

Goldman teaches a lower primary class at a school in an affluent suburb of Melbourne, but being in a high socio-economic area provides little buffer to the behaviours she encounters. “Our parents are educated and earning good money, but so many kids are coming through with issues,” she says.

Goldman lists what she means by issues: meltdowns, tantrums, self-harm, kicking, punching, biting, scratching, choking, spitting, headbutting, furniture being upended and thrown, menacing behaviours, throwing scissors or sporting equipment. “Some of these happen daily,” she says. “I’ve been hit with a cricket wicket, had a little guy choke me with my scarf, been verbally abused and spat at – you name it, it’s probably happened.”

With 20 years’ teaching experience, Goldman has seen the number of children with severe behavioural or emotional needs increase significantly in the past decade. “When I first started teaching you would have one or two of these children in the whole year level,” she says, “but these days every class has one or two kids with severe behavioural or psychological needs.”

Australian research supports Goldman’s experiences. The Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS) began in 2012 and followed 1200 Victorian students from eight years of age through to young adulthood, with yearly assessments. It is the first longitudinal study to look at a large cohort of Victorian children as they make the transition from childhood through adolescence to young adulthood.

One part of the study examined associations between mental health and behavioural problems with the national assessment of academic performance (NAPLAN), together with teacher ratings, in a sample of more than 1000 grade 3 students. The research found about one in five boys had at least borderline emotional and behavioural problems, which were found to affect their academic performance.

“This placed these boys 12 months behind their peers in both reading and numeracy outcomes on national standardised tests – that’s a major delay after only three formal years of schooling,” says Dr Eliza Miller, a senior project officer at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. “Furthermore, these boys were three times more likely to be rated by their teachers as having poor English or mathematical skills, compared with boys without these problems. In girls, the associations between emotional problems and academic outcomes [as assessed by NAPLAN] were more modest.”

Adjusting for factors such as socio-economic disadvantage, child temperament or a family history of mental health issues did little to diminish the association between mental health and measures of academic performance. “It’s more likely that mental health and behavioural problems are directly contributing to poor academic performance, and that may be because of reduced attention to school work, or school absence,” Miller says.

In her classroom, Goldman can see the academic impact that behaviour and emotional disturbances have. “These kids often have one area that they’re not as confident in,” she says. “They may be great at numeracy, but if they’re not as confident with English they won’t try or take any risks. That usually comes back to them having anxiety because they’re often quite intelligent and don’t want to be seen as different from the other kids.”

Some of the children Goldman deals with have formal diagnoses and some don’t, but either way Goldman says external funding and support for these children is minimal. “If they have a diagnosis of autism then they are more likely to receive funding, but even then it’s not guaranteed,” she says. Miller says there is a misconception that young children don’t suffer from emotional or mental health issues. “I think parents think that they only need to look out for these issues in the teenage years. Behavioural issues are similarly ignored, with the notion of it being a ‘phase’ and something a child will grow out of. We know that children with behavioural problems tend to struggle in school but our study is the first to demonstrate that boys with emotional problems are also falling behind in their learning.”

In recent years the promotion of, and increased awareness about, men’s mental and emotional health has grown significantly, thanks in part to past and current AFL players and other sporting personalities admitting to struggling with these issues. “Such admissions by these well-recognised and admired individuals has had a positive effect on encouraging a discussion about men’s mental health, which previously has seemed a taboo topic,” says Miller. “But we continue to fall short in promoting that awareness and having that discussion with young children, particularly young boys.”

Goldman ensures her class has access to a range of psychosocial support programs, such as Kids Matter, The Resilience Project and the Pat Cronin Foundation. “I also got in touch with an AFL team after I saw they were offering a health and wellbeing program to primary-school students,” she says. “It’s just another way to make connections with boys who have issues. I’ll get in touch with anyone who I think can help these kids.”

Whether it’s Goldman’s responsibility to dedicate so much time to the wellbeing of children, rather than teaching the curriculum is a matter of contention. “I must say we do spend a lot of time parenting kids and doing really basic things like teaching them hygiene or to tie their school laces – things that you assume by grade 2 their parents would have taught them,” she says.

Child psychologist and parenting expert Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is less reserved. “If you want me to name what I consider to be the No. 1 issue, it would have to be parenting,” he says. “This whole idea of authoritative parenting – with boundaries, lots of love, lots of monitoring and supervision – has been distorted in one of two ways.” Carr-Gregg says he sees parents who are completely laissez-faire, with minimal supervision, resulting in a child who doesn’t have clear guidance about how to behave, as well as parents who “bubble-wrap” their children so they become fearful of the world.

“I don’t want to say the world is coming to an end because of bad parenting, because there are plenty of kids that I see who are loved and feel safe, valued and listened to,” he says. “But over the last 30 years, I think there is a disproportionate number of young children who are progressively not feeling safe, valued or listened to. And obviously that is going to create problems not just for them now, but also when they reach teenage-hood, and when they are parents.”

Miller says the CATS study pointed out not only that the mental and emotional health of young boys is critical to ensuring they reach their academic potential, but it is also crucial in lowering the rates of later mental disorders in adolescence and adulthood, and ultimately improving children’s quality of life. “We need to promote the importance of mental, emotional and behavioural wellbeing across the lifespan and particularly in young children, as it provides a foundation for mental health in adolescence through to adulthood,” she says.

Goldman knows she has only a limited amount of time with the children she teaches and wants to do her best to support them, knowing their experiences now will influence their future path. “You’re always thinking about these kids,” she says. “Whether you see a social media clip about behavioural issues or you’re lying in bed at two o’clock in the morning or you see a book advertised, you’re always thinking, ‘How could I make that connection? How could I help that child?’ Then you work out how you can try something new the next day. It’s exhausting.”

It’s not only mentally exhausting, but being in charge of these children has taken a toll on Goldman’s body. “I’ve just got back from the physiotherapist because I’ve injured myself restraining one of the boys in my class,” she says. “Physically restraining a child is always the last resort, but if a child is lashing out and trying to choke another student, or bite or headbutt another child, you’re the adult so of course you’re going to step in. All the other children need to know that you’ve got their back, that you will protect them and they are safe when they are in your care.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2017 as "Class action".

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