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Literacy and Behaviour (updated 2018)

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

First published Oct 29/10/2012, updated 30/4/2018

My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0

The relationship between literacy and behaviour problems is a vexed area, as it is difficult to discern which might be cause and which effect.

In a follow-up article, I address the research on literacy and mental health problems in general.

Some quotes from the research:

"Behaviour problems among children with learning disorders are about 3 times than the norm by 8 years of age" ( p.295).

Mash, E.J., & Wolfe, D.A. (2002). Abnormal child psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

"These results provide evidence for the role of mastery of reading achievement in aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, and in depression, particularly in girls. The preventive trials provide evidence of the direction of effects, and the reversibility of the aggressive behavior and depressive symptoms in some children by raising the level of reading achievement. ... The results also add improving reading as a key element, at least, in preventing not only the consequences of poor achievement such as depressive symptoms and possible disorder, but also reducing aggressive behavior and its consequences in delinquency, drug abuse, and school drop out."

Kellam, S.G. (1999). Developmental epidemiologically-based prevention research: From efficacy to effectiveness. National Institute of Mental Health Fifth Annual National Conference on Prevention Research. Retrieved from http://www.oslc.org/spr/ecpn/nckellam.html.


 “ … young urban children as young as second and third grade with reading difficulties exhibited elevated rates of problem behaviors, as compared to the nationally representative norm samples of the measures. In this study, a disproportionate percentage of the young urban sample already displayed clinically significant levels of anxiety (50%), social problems (40%), and oppositional behaviors (30%) in the classroom. These results thus support previous studies conducted mainly with older children showing that anxiety, social problems, and conduct problems were closely associated with literacy difficulties (Casey et al., 1992; Conners, 1997; Willcutt & Pennington, 2000). These finding are also consistent with research showing that kindergarten academic variables have been shown to predict problem behavior at the end of elementary school (McIntosh, Chard, Boland, & Horner, 2006), with an increasing relationship over years of schooling (see Algozzine, Wang, & Violette, 2011 for contradictory evidence). The significance of these findings for teachers is highlighted by arguments that “dual deficits of learning and behavior problems may make it difficult for practitioners to provide effective instruction” (Sutherland, Lewis-Palmer, Stichter, & Morgan, 2008, p. 223).” (p. 199-200)

Pierce, M.E., Wechsler-Zimring, A., Noam, G., Wolf, M., & Tami Katzir, T. (2013). Behavioral problems and reading difficulties among language minority and monolingual urban elementary school students. Reading Psychology, 34(2), 182-205.

“Research has demonstrated a strong positive correlation between behavior problems and low academic achievement (Gest & Gest, 2005; Landrum, Tankersley, & Kauffman, 2003). Above and beyond being correlated, Payne, Marks, and Bogan (2007) report that behavioral and academic problems are reciprocal in nature. In other words, behavior problems may cause a disruption in academic engagement and, as a result, students may fail to master skills because of this lack of academic engagement. The opposite is also true—a classroom where there are high levels of academic achievement will be a classroom with low levels of behavior difficulties. This point is critical. Students do not generally come to school hating to be there. If students experience more failure than success, they frequently learn to hate school. As Scott, Nelson, and Liaupsin (2001) note, “academics become aversive” (p. 313). Therefore, the more students find the classroom aversive, the more likely they will be to exhibit unwanted behaviors (Payne et al., 2007; Scott et al., 2001; Wehby, Lane, & Falk, 2003). Student success or failure are in large part determined by how well teachers provide effective instruction to their students.” (p. 242)

Martella, R.C., & Marchand-Martella, N.E. (2015). Improving classroom behavior through effective instruction: An illustrative program example using SRA FLEX Literacy. Education and Treatment of Children, 38(2), 241–272.


