Boys starting school disadvantaged: implications from teachers' ratings of behaviour and achievement in the first two years

G Childs, M McKay
British Journal of Educational Psychology 2001, 71 (Pt 2): 303-14

BACKGROUND: Consistent evidence indicates that low socio-economic status (SES) acts as an important stressor and vulnerability factor for children's school learning. However, specific mechanism(s) of this process are still not well understood.

AIM: This study was a follow-up of the classroom learning behaviour and perceived achievement of low and middle income children after two years at school, who had previously been rated soon after starting school. It examined whether teachers' ratings displayed predictive stability over that period, and whether significant differences evident at age 5 in SES and gender were still operative at age 7.

SAMPLE: Two samples, of low income (N = 85) and middle income (N = 63) children, were rated following school entry (mean age 5 years 3 months) and rated again after two years at school.

METHOD: The children were rated at both points by their regular classroom teachers using the Learning Behaviours Scale (Stott et al., 1998) with subscales of Distractible, Apprehensive and Uncooperative, together with ratings of academic achievement and their personal perception of each child.

RESULTS: SES was found to be a very limited predictor for the learning behaviour subscale ratings and for teachers' personal perceptions at both ages 5 and 7. SES did significantly predict expected Academic Achievement at age 5, but this effect disappeared completely by age 7. Conversely, within the two defined groups, Low Income boys were found to display significantly poorer learning behaviours at age 5, especially in terms of distractible behaviour, compared with Middle Income boys and with girls generally. This pattern was maintained over the next two years of their schooling. The effect of SES was thus demonstrated more powerfully in between-group differences than by means of regression. The findings emphasised the persistence of teachers' initial negative impressions about distractible 'hard to manage' boys from low SES families.

CONCLUSION: The outcomes of this study suggest that low SES boys commenced school significantly disadvantaged by a pattern of perceived distractible behaviour in particular, and that this perception continued to operate over the next two years of their schooling. Such a pattern implied that these boys were perceived by their teachers, from early in their school careers, as being demanding and difficult to teach. Once teachers gave certain boys a label it appeared to 'stick'. SES per se was thus not the main risk factor. It was primarily the effect of boys' greater activity level, distractibility, and initial inability to 'settle' to classroom routines, which seemed to be particularly associated with certain lower SES child-rearing practices. These behaviours had a serious negative impact on the children's teachers and the way they responded to them.

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