The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children
Annual statistical report 2010

9 How young children are faring: Behaviour problems and competencies

Diana Smart, Australian Institute of Family Studies

A major aim of Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) is to follow children's development over time, looking particularly at their social and emotional wellbeing. Social and emotional wellbeing is assessed in two ways: by the presence of behavioural or emotional problems, and by the level of competencies and social skills exhibited by children.

Children's behaviour problems are generally classified into two types (Campbell, 2002):

  • externalising behaviours that are expressed outwardly and often impact upon others (e.g., overactivity, temper tantrums, fighting, destructiveness and disobedience); and
  • internalising behaviours that are inwardly expressed and are a sign of distress (e.g., worrying, fearfulness, social withdrawal and unhappiness).

Externalising behaviours can be further differentiated into aggressive, acting-out behaviours and hyperactive, distractible behaviours, although research shows that these two subtypes frequently co-occur (Connor, Steeber, & McBurnett, 2010). Similarly, internalising problems are often differentiated into anxiety and depression, particularly among older children and adolescents, and also frequently occur together (Axelson & Birmaher, 2001; Brady & Kendall, 1992).

Some problem behaviours are quite common among young children. Koot and colleagues (1993), for example, reported that approximately 25% of the 469 Dutch 2-3 year olds in their representative community sample were rated by parents as often defiant or unable to sit still. Similarly, 41% of the 377 Swedish 4-year-olds in Hagekull and Bohlin's (1992) study were frequently disobedient, and 29% were often restless. In Canada, 66% of 4-5 year olds sometimes or more often argued a lot and/or were disobedient at home, while around 40% found it hard to concentrate (Thomas, Byrne, Offord, & Boyle, 1991). In the USA, Egger and Angold (2006) found that 12% to 48% of 2-5 year olds were often easily distracted, and between 5% and 18% were often fidgety or squirmy in the studies they reviewed.

However, it is much less common for children to show multiple problems and this is often seen as indicative of more serious difficulties. For example, 14% of Australian 4-12 year olds were found to have multiple behaviour problems that placed them in the clinical range (Sawyer et al., 2000). Children's behaviour problems can be very persistent (Biederman et al., 1996; Pierce, Ewing, & Campbell, 1999) and can place them at risk of problematic developmental pathways (Moffitt, Caspi, Dickson, Silva, & Stanton, 1996; Tolan, Gorman-Smith, & Loeber, 2000).

Social competence has been described as "socially acceptable, learned ways of behaving that enable a person to interact effectively with other people" (Gresham & Elliott 1990). Social competence is a valued individual attribute and has been linked to positive outcomes among children; for example, their academic achievement (Elias & Haynes, 2008). Some examples of socially competent behaviours are sharing, helping, cooperating, sensitively interacting with others, being empathic, and being able to compromise when needed. These behaviours form the basis of competency and comprise the major measures of positive development used by LSAC to date.

This chapter uses weighted data from Waves 2 and 3 for the B cohort to look at the prevalence of particular problem behaviours (including multiple behaviour problems) and socially competent functioning among Australian children aged 2-3 and 4-5 years. For problem behaviours and social competence, differences between boys and girls, children from differing socio-economic backgrounds, with differing numbers of siblings, and from metropolitan or regional localities are also explored. (See Chapter 2 for details about these groups.)

Some limitations to these data should be noted. First, data based on single items are less reliable than data based on responses to several items (composite scores). Many of the items here describe behaviours that represent a phase a child may pass through, or a behaviour that on its own does not indicate a problem. When reporting on children's broad socio-emotional development, it is the combination of a number of behaviours clustered together (the composite scores) that are generally taken to indicate possible problems. In addition, there is always some error of measurement, so the proportions here should be viewed as approximations only. Nevertheless, it is important to know which behaviours are more common (and therefore more normative), and which are rarer (and therefore perhaps more concerning). Examination of differences in the prevalence of individual behaviours also provides insights into differences in specific behaviours between different groups of children (e.g., between boys and girls).