“The current study utilized hierarchical linear modeling to better understand the role of teacher perceptions in the language and pre-literacy and mathematics skill development of ethnically diverse, low-income preschoolers. We found support for the hypothesis that teachers both under- and overestimate the academic abilities of their preschoolers compared with objective assessments of skills, using widely accepted tools in the field. Several child characteristics were predictive of these discrepancies, including child age, inattentive behavior, and social skills. Child gender and race/ethnicity were not associated with differential teacher perceptions of pre-academic skill, and behavior problems were associated with teacher overestimation of skills, rather than teacher underestimation as predicted. Strong support was also found for the importance of ecological covariates, or teacher and classroom variables, in predicting teacher ratings of preschoolers’ skills. … We also found that preschoolers who were severely underestimated by their teachers had considerably weaker relationships between their fall and spring academic skills compared with their peers, suggesting perhaps that their academic growth was dampened by their teachers’ misperceptions.” (p.816)

Baker, C. N., Tichovolsky, M., Kupersmidt, J. B., Voegler - Lee, M. E., & Arnold, D. H. (2015). Teacher (mis)perceptions of preschoolers’ academic skills: Predictors and associations with longitudinal outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 805-820.

 "Poor literacy achievement in the first and third grades predicted relatively high aggressive behavior in the third and fifth grades,
respectively. ... Behavior problems were more strongly associated with reading achievement than with mathematics achievement in a sample of children in early elementary school (Adams, Snowling, Hennessy, & Kind, 1999). ... Poor readers who were also identified as having behavioral problems in childhood were much more likely to drop out of school and to have unstable work patterns, low job skills, and delinquent behavior in adulthood than children with either behavior problems or poor reading skills in childhood (Maughan, Gray, & Rutter, 1985).

 Academic skills could, however, also affect children's behavior. Children who have difficulty learning to read, for example, may become frustrated or unhappy in school and express their frustration and unhappiness by acting aggressively toward the teacher or classmates. This proposal is based on the basic notion that frustration (defined as the state that emerges when circumstances interfere with a goal response) leads to aggression (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). Berkowitz (1968) expanded the theory beyond simple frustration to posit that aggression can be the consequence of any unpleasant emotions and feelings, such as anxiety, anger, annoyance, or pain. This negative affect can trigger either "fight or flight." The theory has been tested in a variety of social psychological studies. Buss (1963), for example, had college students experience one of three types of frustration (failure to win money, failure to earn a better grade, or failure on a task). All three groups showed more subsequent aggression than a control group that was not frustrated. In another study, Berkowitz (1978) found that subjects who were frustrated by not being able to keep up with a confederate in a stationary bicycle competition (when the confederate's pedaling suddenly picked up speed) were more likely to punish their partners in a subsequent learning task than nonfrustrated subjects.

 The negative effect of poor reading skills on children's behavior is likely to increase over the elementary grades for several reasons. Research on social comparison indicates that as children get older, they become more aware of their performance compared with peers and assess their relative skills more accurately (see Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984, and Stipek & Mac Iver, 1989, for reviews; Wigfield et al., 1997). As a consequence, poor skills should become more humiliating and a greater cause of anxiety and other negative emotions. Previous studies suggest that social comparison, particularly for the purposes of self-assessment of academic achievement, is well developed by the third grade (Frey & Ruble, 1985; Pomerantz, Ruble, Frey, & Greulich, 1995). Accordingly, we predicted that the association between literacy skills and aggression would be higher in the third and fifth grades than in the earlier grades.

Studies have likewise found that poor academic skills predicted later aggression. For example, in a study of Australian children, Jorm, Share, Matthews, and Maclean (1986) found no differences in children's antisocial behavior in kindergarten as a function of reading skills, but the children with reading difficulties were significantly more antisocial than the normal readers by the end of grade 1 and in grade 2. Williams and McGee (1994) similarly found that boys with reading disabilities at age 9 were more likely to develop conduct disorder at age 15. McGee et al. (1986) found that children who were having considerable difficulty learning to read at the beginning of school already showed behavior problems; behavior problems increased from ages 5 to 9 at a much faster pace for children who had serious reading difficulties than for other children. In a longitudinal study of African American boys, IQ measured at age 7 (which was presumably associated with academic achievement) was a stronger predictor of conduct disorder at age 17 than was either aggression or parent psychopathology at age 7 (Schonfeld, Shaffer, O'Connor, & Portnoy, 1988)."

