Publication - Research and analysis

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

Published: 29 Apr 2010

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.

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Contents
Growing up in Scotland: children's social, emotional and behavioural characteristics at entry to primary school
Chapter 4 THE CONTINUITY OF SOCIAL, EMOTIONAL AND BEHAVIOURAL CHARACTERISTICS

60 page PDF

720.1 kB

Chapter 4 THE CONTINUITY OF SOCIAL, EMOTIONAL AND BEHAVIOURAL CHARACTERISTICS

Thus far social, emotional and behavioural development has only been explored in detail at a single point in time - entry to primary school. However, the analysis undertaken in section 3.1 indicated that familial and development issues, including experiences
which occurred earlier in the child's life, were associated with social and behavioural characteristics at entry to primary school. Indeed, signs of poor general health and delay in language development at age 2 were predictors of some of the highest difficulty scores at school entry. This suggests therefore, that for many children the particular patterns of social, emotional and behavioural characteristics observed at school entry are determined at an earlier stage in their lives. This section explores, in more detail, the relationship between early patterns of social development with those seen at school entry and, for a small proportion of the children, in the first term of primary two.

4.1 Key findings

  • 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 a small increase between pre-school and entry to primary school.
  • 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.

4.2 Comparing social, emotional and behavioural development at pre-school and entry to primary school

GUS has included the SDQ annually in the child cohort questionnaire since sweep 2 (age 3), at which point 99% of children in the cohort were attending some form of pre-school or nursery provision. The proportion of children whose scores were classified as normal, borderline or abnormal at age 3, and the corresponding proportions at school entry, are shown in Table 4.1. Analysis was undertaken to explore the relationship between social, emotional and behavioural development at the pre-school stage with that seen at entry to primary school. The results of these analyses are shown in Table 4.2.

Overall, as may be expected, the data from both Table 4.1 and Table 4.2 suggest that on average children's difficult behaviour decreases, and pro-social behaviour increases as they move from the pre- to primary school stage. Whilst the differences between the time-points are small, they are all statistically significant. Despite this, the differences, at this broad population level, are not considered large enough to be particularly notable.

Issues related to conduct problems are those which show the largest decrease whereas smaller decreases occur in hyperactivity/inattention and peer problems. Emotional symptoms is the only scale which shows a small increase between pre-school and entry to primary. A strong correlation between the total difficulties scores suggests that scores recorded at pre-school are closely related to scores returned at entry to primary school indicating therefore, 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. That is, there is very little change in behavioural development for most children during this time. The strongest correlation within sub-scales occurs on the hyperactivity score suggesting that this is the behaviour least likely to change in the period observed.

Table 4.1 Classifications on all SDQ scales at pre-school and entry to primary school

SDQ scale

Emotional symptoms
%

Conduct problems
%

Hyperactivity
%

Peer problems
%

Total Difficulties
%

Pro-social
%

Pre-school score

Normal

92

65

80

81

87

89

Borderline

4

19

8

12

7

8

Abnormal

4

16

11

7

6

3

Bases

Weighted

2488

2488

2480

2476

2464

2485

Unweighted

2487

2487

2480

2476

2465

2484

Primary school score

Normal

90

73

83

85

89

93

Borderline

5

15

7

8

6

5

Abnormal

5

12

10

7

5

2

Bases

Weighted

2069

2067

2062

2063

2056

2067

Unweighted

2074

2072

2069

2068

2063

2072

Table 4.2 Mean scores on SDQ scales at pre-school and entry to primary school and correlations between the two scores

SDQ scale

Mean score

Correlation*

Bases (unweighted)

Pre-school

Entry to primary school

Positive or negative change 7

Statistical significance

Conduct problems

2.0

1.7

+

<.001

0.569

2113

Emotional symptoms

1.2

1.3

-

<.001

0.463

2114

Hyper-activity

3.5

3.4

+

<.001

0.624

2106

Peer problems

1.2

1.1

+

<.01

0.426

2104

Total difficulties

7.9

7.4

+

<.001

0.647

2091

Pro-social

7.8

8.3

+

<.001

0.480

2113

*These figures illustrate the correlation between scores at pre-school and scores at entry to primary school. The closer the figure is to 1, the stronger the correlation, and the more closely related a child's pre-school score is to their primary school score.

4.3 Extending the analysis: behaviour at entry to primary two

As the GUS cohort is spread across two school year groups, at the point of sweep 4 data collection around one third of the cohort had started their first term in primary two. The data for this group allows an extension of the previous analysis to look at the continuity of behavioural development from pre-school through primary one and into primary two. In this way, some assessment can be made about the possible impact of the first year of schooling on behavioural development.

The data indicate no significant differences in mean SDQ scores between entry to primary one and entry to primary two. Correlations between the scores are much higher in this instance than with the previous comparison, 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. These findings also suggest, therefore, 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.