9.1 Prevalence of behaviour problems at 2-3 years

The Brief Infant-Toddler Socio-Emotional Adjustment scale (BITSEA)1 (Briggs-Gowan & Carter, 2006), which assesses early childhood problem behaviours and competencies, was completed by the primary parent (Parent 1) when children were aged 2-3 years in Wave 2.

The LSAC version of the BITSEA includes 23 items assessing problem behaviours and requires parents to rate how often their child had shown the behaviours in the past month, using a three-point scale (0 = "Not true/Rarely", 1 = "Somewhat true/Sometimes", 2 = "Very true/Often"). As the great majority of primary parents were mothers (more than 96% at all waves), these analyses are restricted to mothers' reports.2 The data are based on the reports of approximately 4,400 mothers.3

A total BITSEA behaviour problems score is computed, by summing the ratings made over all the behaviour problem items. This score can provide an estimate of the number of children who have multiple problems. The possible range of scores on this composite is 0 to 46. The average for the total LSAC cohort was 7.51 (SE 0.096), which is towards the lower end of the range, suggesting that children were usually not problem-free and tended to show some, but not a large number of, behaviour problems.

To address the question of which problem behaviours are most common among young Australian children, the incidence of differing behaviours is next examined, using the BITSEA (2006) typology of externalising, internalising, dysregulation and other types of behaviours. The behaviours are ordered from the most to the least frequent.

Looking first at externalising behaviours (first section of Table 9.1), the majority of children (56%) were reported as "sometimes" or "often" restless and unable to sit still. However, only a small number of children (10%) "often" showed this behaviour. Signs of aggression (e.g., hitting other children or parents, being destructive, or deliberately trying to hurt parents) were evident among 20-25% of 2-3 year olds, but "often" occurred among only 1-2% of children. Around 15% of children were accident-prone to the extent that parents needed to watch them closely.

Turning now to internalising problems (second section of Table 9.1), approximately half had shown fear of certain places, animals or things, and a similar number had shown signs of distress when their parent was leaving them. However, this was "often true" of only 6% and 10% for these behaviours respectively. Between 15% and 20% of children had been nervous or worried in the past month, but less than 2% were "often" this way. Few (7% of children) seemed to have less fun than other children, and only 4% had been very unhappy, sad, depressed or withdrawn.

Dysregulation problems reflect negativity and low adaptability (third section of Table 9.1). Approximately 40-50% of children were reported to have eating (refusing to eat) or sleeping problems, with close to 10% "often" having difficulties with falling or staying asleep. Other common behaviours were: being reluctant to touch things because of how they feel (45%) and having trouble adjusting to change (41%). However, only around 4-5% "often" showed these behaviours. Approximately one-third of children became very upset at least "sometimes", while over one quarter "sometimes" or "often" cried or threw a tantrum until they were exhausted.

The BITSEA also includes some behaviours that do not fall under the above groupings, but are troublesome for parents and carers (fourth section of Table 9.1). A common behaviour of this type was running away in a public place, with 38% of the 2-3 year olds reported to have done so at least "sometimes" in the past month. However, only a small percentage (9%) had run away "often". Additionally, approximately one-third "sometimes" or more often did not react when hurt.