Miles, S.B., & Stipek, D. (2006). Contemporaneous and longitudinal associations between social behavior and literacy achievement in a sample of low-income elementary school children. Child Development, 77(1), 103-117.

“In a study of students from the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, Shaywitz et al found a research-identified incidence of reading disability of 8.7% of boys and 6.9% of girls. However, a teacher-identified incidence of the same population identified 13.6% of boys and only 3.2% of girls. The authors suggested that greater reports of behavioral difficulties among boys in the classroom may have lead to this bias.”

Shaywitz, S.E., Shaywitz, B.A., Fletcher, J.M., & Escobar, M.D. (1990). Prevalence of reading disability in boys and girls. Journal of the American Medical Association, 264, 998-1002.

“Many children suffer adverse social and emotional outcomes, are at risk of mental health problems, and have a higher likelihood of delinquency and becoming part of the prison population (Brown, 1997; Jensen, Lindgren, Meurling, Ingvar & Levander, 1999)”.

Brown, P. (1997). Co-existence of behavioural problems and literacy problems in young male schoolchildren: some issues for consideration. The Weaver: A Forum for New Ideas in Education, (1), Retrieved 23/8/2005 from http://www.latrobe.edu.au/www/graded/PBed1.html

"There is a robust association between reading achievement and antisocial behavior. This association was investigated using the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, a nationally representative 1994–1995 birth cohort of 5- and 7-year-olds. For boys the best explanation was a reciprocal causation model: poor reading led to antisocial behavior, and vice versa."

Trzesniewski, K.H., Moffitt, T.E., Caspi, A., Taylor, A., & Maughan, B. (2006). Revisiting the association between reading achievement and antisocial behavior: New evidence of an environmental explanation from a twin study. Child Development, 77(1), 72-88.

“Educators and researchers have long acknowledged that reading disability status increases a child’s risk for academic, emotional, and behavioral struggles (Heiervang, Stevenson, Lund, & Hugdahl, 2001; Horn & Packard, 1985; Kavale, 1988). Learning to read is directly linked to the young child’s self-concept and mental well-being (Toppelberg, Munir, & Nieto-Casta˜non, 2006). Reading difficulties have been linked to externalizing behaviors, including classroom discipline problems, bullying, and aggression, as well as internalizing behaviors, including depression and anxiety (Catalano et al., 2003; Kellam, Mayer, Rebok, & Hawkins, 1998; Miller & Shinn, 2005). In severe cases, a child may perceive reading failure as a personal threat with harmful consequences (Herman & Ostrander, 2007). … language minority status does not appear to render young poor readers in urban elementary schools more vulnerable to academic, behavioral, or emotional problems beyond the vulnerability associated with being poor readers in urban schools.” (p.183-4, 197)

Pierce, M.E., Wechsler-Zimring, A., Noam, G., Wolf, M., & Tami Katzir, T. (2013). Behavioral problems and reading difficulties among language minority and monolingual urban elementary school students. Reading Psychology, 34(2), 182-205.

“The retention rate of 1st-grade students decreased by 47% after RTI was implemented. Data suggest student behavior, oral reading rates, and other individual school variables (as identified by principals) as possible factors contributing to the retention of students”

Murray, C.S., Woodruff, A.L., & Vaughn, S. (2010). First-grade student retention within a 3-tier reading framework. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 26(1), 26-50.


So what is the answer? Is behaviour the chicken or the egg? Which should be addressed - academic growth or behaviour? It appears at this stage that the evidence points to the relationship as reciprocal - one condition leads to an elevated risk of the other occurring.


“The findings from this study highlight the need for early intervention that targets not only the reading challenges but also the social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that affect many of these children. Because urban students’ low academic skills are associated with problem behavior, improving students’ academic skill levels might reduce the aversive impact of school and thus the likelihood of problem behaviors at school. This perspective could lead practitioners to consider current academic intervention as a form of future behavior prevention (McIntosh et al., 2006. The reverse is also true; early positive behavior support might protect against future academic problems. In summary, reading and behavior experts must combine their expertise to form an integrated, three-tier model to reach students at risk for reading and behavior problems. Future research should identify the most effective practices for building these skills with these populations, and determine whether these practices are sufficient to maintain healthy academic self-concept and to preserve the behavioral health of LM students.” (p. 200)

Pierce, M.E., Wechsler-Zimring, A., Noam, G., Wolf, M., & Tami Katzir, T. (2013). Behavioral problems and reading difficulties among language minority and monolingual urban elementary school students. Reading Psychology, 34(2), 182-205.

