University of Jyväskylä

Behavioural problems linked to basic skills of primary school pupils

The behavioural problems of pupils are associated with many problems in schoolwork. Externalising behaviour problems are often considered difficult in school classes and often manifest in pupils as overactive, restless and inattentive behaviour, defiance, difficulty in following rules, and aggressiveness towards other pupils.

Such problems are often connected to the slower development of basic skills such as reading and mathematics, poor learning motivation, ineffective working methods in learning situations and problems in the teacher–pupil relationship. Teachers have certainly observed this connection in daily schoolwork, and now the observations have been backed up with the latest research results.

Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have recognised that children with externalising behaviour problems have difficulties working in learning situations at school.

– A pupil may give up easily and have difficulties when faced with challenging tasks, says Senior Researcher Riitta-Leena Metsäpelto from the Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Jyväskylä. – If a child is repeatedly not concentrating properly in learning situations, it will eventually reflect negatively on learning outcomes.

Metsäpelto has used the First Steps project data to study externalizing problems during the first four years of primary school (ages 7–10) and also when transitioning to lower secondary school at age 12. The First Steps project, funded by the Academy of Finland, is an extensive longitudinal study that has observed around 2,000 children from pre-primary education to the upper secondary level. The project has collected data related to learning, motivation development and student wellbeing from children, parents and teachers.

– There is a probable risk that behavioural problems, task-avoidance behaviour and poor school performance create a vicious circle that leads to the accumulation of a pupil’s problems. The result may be that the pupil no more sees schoolwork relevant or important for one’s future, explains Metsäpelto. 

Reading is an important skill acquired early at school. It also affects success in other subjects. Already during the first year of primary school at age 7, externalising behaviour problems are connected to low interest in reading exercises.

During the study, it was also observed that externalising behaviour problems may be negatively reflected in the relationship between the teacher and the pupil. Externalizing problems observed in the fourth year of school predicted the continuation of conflicts in the teacher–pupil relationship in the sixth year.

– If a child behaves and acts unpredictably and gets angry easily, the relationship with the pupil requires a lot of resources from the teacher, says postdoctoral researcher Eija Pakarinen from the Department of Teacher Education.

Externalising behaviour problems, however, often ease over time. One explanation is that they are connected to the slower maturation of those areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functions, in which case the problems will decrease naturally as time goes by and the child grows. Clear classroom rules and the teacher’s consistent intervention in undesirable behaviour support the behavioural regulation of all students.

Metsäpelto believes that the new curriculum, which is based on comprehensive phenomenon-based learning, may also offer new opportunities to individualise teaching and select working methods flexibly, and thus support the learning motivation of all pupils as well as their commitment to school’s learning situations.

Recent articles about the topic:

Metsäpelto, R-L., Silinskas, G., Kiuru, N., Poikkeus, A-M., Pakarinen, E., Vasalampi, K., Lerkkanen, M-K., & Nurmi, J.-E. (2017). Externalizing behavior problems and interest in reading as predictors of later reading skills and educational aspirations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 49, 324–336. doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2017.03.009

Metsäpelto, R. L., Pakarinen, E., Kiuru, N., Poikkeus, A. M., Lerkkanen, M. K., & Nurmi, J. E. (2015). Developmental dynamics between children’s externalizing problems, task-avoidant behavior, and academic performance in early school years: A 4-year follow-up. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 246–257. doi: 10.1037/a0037389

Pakarinen, E., Silinskas, G., Hamre, B., Metsäpelto, R-L., Lerkkanen, M-K., Poikkeus, A-M-, & Nurmi, J-E. (2017). Cross-lagged associations between problem behaviors and teacher-student relationships in early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0272431617714328

More information:

Riitta-Leena Metsäpelto, tel. +358408053349,

Eija Pakarinen, tel. +358408053520,

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