Table 9.1 Percentage of children showing differing types of behaviour problems at 2-3 years, BITSEA scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2
  Not true/Rarely % Somewhat true/Sometimes % Very true/Often % Total %
Externalising types of problems
Is restless and can't sit still 44.4 45.7 9.9 100.0
Hits, shoves, kicks or bites children (not including brother/sister) 75.3 22.9 1.9 100.0
Hits, bites or kicks you (or other parent) 78.3 20.5 1.2 100.0
Is destructive, breaks or ruins things on purpose 79.5 18.4 2.2 100.0
Gets hurt so often that you can't take your eyes off him/her 84.0 14.7 1.3 100.0
Purposely tries to hurt you (or other parent) 89.7 9.5 0.9 100.0
Internalising types of problems
Is afraid of certain places, animals or things 50.5 43.9 5.5 100.0
Cries or hangs onto you when you try to leave 50.5 39.4 10.1 100.0
Seems nervous, tense or fearful 79.5 19.0 1.5 100.0
Worries a lot or is very serious 84.7 13.6 1.6 100.0
Has less fun than other children 92.9 5.0 2.2 100.0
Seems very unhappy, sad, depressed or withdrawn 95.8 3.5 0.6 100.0
Dysregulation
Refuses to eat 50.6 44.3 5.2 100.0
Won't touch some objects because of how they feel 56.5 38.7 4.8 100.0
Has trouble adjusting to changes 58.9 37.0 4.1 100.0
Wakes up at night and needs help to fall asleep again 61.6 27.8 10.6 100.0
Often gets very upset 62.0 34.4 3.7 100.0
Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep 63.2 28.2 8.6 100.0
Cries or tantrums until he/she is exhausted 71.8 23.9 4.3 100.0
Gags or chokes on food 91.3 7.3 1.4 100.0
Other types of problems
Runs away in public places 52.7 38.3 9.1 100.0
Does not react when hurt 65.0 30.9 4.1 100.0
When upset, gets very still, freezes or doesn't move 89.6 9.2 1.2 100.0

Note: Percentages may not total 100% due to rounding.

Figure 9.1 compares different groups of children on the total behaviour problem score. Chi-square analyses (using an alpha significance of .01 because of the number of tests conducted) were used to compare groups on individual items. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare groups on total scores.4 Figures showing the mean scores for the sub-groups of children being compared are included, with the 95% confidence intervals (CIs), shown by the "I" bars at the top of each column in the graph. Where confidence intervals for the groups being compared do not overlap, this indicates that the values are significantly different. As an example, on the left of Figure 9.1 (comparison of boys and girls) the CI for boys does not overlap with the CI for girls, indicating that there were significant gender differences.

Figure 9.1 Comparison of 2-3 year old subgroups on total behaviour problems, BITSEA scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2

Figure 9.1 Comparison of 2-3 year old subgroups on total behaviour problems, BITSEA scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2 - as described in text

Note: SEP = Family socio-economic position.

Differences between 2-3 year old boys and girls on behaviour problems

Boys tended to display a higher number of behaviour problems overall than girls when scores on all the BITSEA behaviour problem items were summed.5 Figure 9.1 depicts this gender difference.

Looking at differences between boys and girls on specific types of problem behaviours, differences were found on all six externalising items, with approximately 10% more boys than girls showing such problems.6 Differences were most marked on destructiveness and aggressiveness. For example, 26% of boys were "sometimes" or "often" destructive, compared with 15% of girls; while 29% of boys had hit, shoved or pushed other children (not siblings) "sometimes" or "often", compared with 20% of girls.

There were differences between boys and girls on one of the six internalising items,7 with more girls than boys being afraid of certain places, animals or things. There were gender differences on two of the eight dysregulation items (trouble adjusting to changes, refusing to eat), with these behaviours being more common among boys.8 Of the "Other types of problems", boys were also more often reported to run away in public places and to not react when hurt.9

Differences between 2-3 year old children from differing socio-economic backgrounds on behaviour problems

Children aged 2-3 years from differing socio-economic backgrounds were compared on the total number of behaviour problems overall and the specific types of behaviour problems exhibited. For these comparisons, children in the three categories derived from the family socio-economic position scale were compared (lowest 25%, middle 50% and highest 25%).

Using ANOVA, significant differences10 were found in the total number of behaviour problems exhibited by children in the three socio-economic position groups, as shown in Figure 9.1. Children in the lowest 25% had significantly higher levels of behaviour problems than children in the other two groups, which also significantly differed.

In terms of the particular behaviours on which differences were found, there were significant differences on 19 of the 23 behaviours measured.11 These consistently showed that children from families in the lowest 25% on socio-economic position had the highest rates of problem behaviours, while those whose families were in the top 25% generally showed the lowest rates (although they were sometimes similar to the middle 50%). Differences were found on all facets of exernalising behaviours, on four of the six aspects of internalising behaviours, on six of the eight dysregulation items and all three other types of problem behaviours.

