The Educational Aspirations and Psychological Wellbeing of Adopted Young People

Local authorities in England and Wales have a legal duty to report annually to central government on looked-after children's psychological wellbeing and academic attainment but this duty ends once children are adopted. Researchers from Cardiff University wanted to fill this gap in understanding of how young people adopted from the care system perform at school, looking at their wellbeing and aspirations around work and education.

Full report: The Educational Aspirations and Psychological Wellbeing of Adopted Young People

Published by: Adoption & Fostering, March 2019


The team analysed data from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, also known as Understanding Society. The survey collects data from more than 30,000 households over a period of 24 months for each wave. The researchers took their data from questionnaires completed by 10- to 15-year-olds and their final sample for analysis consisted of a group of 22 adopted young people and a general population comparison group of 110 young people.

Questionnaires completed by the young people included the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), which rates emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity/inattention, peer relationship problems and pro-social behaviour (behaviour that benefits others) on a scale of one to 10. The emotional and peer relationship sections were combined into one scale known as "internalising symptoms" and the conduct and hyperactivity scores were combined into another called "externalising symptoms", yielding a range of possible scores from 0 to 20. A total difficulties score was obtained by combining everything apart from pro-social scores, yielding scores that could range from 0 to 40.

The researchers found adopted children reported significantly higher levels of externalising behaviour with an average score of 8.67 compared with 6.53 for the comparison group. Higher levels of externalising problems have been shown to predict lower educational achievement in adolescence. The adopted group also showed significantly higher levels of total difficulties than the comparison group - 13.81 compared with 11.26.

In contrast, adopted and non-adopted children scored similarly on the internalising symptoms scale. The researchers suggest the SDQ is not designed to pick up issues common in adopted children such as attachment-related difficulties, anxiety and dissociative responses to trauma, age-inappropriate sexual behaviour and self-harm.

The data showed adopted children were more likely than their non-adopted peers to plan to look for full-time work at the end of compulsory education rather than carry on with education in some form. A third - 33 per cent - of adopted children said they would look for full-time work compared with only seven per cent of non-adopted children.

When children were asked what career or job they aspired to after leaving education, not one of the adopted group aspired to management roles compared with 4.4 per cent of the non-adopted group. Fewer adopted children considered a profession - 31.6 per cent compared with 36.3 per cent. More of the adopted children were interested in "caring, leisure and service occupations" - 21.1 per cent compared with 12.1 per cent.


Effective interventions aimed at supporting adopted children in the school environment should take into account the impact of early adversity, including trauma and loss, on psychological wellbeing, say the researchers. Children with adverse early experiences often don't respond to traditional behaviour management techniques. Rather than simply trying to manage behaviour, interventions need to address the issues behind that behaviour.


A Systematic Review of School Performance and Behavioural and Emotional Problems for Adopted Children, Andrew Brown, Cerith Waters, Katherine Shelton, Adoption & Fostering, November 2017

Top of the Class: How Should We Be Judging Our Schools? Adoption UK, January 2019

Transition to Adulthood for Young People in Adoptive Care, Dinithi Wijedasa and Julie Selwyn, The Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies, September 2011

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