4.4 The persistence of difficult behaviour

The analysis undertaken and described in section 4.2 uses average scores for the whole sample. Whilst these are useful to explore overall change in behaviour over time, they do not pick up on more detailed movement between categories by individuals - that is, the extent to which particular children's scores improve by moving from borderline or abnormal into the normal range, or get worse by moving from the normal range into borderline or abnormal. Table 4.3 illustrates the proportion of children with scores in the normal, borderline and abnormal ranges at pre-school whose score fell into each of those ranges at entry to primary school.

To examine patterns of change in social, emotional and behavioural characteristics between pre-school and entry to primary school in more detail, children were again divided into three groups according to their score on each of the scales at age 3 and at primary school entry indicating different severities of difficult behaviour (normal, borderline or abnormal, see Appendix 2 for details of the score ranges each SDQ scale for these classifications). To explore movement between, or persistence within groups over time, first a child's score classification at age 3 was compared with the corresponding classification at primary school entry. This permits, for example, examination of what proportion of children whose age 3 score was classified as normal had a score at school entry which was also classified as normal. The results are shown in Table 4.3. The table should be read in rows starting from the left hand-side. For example, looking at the 'Normal' row under 'Conduct problems' we can see that 85% of children whose conduct problems score at age 46 months was in the normal range also had a conduct score in the normal range at entry to primary school, but 11% moved from having a normal score at pre-school to having a borderline score at entry to primary school.

Table 4.3 SDQ score classification (normal, borderline or abnormal) at
pre-school by SDQ score classification at entry to primary school

Row percentages

Classification of score at entry to primary school

Bases

Classification of score at pre-school (age 46 months)

Normal

Borderline

Abnormal

Weighted

Unweighted

Conduct problems

Normal

(%)

85

11

4

1360

1398

Borderline

(%)

57

25

19

376

371

Abnormal

(%)

31

27

42

325

296

Emotional symptoms

Normal

(%)

91

5

4

1906

1926

Borderline

(%)

65

18

17

75

69

Abnormal

(%)

46

15

39

79

71

Hyperactivity

Normal

(%)

89

7

4

1658

1695

Borderline

(%)

61

12

27

176

169

Abnormal

(%)

39

16

45

216

194

Peer problems

Normal

(%)

89

6

5

1664

1700

Borderline

(%)

71

13

16

234

216

Abnormal

(%)

44

16

35

153

141

Total difficulties

Normal

(%)

94

4

2

1775

1819

Borderline

(%)

60

19

21

150

135

Abnormal

(%)

37

16

47

109

90

Pro-social

Normal

(%)

95

4

1

1844

1851

Borderline

(%)

83

14

3

165

165

Abnormal

(%)

67

20

14

51

49

The data illustrate a number of key issues. As initially indicated by the comparison of mean scores seen in Table 4.2, there is an overall decrease in difficult behaviour in children in the period between pre-school and entry to primary school. The vast majority of those children whose scores were in the normal range at pre-school also scored in the normal range at entry to primary school, particularly in relation to the pro-social and total difficulties scores; 94% of children whose total difficulty score at age 3 was classified as normal also had a score in the normal range at school entry. Furthermore, for all scales most children in the borderline group at pre-school had moved into the normal range by entry to primary school. For example, 61% of those children whose scores were in the borderline range for hyperactivity at age 3 had moved into the normal range at entry to primary school. Many children with scores in the abnormal range at pre-school had also moved into either the normal or borderline range by entry to primary school demonstrating an improvement in social development over that time. Thirty-nine percent of children whose hyperactivity score at age 3 was in the abnormal range had a score in the normal range at school entry.

The second way of exploring movement between, or persistence within groups over time, is to consider the extent to which problems that existed at school entry were already present at pre-school. That is, for example, what proportion of children whose score at school entry was classified as abnormal also had a score at pre-school which was classified as abnormal. Around two-fifths (42%) of those with scores in the abnormal range for total difficulties at primary school entry also had scores in that classification at pre-school (data not shown in table). Conduct problems and hyperactivity/inattention were the difficulties most likely to have been present already at pre-school and to have persisted in the period to primary school entry. Fifty-two per cent of children with conduct problem scores in the abnormal range at school entry also had scores in the abnormal range at pre-school. The corresponding figure for hyperactivity was 46%.

In contrast, difficulties with emotional symptoms or peer problems were significantly more likely to have come to light during the pre-school or early primary school period. Around two-thirds (65%) of the 123 children with emotional symptoms scores in the abnormal range at school entry had scored in the normal range at pre-school. This increase is also illustrated, in part, by the overall change in mean scores for emotional symptoms shown in Table 4.2 (a very slight increase of 1.2 to 1.3). Forty-seven percent of children with scores in the abnormal range for peer problems at school entry had no such difficulties according to their score at pre-school. The corresponding figures for conduct problems and hyperactivity are 21% and 31% respectively.

Notably, and as seen in section 2.1 above, the overall proportions of children with scores in the abnormal range for emotional symptoms and peer problems is quite small. Notwithstanding this issue, it is clear that in a large number of these cases these difficulties have developed in the latter pre-school or very early primary school period. In contrast, difficulties associated with conduct problems and hyper-activity are considerably more likely to have been present whilst the child was in pre-school and perhaps beforehand.