The largest disparities between groups were found on the following behaviours:

  • "Does not react when hurt" - a difference of 20% between children in the highest 25% and lowest 25% groups;
  • "Won't touch some objects because of how they feel" - a difference of 15% between these two groups;
  • "Restless, can't sit still" and "Cries or hangs onto you when you try to leave" - a difference of 13%; and
  • "Hits, shoves or bites other children (not including brothers or sisters)" - a difference of 11%.

Differences between 2-3 year old children on behaviour problems according to the number of siblings in the family

Rates of behaviour problems among children with differing numbers of siblings are next examined. For these comparisons, four groups were formed, which compared children with no siblings, one sibling, two siblings, and three or more siblings.

As Figure 9.1 indicates, children who had one sibling were found to have significantly fewer behaviour problems overall than those with zero, or three or more, siblings. This finding is based on an ANOVA test of group differences.12

While there were significant differences on the total number of behaviour problems (i.e., the proportions showing multiple problems differed), when specific problem behaviours were examined, few significant differences were found (on six of the 23 behaviours). These were:

  • three of the six externalising items - restlessness; hitting, biting or kicking a parent; attempting to hurt a parent;13
  • one internalising item - showing distress when a parent tries to leave the child;14 and
  • two dysregulation items - refusing to touch certain things because of how they feel and trouble falling or staying asleep.15

For these specific behaviours, children with no siblings generally showed the most problems (e.g., 30% of children with no siblings hit, bit or kicked a parent "sometimes" or "often" compared with 20% with one, two or three or more siblings). However, on some items, children with three or more siblings also showed higher rates than children with one or two siblings (e.g., 48% of children with no siblings and 47% of those with three or more siblings "sometimes" or "often" wouldn't touch certain things because of how they felt compared with 41-42% of children with one or two siblings).

Differences between children from metropolitan and regional localities on behaviour problems

The final comparison was between children living in metropolitan and regional localities.16 In terms of the total number of behaviour problems, children from metropolitan localities tended to have a slightly higher number of behaviour problems than children from regional localities, as displayed in Figure 9.1.17 However, when looking at the specific types of problem behaviours, none of these were significant at the p < .01 level (seven were significant at the p < .05 level).

9.2 Competencies at 2-3 years

The competency scale of the BITSEA was used to measure socially competent functioning among 2-3 year old children. The BITSEA includes 11 items assessing aspects such as cooperation, obedience, responding appropriately to others, and showing affection and empathy. Mothers rated how often their children had shown the various behaviours in the past month, using a three-point scale of 0 = "Not true/Rarely", 1 = "Somewhat true/Sometimes" and 2 = "Very true/Often".

A total BITSEA competency score was computed, by summing the ratings made over all the competency items. The average for the total cohort was 17.2 (SE 0.06), with a possible range of 0 to 22. The cohort average is near the top of the range, suggesting that children typically showed high levels of competence.

Table 9.2 shows how frequently children showed the various competent behaviours, ordered from the most to the least common. Close to 90% of children were "often" affectionate and/or showed pleasure when they succeeded, and more than 70% "often" interacted well with others in various ways. Fewer, but still a majority of children, "often" tried to help when someone was hurt. However, only about one-third "often" followed rules, although almost two-thirds "sometimes" did so. Similarly, only about one-quarter were "often" able to pay attention for a long time, although approximately two-thirds were "sometimes" able to do so. Conversely, very few children were rated as "rarely" displaying these socially competent behaviours (generally less than 5%).

Table 9.2 Percentage of children showing differing types of competencies at 2-3 years, BITSEA scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2
  Not true/Rarely % Somewhat true/Sometimes % Very true/Often % Total %
Is affectionate with loved ones 1.0 9.1 89.9 100.0
Shows pleasure when he/she succeeds (e.g., claps for self) 0.6 11.3 88.1 100.0
Looks right at you when you say his/her name 1.2 21.1 77.7 100.0
Plays well with other children (not including brother/sister) 2.1 26.1 71.9 100.0
Looks for you (or other parent) when upset 2.3 26.1 71.6 100.0
Imitates playful sounds when you ask him/her to 3.3 32.8 63.9 100.0
Points to show you something far away 3.2 35.7 61.1 100.0
Hugs or feeds dolls or stuffed animals 7.9 31.2 61.0 100.0
Tries to help when someone is hurt (e.g., gives a toy) 4.6 42.7 52.6 100.0
Follows rules 3.2 63.7 33.1 100.0
Can pay attention for a long time (not including TV) 8.7 64.6 26.6 100.0

Note: Percentages may not total 100% due to rounding.

