Growing up in Scotland: children's social, emotional and behavioural characteristics at entry to primary school

This report investigates the extent and nature of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties among Scottish school children around the age they enter primary one, and shows which children are most likely to have these difficulties.


This report uses data from the Growing Up in Scotland study ( GUS) to present a detailed exploration of children's social, emotional and behavioural development during the early years of their lives up to their entry to primary school. The aim of this report is to explore patterns of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties amongst children in primary one and examine how these are related to early familial experiences and earlier assessments of development in the same domains. This report aims to answer a number of distinct research questions:

  • What is the extent and nature of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties among Scottish schoolchildren around the age they enter primary one?
  • Which children are most likely to have social, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties at entry to primary school?
  • To what extent are earlier behavioural difficulties predictive of later difficulties?

The extent and nature of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties

  • At the point of entry to primary school the vast majority of children do not present with any social, emotional or behavioural difficulties as measured via Goodman's Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire ( SDQ). Amongst the difficulty scales, on all but conduct problems, over 80% of children return scores within the accepted normal range, that is the range in which most children would be expected to score. 73% do so in relation to conduct problems.
  • Between 10% and 27% of children are reported by their parents to have behaviour which places them outside the normal range on any subscale indicating moderate or severe difficulties. These proportions broadly match that which is expected of SDQ scores taken from any community population.
  • Conduct problems were the difficulties most prevalent, whereas emotional problems were those least so.

Using cluster analysis, it was possible to divide children into five groups based on their characteristics across the five SDQ sub-scales. The largest groups were those in which the children had no, or only singular difficulties. Two groups of children with more problematic behaviour emerged. One had considerably higher than average hyperactivity/inattention scores along with conduct, peer and pro-social difficulties. The other had higher than average emotional difficulties along with issues around conduct, peers and hyperactivity.

Characteristics of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties at age of school entry

  • The socio-economic characteristics which were related to difficulties at school entry varied according to the subscale being examined. Overall, these socio-economic characteristics had limited bearing on behavioural outcomes at school entry. Level of household income was the measure most consistently related to behavioural development with children in lower income households at higher risk of difficulties with conduct, emotional development and hyperactivity than those in higher income households.
  • Health and development factors also affected different behavioural domains in different ways. The condition of the child's general health over the period from age 2 to age 5 was consistently and strongly associated with behavioural difficulties at age of school entry. Children with poorer general health tended to have greater behavioural difficulties than those with better health.
  • Delays in motor development at age 2 were associated with having more emotional difficulties at school entry. Delays in language development at age 2 were associated with greater difficulties in hyperactivity and peer problems as well as a high score on the total difficulties scale.
  • Parenting factors, such as use of particular discipline styles or taking children on social visits, tended to be more related to issues of conduct and hyperactivity. Those children who experienced no shouting or smacking, higher levels of parent-child social interaction, and a higher frequency of social visits were less likely to score in the problem ranges of conduct and hyperactivity scales.
  • No statistically significant differences in difficulty scores were found according to differences in children's age at school entry.

The continuity of social, emotional and behavioural characteristics

  • Children's difficult behaviour tends to decrease, and pro-social behaviour increase as they move from the pre- to primary school stage although the changes are small. Emotional problems show an increase between pre-school and entry to primary.
  • There is a strong correlation between a child's total difficulties scores at pre-school and primary school suggesting that the particular social, emotional and behavioural characteristics which children exhibit at pre-school remain, for the most part, at the point they start primary school.
  • The strongest correlation in sub-scales occurs on the hyperactivity score suggesting that this is the behaviour least likely to change during that period.
  • There were no significant differences in mean SDQ scores between entry to primary one and entry to primary two indicating that children's social and behavioural characteristics remain more similar over the first two years of primary school than they do in the period from pre-school into primary school and that those children who have difficulties in relation to social, emotional and behavioural development at entry to primary school tend to still have them at entry to primary two.


Most children entering primary school in Scotland do not display any particular difficulties in their social, emotional and behavioural development. However, it is clear that a small proportion of children do have quite severe difficulties at this point and a significant minority (around 21%) display difficulties simultaneously across a range of behavioural domains.

For many children, the difficulties observed at school entry were also present at pre-school whereas for others difficulties developed during the pre-school period. Issues associated with hyperactivity/inattention were considerably more likely to have been present at age 3 and persist through to school entry. Emotional difficulties, in contrast, had a greater likelihood of developing between pre-school and entry to primary school.

These children are likely to respond to the transition to school, and the early and continuing school experience in different ways. Children with hyperactivity and conduct difficulties in particular, may find it difficult to adapt to the educational and social constraints of the classroom impacting on their adjustment, further behaviour and later attainment. Given the often long-term nature of these difficulties, it appears there would be benefit to early screening, in the preliminary pre-school period for example, of these behaviours and their patterns of co-occurrence. Those children displaying difficulties matching the most problematic groupings could, along with their parents, be provided with the necessary support to manage and improve such difficulties. Furthermore, a more tailored transition process to ensure that moving into the school environment does not encourage deterioration of behaviour may be advisable.

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