Assessing wellbeing at school entry using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire : professional perspectives

White, Jane and Connelly, Graham and Thompson, Lucy and Wilson, Phil (2013) Assessing wellbeing at school entry using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire : professional perspectives. Educational Research, 55 (1). pp. 87-98. ISSN 0013-1881

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    Abstract

    Background: Emotional and behavioural disorders in early childhood are related to poorer academic attainment and school engagement, and difficulties already evident at the point of starting school can affect a child’s later social and academic development (Eivers, Brendgen, and Borge 2010, 21:846-864). Successful transfer from pre-school settings to primary education is helped by communication between pre-school staff and primary school teachers. Typically, in Scotland, pre-school establishments prepare individual profiles of children before they start school around the age of five years, highlighting their strengths and development needs, for transfer to primary schools. There is, however, no consistent approach to the identification of potential social, emotional and behavioural problems. In 2010, in one local authority area in Scotland, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) (Goodman 2001, 40:1337-1345) was introduced for children about to start school as a routine, structured, component of the transition process to help teachers plan support arrangements for classes and individual children. The SDQ assesses emotional, conduct, hyperactivity/ inattention and peer-relationship problems as well as pro-social behaviour. In order to be an effective means of communicating social and emotional functioning, the use of instruments such as the SDQ needs to be practicable. Finding out the views of pre-school education staff with experience of assessing children using the SDQ was, therefore, essential to establish its future utility. Aim: The purpose of this study was to explore the views of pre-school education staff about assessing social and emotional wellbeing of children at school entry using the SDQ. The objectives were to examine the opinions of pre-school workers about completing the SDQ, as well as their thoughts on the value of doing this and of the usefulness of the information collected. Method: Pre-school establishments were approached using a purposive sampling strategy in order to achieve a mix of local authority (n=14) and ‘partnership’ nurseries (n=8) as well as different social-economic areas. Semi-structured interviews (n=25) were conducted with nursery head teachers (n=14) and child development officers (n=11) in order to explore the process of completing the SDQ along with perceptions of its value. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically. Results: In general, staff in pre-school establishments viewed the use of the SDQ positively. It was seen as a chance to highlight the social and emotional development of children rather than just their academic or educational ability. Most felt that the SDQ had not identified anything they did not already know about a child. A minority, nevertheless, suggested that a previously unrecognised potential difficulty was brought to light, most commonly emotional problems. Completing the SDQ was felt to be relatively straightforward even though the staff felt under pressure from competing priorities. Concerns were, however, raised about the potential of labelling a child at an early stage of formal education. Conclusion: The findings from this small scale study suggest that, from the point of view of pre-school education staff, it is feasible to assess children systematically for social and behavioural problems as part of the routine transition process at school entry.