Differences between 2-3 year old boys and girls on competencies

In general, girls showed a significantly higher total number of competencies than boys,18 as depicted in Figure 9.2. When the separate facets of competency were examined, there were significant gender differences on five of the eleven items (showing pleasure when succeeding, following rules, ability to pay attention for a long time, helping when someone is hurt, and hugging or feeding dolls or stuffed animals).19

Figure 9.2 Comparison of 2-3 year old sub-groups on the total number of competencies, BITSEA scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2

Figure 9.2 Comparison of 2-3 year old sub-groups on the total number of competencies, BITSEA scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2 - as described in text

Note: SEP = Family socio-economic position.

Differences between 2-3 year old children from differing socio-economic backgrounds on competencies

Next, children from differing socio-economic backgrounds were compared on the competencies exhibited. Looking first at the total number of competencies overall, children from families in the lowest 25% of family socio-economic position showed significantly lower levels of competencies than children whose families were in the middle 50% and top 25%, as displayed in Figure 9.2. Levels of competencies of children from families in the top 25% did not differ from those of children from families in the middle 50%.20

These differences were evident on all but one of the different aspects of competency measured.21 The most powerful differences were found on affectionateness towards loved ones, and ability to maintain attention for a long time. Generally, as socio-economic position increased, so did levels of competency. For example, 84% of children from the low SEP group were often affectionate with loved ones, compared with 92% of children from the middle SEP group and 94% of those from the high SEP group. However, on some items, children from families in the lowest 25% displayed lower levels than the other two groups, which were similar (e.g., showing pleasure when they succeeded, playing well with other children). On other aspects, children from families in the highest 25% showed higher levels than children in the middle and low SEP groups, which were similar (e.g., ability to pay attention for a long time, looking when the parent says their name).

Differences on competencies between 2-3 year old children according to the number of siblings in the family

Levels and types of competencies among children with differing numbers of siblings are next examined, comparing children with no siblings, one sibling, two siblings, and three or more siblings. On the total number of competencies, no significant differences were found,22 as displayed in Figure 9.2.

However, there were significant differences on three of the 11 competency items (playing well with other children, imitating sounds, and pointing to show the parent something),23 with children with three or more siblings tending to show lower levels on these aspects than children with fewer or no siblings.

Differences between children from metropolitan and regional localities on competencies

Comparisons of children living in metropolitan and regional localities revealed no significant differences on the total number of competencies overall (see Figure 9.2),24 and only one significant difference on the specific types of competencies measured (ability to pay attention for a long time).25

9.3 Summary of trends at 2-3 years

Considering the data on behaviour problems and competencies together, it is clear that 2-3 year old children tended to show high levels of competencies but also a small number of behaviour problems.

Competencies such as showing affection, showing pleasure when the child succeeded and attending when the child's name was said were typical of at least three-quarters of children. Common behaviour problems included restlessness and inability to sit still; running away in a public place; showing fear of certain places, animals or things; crying or hanging onto the child's parent when the parent was leaving; and refusing to eat certain foods. These behaviours occurred "sometimes" or more often among approximately 50% of children.

Boys tended to show more behaviour problems than girls, and slightly lower levels of competencies. Children whose families were in the lowest 25% on family socio-economic position showed higher levels of behaviour problems and lower competencies of almost all types than children whose families were of middle or high socio-economic position. Children with no siblings, or three or more siblings, tended to show more behaviour problems than other children, but similar levels of competencies. Finally, children living in metropolitan areas showed slightly higher levels of total behaviour problems, but similar levels of competencies compared to those living in regional areas.

