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.


Adequate social, emotional and behavioural development is recognised as being central to a child's success at school. Difficulties with inattention, social interaction and emotion regulation can all provoke a poor reaction to the school environment and experience and ultimately lead to more negative school outcomes. Children who present difficult behaviour on entry to primary school have been shown to have higher truancy rates, poorer peer-to-peer and student-teacher relationships and achieve lower or no educational qualifications than those without such difficulties. Furthermore, a range of research has demonstrated that often, difficulties present early in life are predictive of behavioral issues and other negative outcomes at later stages of childhood, adolescence and beyond (Richman et al, 1982; Caspi et al, 1996; Moffit et al, 1996; Campbell 1994; Shaw, 1996).

The significance of early identification of social and behavioural difficulities is acknowledged by the Scottish Government's Early Years Framework which looks to shift focus from 'crisis interventions' to early years preventative and early intervention work (Scottish Government, 2008). The importance of a succesful educational experience and positive development through education is acknowledged in the purpose of the Curriculum for Excellence (The Curriculum Review Group, 2004) which has, at its centre, four capacities seeking to enable children and young people to be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Difficulties with social, emotional and behavioural development at entry to primary school will inhibit a child's ability to achieve such capacities.

Longitudinal surveys afford a unique opportunity to study change over time for the same individuals, and to explore the impact of circumstances at one time on long-term outcomes. Whilst there is an abundant research literature around children's social development and the factors which influence it, including exploration of the early years period, little is known about the extent and nature of social, emotional and behavioural development of children in Scotland around the time they start primary school. Neither is there much of an understanding of the extent to which the issues and factors which have been shown to influence early social and behavioural development in children elsewhere affect Scottish children in the same way. This is important because legislative powers and policy development in the areas of early years services, child health and education - areas key to supporting children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties - are devolved. As a result, some services in these areas are structured and delivered differently in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Developing an understanding of what factors affect early social and behavioural development amongst Scottish children is a focus of this report.

The Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) study provides a unique opportunity 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. Analysis of this data can provide a better understanding of the factors which lead to positive and negative behavioural outcomes upon entry to 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 difficulty 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 measures of behaviour predictive of later measures?

1.1 Methods

1.1.1 The Growing Up in Scotland study

This report is based on analysis of the first four sweeps (2005/06 to 2008/09) of GUS. Commissioned by the then Scottish Executive Education Department ( SEED), and managed by the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen), GUS is a large-scale longitudinal research project aimed at tracking the lives of two cohorts of Scottish children from the early years, through childhood and beyond. Its principal aim is to provide information to support policy-making, but it is also intended to be a broader resource that can be drawn on by academics, voluntary sector organisations and other interested parties. Focusing initially on a cohort of 5,217 children aged 0-1 years old (the birth cohort) and a cohort of 2,859 children aged 2-3 years old (the child cohort), the first wave of fieldwork began in April 2005 and annual data collection from both cohorts has been undertaken since that time. 1

The analysis in this report uses information from families in the child cohort that took part in all of the first four sweeps of GUS. Some families who initially took part in GUS did not do so for all of the subsequent sweeps. All of the statistics have been weighted by a specially constructed weight to adjust for non-response and sample selection. Both weighted and unweighted sample sizes are given in each table. Standard errors have been adjusted to take account of the cluster sampling.

1.1.2 Measuring social, emotional and behavioural development

Social, emotional and behavioural development is measured by administration of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, 1997). The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire ( SDQ) is a brief behavioural screening questionnaire designed for use with 3-16 year olds. The scale includes 25 questions which are used to measure five aspects of the child's development: emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity/inattention, peer relationship problems and pro-social behaviour. A score is calculated for each of these domains 2 , as well as an overall 'difficulties' score which is generated by summing the scores from all the scales except pro-social. For all scales, except pro-social where the reverse is true, a higher score indicates greater evidence of difficulties. The data was obtained via parental report, normally the mother, in the computer assisted self-completion module of the interview. Data has been obtained annually since the children were three years old. To date, three sets of data are available measured at age 3 (46 months), age 4 (58 months) and age 5 (70 months).

Constructing a measure of development at age of school entry

There are two notable issues affecting the SDQ data which is used in this report. First is that the eligibility range for dates of birth in the child cohort and the fieldwork pattern is such that children in the cohort span two school year groups and are interviewed at different points in the school year. This means that children in the cohort entered primary school across two school intakes in different years - around three-quarters in August 2007 and one quarter in August 2008. For some children, primary one data was captured at sweep 3, and for others it was captured at sweep 4. To obtain a measure of development at school entry therefore, has required data to be merged from two sweeps of data collection each corresponding with the child's first year at primary school. Those children whose data is taken from sweep 3 were, on average, younger at school entry than were those whose primary one data was captured at sweep 4. As the spread of age at entry when the two groups are combined is similar to that of any single school year group this is not considered to be problematic. For example, at primary one intake, children in a typical school year group in Scotland will range in age from 4.5 to 6 years old. As can be seen from the discussion in section 3.4 below, and from Figure 3â€'A, this range is reflected in the GUS data.

Secondly, GUS data is obtained from the child's main carer, usually the child's natural mother. Therefore, the data does not present a picture of the child's behaviour at school, as observed by the teacher for example, but instead is a measure of the parent's perception of the child's behaviour and interactions. Validation of the SDQ (Goodman et al, 2000) indicates that combinations of parent and teacher information provide the most robust data with the greatest sensitivity. When compared, data from teachers is better at predicting externalising disorders such as difficulties with conduct and hyperactivity, whereas parent reports are better for the detection of internalising disorders related to emotional symptoms. As our data is from parent-report only we may therefore anticipate some under-reporting of difficulties with conduct and hyperactivity.

1.2 Structure of the report

Chapter two examines the extent and nature of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties displayed by children in their first year at primary school. This chapter begins by setting out the proportion of children who are reported to have no moderate or severe difficulties in each of the behavioural domains covered by the SDQ. The discussion then moves on to explore, using cluster analysis, the extent to which children exhibit difficulties simultaneously across multiple domains. Chapter three describes the socio-economic, socio-demographic, early development and parenting characteristics of children most likely to display moderate and severe difficulties in each domain at school entry. Finally, chapter four examines the relationship between children's behavioural characteristics at ages 3 and 5 exploring, in particular, how behaviour changes in the period equivalent to the child's attendance at pre-school, and the persistence or development of difficult behaviour during that time.

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