4.5 Modelling the relationship between early and later behavioural development

To what extent are earlier assessments of social, emotional and behavioural development predictive of later assessments whilst controlling for the other possible confounding factors? Analysis in section 3.1 illustrated that children with particular types and combinations of difficult behaviour vary in their socio-economic and socio-demographic characteristics and in their experiences of different parenting styles and early development. Indeed, these background characteristics have been shown to have an important influence on a child's behavioural development up to school entry. So far, our analysis of early and later scores on the SDQ have not controlled for these additional influencing factors.

To examine this, the child's classification on the relevant SDQ subscale at age 3 was added to the existing regression models which were used for analysis in section 3. 8 The results show that for each of the SDQ difficulty scales, those children who scored in the borderline or abnormal range were very likely to also have a score in the borderline or abnormal range at school entry. Children scoring in the abnormal range in any domain at age 3 have around 10 times the odds of scoring in the borderline or abnormal range at school entry than do children whose scores were not in those ranges at age 3. The highest associations between early and later scores were observed in relation to the total difficulties scale where those with borderline scores and those with abnormal scores at age 3 had odds 8 and 17 times higher than those with normal scores of having a score in the higher ranges at age 5.

We have already seen, in Table 4.3, the extent to which children's scores on the SDQ change between pre-school and primary school; this analysis offers some explanation of the factors which are associated with those changes. Figure 4 A provides a summary of the factors which were significantly associated with a change in score between ages 3 and 5 (see also table A1.2 in Appendix 1).

In relation to conduct problems, the results of the revised model suggest that children who live in stable lone parent or repartnered lone parent families, those with poorer general health and those who have experienced harsh discipline are all at a greater risk of their conduct problems increasing in the pre-school to primary school period. In contrast, parents of children whose mothers are non-white, who live in higher income households and/or who experience higher levels of parent-child social interaction are more likely to report a lower conduct score at age 5 compared to age 3. Analysis in section 4.4 showed that difficulties with emotional symptoms were particularly likely to have developed in the pre-school to early primary school period. Findings here suggest that the presence of siblings and living in a higher income household can protect against the development of such difficulties in this period whereas having poorer general health and multiple delays in early motor development are associated with a greater risk of developing emotional difficulties. Ethnicity continues to affect difficulties with peers. Children with a non-white background are at a greater risk of developing peer problems during the pre-school period, as are those children with early language difficulties and those who experienced fewer visits to households with other children. It is possible that the language difficulties present earlier have persisted to some extent amongst these children making it more difficult for them to interact with peers and to form friendships. A lack of early social contact with other children may also limit a child's ability to successfully interact with peers.

4.6 Summary

In general, children's behavioural characteristics at entry to primary school were similar to those reported when they were aged 3. Average scores on each of the SDQ scales did not change much between the two time points, and scores were also shown to be very closely correlated. Whilst changes were small, the overall impression suggested by the data is that children's behaviour generally improves between pre-school and entry to primary school.

However, for a significant minority of children, difficulties which are present at pre-school remain at entry to primary school. Almost half of all children (47%) whose total difficulties score at pre-school was in the abnormal range also had a score in the abnormal range at school entry. For a further minority group, difficulties are shown to develop during this time particularly in relation to emotional symptoms and peer problems.

Figure 4 A Factors significantly associated with an increase or decrease in SDQ scores between age 3 and age 5

Conduct problems

Increase

  • Family type transitions: living in a stable lone parent or repartnered lone parent family.
  • Child's general health: children whose health was temporarily or always fair, bad or very bad.
  • Discipline: children who experienced shouting and/or smacking between birth and age 3.

Decrease

  • Equivalised household income: living in a higher income household.
  • Parent-child social interaction: children who experienced higher levels of social interaction.
  • Mother's ethnicity: children whose mother is non-white.

Emotional symptoms

Increase

  • Child's general health: children whose health was temporarily or always fair, bad or very bad.
  • Delays in early motor development: delayed on 3 or more developmental milestones at age 2.

Decrease

  • Number of children in the household: having two or more siblings.
  • Equivalised household income: living in a higher income household.

Hyperactivity/inattention

Increase

  • Child's general health: children whose health was temporarily or always fair, bad or very bad.

Decrease

  • Child's gender: being a girl.
  • Parent-child social interaction: children who experienced higher levels of social interaction.

Peer problems

Increase

  • Mother's ethnicity: children whose mother is non-white.
  • Language difficulties at age 2.
  • Visits to other households with children: children taken on visits less often than fortnightly.

Total difficulties

Increase

  • Child's general health: children whose health was temporarily or always fair, bad or very bad.
  • Language difficulties at age 2.
  • Visits to other households with children: children taken on visits less often than fortnightly.

Decrease

  • Equivalised household income: living in a higher income household.