9.4 Prevalence of behaviour problems at 4-5 years

The next section examines the incidence of behaviour problems among 4-5 year old children using the reports of B cohort primary parents (Parent 1) on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) collected in Wave 3. The SDQ includes 25 items assessing scales of conduct problems, hyperactivity, emotional symptoms and peer problems. Parents rate how often the behaviours had occurred during the previous six months, using a three-point scale of 0 = "Not true", 1 = "Somewhat true" and 2 = "Certainly true". As the great majority of primary parents were mothers (more than 96% at all waves), these analyses are restricted to mothers' reports. The data are based on the reports of approximately 3,740 mothers.26

Cohort scores on the four behaviour problem scales are shown below in Figure 9.3. The possible range of scores was 0 to 10. The mean scores for emotional symptoms and peer problems are approximately 1.5, slightly above the lowest possible score, suggesting that LSAC children generally showed few signs of problems in these areas. The mean score on conduct problems was slightly higher at around 2, indicating that, on average, one of these behaviours was "certainly" present or two behaviours were "somewhat" present. The mean score for hyperactivity was close to 3.5, suggesting that children typically showed several of these types of behaviours. However, all mean scores were towards the low end of the range, indicating that children generally showed some, but not a large number of, problem behaviours.

Figure 9.3 Cohort mean scores on SDQ behaviour problem scales (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3

Figure 9.3 Cohort mean scores on SDQ behaviour problem scales (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3 - as described in text

It is possible that within these composite scales, certain behaviours may be quite common among 4-5 year olds and others extremely rare. This issue is examined next.

Table 9.3 shows the prevalence of differing kinds of behaviour problems, with the behaviours ordered from the most to the least frequent. Looking first at conduct problems, the most common types shown by children were losing their temper and/or arguing with adults, with the majority reported to do so at least "somewhat". However, generally fewer than 10% "certainly" displayed these behaviours.

Table 9.3 Percentage of children showing differing types of behaviour problems at 4-5 years, SDQ (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3
  Not true % Somewhat true % Certainly true % Total %
Conduct problems
Often has temper tantrums or hot tempers 45.3 45.1 9.6 100.0
Often argumentative with adults 52.5 40.6 6.9 100.0
Can be spiteful towards others 73.1 24.7 2.2 100.0
Often fights with other children or bullies them 85.3 13.0 1.6 100.0
Generally obedient, usually does what adults request a 3.3 53.1 43.6 100.0
Hyperactivity
Restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long 49.2 39.7 11.0 100.0
Easily distracted, concentration wanders 43.1 48.1 8.7 100.0
Constantly fidgeting or squirming 63.7 30.0 6.3 100.0
Sees tasks through to the end, good attention span a 10.3 61.9 27.8 100.0
Can stop and think things out before acting a 9.1 68.0 22.8 100.0
Emotional symptoms
Nervous or clingy in new situations, easily loses confidence 47.4 42.8 9.8 100.0
Many fears, easily scared 70.6 25.7 3.8 100.0
Often complains of headaches, stomach aches or sickness 82.5 14.7 2.8 100.0
Many worries, often seems worried 84.1 13.5 2.5 100.0
Often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful 88.6 9.8 1.6 100.0
Peer problems
Rather solitary, tends to play alone 59.3 35.4 5.3 100.0
Gets on better with adults than with other children 71.3 24.2 4.6 100.0
Picked on or bullied by other children 84.4 14.2 1.4 100.0
Has at least one good friend a 3.8 19.4 76.8 100.0
Generally liked by other children a 1.1 21.3 77.6 100.0

Note: a These items are reverse scored.

Signs of hyperactivity were "somewhat" or "certainly" evident among quite a number of children. For example, the majority were reported to "sometimes" or "certainly" be restless and/or easily distracted, while for only approximately one-quarter was it "certainly true" that the child had a good attention span and/or thought things out before acting. Additionally, between 6 and 10% of children showed clear-cut hyperactive problems (as indicated by a "certainly true" rating) on three of the five items.

Emotional symptoms were relatively rare. On only one aspect (nervousness or clingyness in new situations) did the majority of children "somewhat" or "certainly" display this behaviour, according to mothers. On three of the five items (worrying; unhappiness; complains of headaches), more than 80% of mothers reported that this was "not true" of their children.

