Troubled children at higher risk of absenteeism from school

ESRI research questions whether pupils ‘receive adequate social and personal support’

Children with emotional or mental health difficulties are at much greater risk of absenteeism from school and isolation from their peers, according to a new study from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The report into the educational experience of children with disabilities identifies an apparent gap in resources at primary and secondary level for children with emotional, psychological and mental health (EPMH) difficulties.

It found 25 per cent of children with EPMH accumulate at least three months absence from school, compared with 9 per cent of young people with intellectual disabilities or learning difficulties.

Girls with EPMH are at greatest risk of such absenteeism while boys with such difficulties appear to be more vulnerable to social isolation.


Some 65 per cent of children with EPMH participated in play or recreation with friends in the four-week period surveyed, compared to 83 per cent of those with an intellectual or learning disability.

Young boys

The situation was worst for boys with EPMH aged between five and 12. Slightly over half of this cohort were found to have participated in group play in the previous four weeks to the survey.

"The results raise questions over the extent to which children and young people experiencing emotional and mental health difficulties receive adequate social and personal support," say the authors Joanne Banks, Bertrand Maître and Selina McCoy.

“Low levels of peer engagement and participation in sport, suggest the need for programmes and initiatives promoting such activities . . . It also raises issues for schools, particularly for Guidance and Pastoral Support programmes, to identify and support young people experiencing these difficulties and attempt to counter potential social isolation among them.”

The report by the ESRI, published in conjunction with the National Disability Authority, draws upon the results of the 2006 National Disability Survey, as well as more recent CSO data.


It found there were 1.7 times more boys than girls experiencing a disability, and children with disabilities were more likely to come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and one-parent households compared with the general population.

The report notes that previous studies of the school-based resource allocation model have been critical of the tendency by administrative structures to marginalise the term “emotional” within emotional and behavioural categories. There has been “little clear understanding” of what distinguishes emotional from behavioural problems, it says.

“The removal of disability categories highlighted in the proposed new model of SEN [special educational needs] funding might go some way in addressing these issues.”

This new model, which was recommended by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), would among other things eliminate the need for children to get a professional diagnosis before accessing extra learning supports.

However, Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan has postponed its introduction pending the completion of a pilot scheme.

In a joint letter to The Irish Times today, 16 principals of Educate Together primary schools criticise the NCSE's role as "gatekeeper", using "parameters for adjudication that simply beggar belief".

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column