“Some UK studies have examined the extent to which behavioural difficulties coexist with reading disability, but most, like the Isle of Wight study, were conducted some time ago (e.g. McGee, Williams, Share, Anderson, & Silva, 1986). Two more recent US studies have emphasized the phenomena of co-occurrence. Morgan, Farkas, Tufis, and Sperling (2008) found that US children with reading problems at age 7 years were more likely to display poor task engagement, poor self-control, externalizing and internalizing behaviour problems 2 years later. More recently, Dahle and colleagues (2010) examined behavioural problems in children with severe dyslexia. They found more behavioural problems in the group with severe dyslexia than in controls, in all areas measured. In addition, parents reported more children with dyslexia tobe anxious and depressed and have social problems and attention problems than teachers did. … Our unadjusted analysis suggests that there are elevated levels of behavioural difficulties in children with specific word reading difficulties. These findings encompassed a broad spectrum of behaviour captured by the SDQ. Clearly, children with SWRD had more difficulties with peer relationships, more emotional and conduct problems, displayed less prosocial behaviour and were rated as more hyperactive and inattentive. Our findings showing co-occurrence of behavioural and specific word reading difficulties correspond not only with older UK studies such as the Isle of Wight cohort, but also with recent US studies (Morgan et al., 2008; Dahle, Knivsberg, & Andreassen, 2011).” (p.125)

Russell, G., Ryder, D., Norwich, B., & Ford, T. (2015). Behavioural difficulties that co-occur with specific word reading difficulties: A UK population- based cohort study. Dyslexia, 21, 123–141.

“Students who are participating in well-structured activities that engage their interests, who are highly motivated to learn, and who are working on tasks that are challenging yet within their capabilities rarely pose any serious management problems” (p. 329). Therefore, the goal for educators is to help students become successful in the classroom both academically and behaviourally” (p.242-3)

Martella, R.C., & Marchand-Martella, N.E. (2015). Improving classroom behavior through effective instruction: An illustrative program example using SRA FLEX Literacy. Education and Treatment of Children 38(2), 241–272.

"Hospitals are complaining that their clinics are being filled with kids who are being referred for things like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)," said Dr Rowe, who was last week appointed by the federal Education Minister to run the inquiry. "But once the pediatricians sort out the children's literacy problems, the behaviour problems disappear. What is essentially an education issue has become a health issue.”

Milburn, C. (2004, Dec 6). Children in crisis: The real diagnosis. The Age, P.1

“In a recent investigation, we implemented an intervention to improve the persuasive writing skills of students with significant learning and behavioral disorders using a Self Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) strategy (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008). This intervention was successful, in that students greatly improved their persuasive writing skills. However, a very extensive amount of instruction was necessary, dramatically different from students in the general education curriculum. That is, the general education curriculum in that state allowed three–five days for instruction of persuasive writing—in our case, students required 55 days of instruction to master these same skills. The amount of needed instructional time in this instance might fairly raise the issue of how much time can be appropriately allocated to specific learning skills, and whether decisions must be made regarding which skills or content may be reduced in order to allow for the extra time necessary to teach content considered more important” (p. 27).

Scruggs, T.E., & Mastropieri, M.A. (2015). What makes special education special? In B. Bateman, J.W. Lloyd, W., & M. Tankersley (Eds.). Enduring issues in special education: Personal perspectives (pp. 22-36). New York: Routledge.

"If you were an aggressive, disruptive 1st. grader and you were in a poorly managed classroom, the risk of being aggressive later on was 59 times that of average kids. In well managed classrooms, the same child's risk was only three times that of the average children.”

