What happens when there are children who cause disturbances in class?

There was a study this summer that stirred some reactions online and that didn’t make it to this blog as Christian Bokhove had some good arguments against the study. But let me first give you the abstract of this NBER-paper by Carrel et al.

A large and growing literature has documented the importance of peer effects in education. However, there is relatively little evidence on the long-run educational and labor market consequences of childhood peers. We examine this question by linking administrative data on elementary school students to subsequent test scores, college attendance and completion, and earnings. To distinguish the effect of peers from confounding factors, we exploit the population variation in the proportion of children from families linked to domestic violence, who were shown by Carrell and Hoekstra (2010, 2012) to disrupt contemporaneous behavior and learning. Results show that exposure to a disruptive peer in classes of 25 during elementary school reduces earnings at age 26 by 3 to 4 percent. We estimate that differential exposure to children linked to domestic violence explains 5 to 6 percent of the rich-poor earnings gap in our data, and that removing one disruptive peer from a classroom for one year would raise the present discounted value of classmates’ future earnings by $100,000.

Wow, these are big conclusions based on quite an indirect construction of evidence.

But now there is this study by Gottfried et al. that shows something in the same vain, and while again there are some comments to be made – correlations vs causal relationships, anyone, or being absent is not necessarily a bad thing?-, I do think this study is more relevant while making less far fetched conclusions:


  • Tested for an association between classmates with emotional/behavioral disabilities and other students’ absences in kindergarten.
  • Used ECLS-K:2011, a national sample of children in school that contains information on absences as well as other contextual factors.
  • Students with classmates with emotional/behavioral disabilities were more likely to be absent.
  • Key individual, teacher, and classroom contextual factors moderated the size of this correlation, providing insight for policy and practice.

The last insight is maybe the most crucial one, there is still hope. So what are these factors?

In terms of teacher characteristics, students who had a classmate with an EBD with less experienced teachers had more absences than students who had a classmate with an EBD with more experienced teachers. Students who had a classmate with an EBD and whose teachers were certified in special education had fewer absences than students who had a classmate with an EBD and whose teachers were not certified in this area. Because only nine percent of our sample was certified as a special education teacher, there was insufficient variation in the second model (odds of chronic absenteeism) to estimate an effect. Nonetheless, based on the results from the first model presented in column one, it does appear that having a kindergarten teacher with this specialized certification might serve as a protective factor for all students in the classroom. Another teacher subgroup examined here compared teachers that only hold a Bachelor’s degree to those holding a Master’s degree or higher. Students in classrooms taught by a teacher with just a Bachelor’s degree had more absences in the presence of a peer with an EBD. Further, students in classrooms in which the teacher spends a smaller amount of time on discipline also dis- played higher absences than classrooms in which the teacher spent significantly more time on discipline, suggesting that if left unaddressed, frequent discipline infractions may heighten the effects of sharing a classroom with a peer with an EBD.

Finally, in terms of classroom characteristics, students in smaller classrooms (i.e., fewer than 20 students), students in classrooms in which an above average percentage of their classmates were below grade level, and students in classrooms that contained other students with disabilities besides EBD were all more likely to have higher absences in the presence of a peer with an EBD. These findings point to the heightened effects on absences associated with classrooms with diverse academic and other needs that may require specialized attention.

Abstract of the study:

In recent decades, there has been a policy push for including students with disabilities in general education classrooms. Little is known, however, on the effects that this classroom compositional change may have on other students. This study focuses on the increased presence of classmates with emotional/behavioral disabilities (EBDs), as these children often exhibit behavioral disruptions. Given that classroom disruptions are associated with decreased school engagement, we tested for an association between the presence of classmates with EBDs and other students’ absences. Using a national dataset and relying on within-school variation in classrooms that do and do not have a classmate with an EBD as well as a rich set of control variables, we found that annual student absences increased when students had a classmate with an EBD. Further, the likelihood of being chronically absent was higher when students had a classmate with an EBD. Importantly, we examined what malleable factors might support inclusion for more successful classroom environments. We found an array of teacher and classroom characteristics that could create more supportive classrooms for all children. Implications for how compositional changes to inclusive classroom contexts might address all children’s needs are discussed.


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