Kellam, S.G. (1999). The influence of the first-grade classroom on the development of aggressive behavior. Research Bulletin No. 25: Phi Delta Kappa Center for Evaluation, Development, and Research December. Retrieved from http://www.pdkintl.org/edres/resbul25.htm

"Taken together, these results provide evidence for the role of mastery of reading achievement in aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, and in depression, particularly in girls. The preventive trials provide evidence of the direction of effects, and the reversibility of the aggressive behavior and depressive symptoms in some children by raising the level of reading achievement.”

Kellam, S.G. (1999). Developmental epidemiologically-based prevention research: From efficacy to effectiveness. National Institute of Mental Health Fifth Annual National Conference on Prevention Research. Retrieved from http://www.oslc.org/spr/ecpn/nckellam.html

  “A growing body of evidence supports the relationship between the implementation of high quality behavior management and increased student engagement and prosocial behaviors (Oliver et al., 2011), while the relationship between behavior management and academic achievement is unclear (Algozzine et al., 2012; Benner et al., 2012). In this study, we examined differences in the effectiveness of small group reading intervention for students receiving that intervention from very good, good to fair, and poor behavior managers. Prior research suggests that the effectiveness of early literacy interventions may be moderated by student problem behaviors (Nelson et al., 2003); therefore implementation of high quality behavior management in targeted early literacy interventions could increase the overall effectiveness of the intervention. The results provide some support for this assumption and initial empirical support that high quality behavior management can improve the effectiveness of targeted early literacy intervention.” (p.534)

Gage, N. A., MacSuga-Gage, A. S., Prykanowski, D. A., Coyne, M., & Scott, T. M. (2016). Investigating the collateral effects of behavior management on early literacy skills. Education and Treatment of Children, 38(4), 523-540.

What might be the cause(s) of the co-occurrence of reading and behavioural difficulties? There may be genetic implications, for example. Additionally, general oral language difficulties may precede and exacerbate reading problems.


“Concomitant language and behavioral deficits in children and youth have been well documented in the research literature (Benner et al. 2002; Hollo et al. 2014; Yew and O’Kearney 2013). In spite of these known relations, the majority of children with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) are likely to have unidentified language deficits, as the immediate need for behavioral intervention may eclipse focus on diagnosis and intervention targeting language deficit; that is, problem behavior is often a more immediate concern relative to the impact it can have on classroom and school environments. Researchers have estimated that 68 to 97 % of students with emotional disturbance (ED) experience clinical language deficits (Camarata et al. 1988; Nelson et al. 2005), and a recent meta-analysis estimated that 81 % of students with EBD had language deficits that were unidentified (Hollo et al. 2014), highlighting that language deficits in these children went untreated, and these children likely only received services for their behavioral problems.” (p.62)

Chow, J.C., & Wehby, J.H. (2018). Associations between language and problem behavior: A systematic review and correlational meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 61–82. DOI 10.1007/s10648-016-9385-z

“There have been several theories as to why developmental delays and specific word reading and other disorders co-occur. First, genetic pleiotropic effects have been implicated. One genetic anomaly may lead to atypical neurological development, in turn manifesting as multiple behavioural difficulties (Reiersen et al., 2008). Similarly, genetic predisposition combined with an early environmental insult or common environmental exposure may affect many developmental outcomes (Finlay & Miller, 1993; Porterfield, 1994; Richardson, 2006). There have also been models at later stages of childhood where one psychological impairment serves as a ‘gateway’ spawning another difficulty (Frith & Happé, 1998). So for example, if a child has a communication deficit, this might lead to social difficulties, or inattention/hyperactivity may lead to reading difficulties. Other theorists have suggested one underlying psychological deficit, such as slow naming/processing speed, may underlie a range of behavioural and cognitive difficulties, including reading difficulties commonly described as dyslexia (Bental & Tirosh, 2007).” (p.125, 135, 136)

Russell, G., Ryder, D., Norwich, B., & Ford, T. (2015). Behavioural difficulties that co-occur with specific word reading difficulties: A UK population- based cohort study. Dyslexia, 21, 123–141.

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