Similarly, the great majority of children did not show peer problems (71% to 84% across four of the five items), although slightly more (40%) were "somewhat" or "certainly" solitary and tended to play alone.

Differences between 4-5 year old boys and girls on behaviour problems

Levels of behaviour problems among boys and girls are shown in Figure 9.4. There were significant gender differences on hyperactivity,27 emotional symptoms28 and peer problems,29 but not on conduct problems.30 More boys than girls showed hyperactivity and peer problems while more girls than boys showed emotional symptoms.

Figure 9.4 Comparison of boys and girls on SDQ behaviour problem scales at 4-5 years (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3

Figure 9.4 Comparison of boys and girls on SDQ behaviour problem scales at 4-5 years (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3 - as described in text

We turn now to gender differences on specific problem behaviours. In keeping with the composite scores, girls and boys were most similar in the area of conduct problems, with significant differences on only one item,31 and most dissimilar on hyperactivity, with significant differences on all five items.32 There were significant gender differences on two of the five emotional symptom items33 and three of the five peer problem items.34

Differences between 4-5 year old children from high, average and low socio-economic family backgrounds on behaviour problems

Children from the top 25%, middle 50% and lowest 25% of the distribution on family socio-economic position were compared on levels of behaviour problems on the four SDQ scales. Figure 9.5 shows that there were significant differences on all scales, with children from families in the lowest 25% showing more behaviour problems than children from the other two groups. Additionally, children from families in the middle 50% showed significantly more problems than children whose families were in the highest 25%.35

Figure 9.5 Comparison of children from families differing on socio-economic position on SDQ behaviour problem scales at 4-5 years (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3

Figure 9.5 Comparison of children from families differing on socio-economic position on SDQ behaviour problem scales at 4-5 years (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3 - as described in text

As was found at 2-3 years of age, there were significant differences on almost all the specific types of problem behaviours according to family socio-economic position. Generally, as socio-economic position increased, levels of behaviour problems decreased. Differences were evident on all conduct problems items36 and hyperactivity items,37 two of the five emotional symptoms items,38 and all peer problems items.39

The largest disparities between groups were found on "restless, overactive, cannot sit still for long" and "easily distracted, concentration wanders" - a difference of 21% between children in the highest SEP and lowest SEP groups on the proportion who showed signs of these problems. There were also divergences of 17% between these two groups on "often has temper tantrums" and "constantly fidgeting or squirming".

Differences between 4-5 year old children on behaviour problems according to the number of siblings in the family

Children with differing numbers of siblings are next compared on the four SDQ scales, as shown in Figure 9.6. There were significant differences on peer problems only.40 Children who had no siblings or three or more siblings tended to show more peer problems than children with one or two siblings.

Figure 9.6 Comparison of 4-5 year old children with differing numbers of siblings on SDQ behaviour problem scales (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3

Figure 9.6 Comparison of 4-5 year old children with differing numbers of siblings on SDQ behaviour problem scales (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3 - as described in text

When the specific behaviour problem items were examined, there were significant differences on five items. These were being argumentative with adults,41 having at least one good friend,42 getting on better with adults than other children,43 fighting with or bullying other children44 and being solitary.45 There were also trends for differences on two other items, but these did not reach significance at the p < .01 level.

Differences between children from metropolitan and regional localities on behaviour problems

Differences between children living in metropolitan and regional localities are shown in Figure 9.7. There were significant differences on the SDQ conduct problems scale only,46 with regional children showing significantly higher levels of these behaviour problems.

Figure 9.7 Comparison of 4-5 year old children from metropolitan and regional areas on SDQ behaviour problem scales (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2

Figure 9.7 Comparison of 4-5 year old children from metropolitan and regional areas on SDQ behaviour problem scales (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 2 - as described in text

However, metropolitan and regional children differed only on three of the specific types of behaviours measured: tendency to fight with other children or bully them,47 having a good attention span,48 and having at least one good friend.49 In contrast to the trends at 2-3 years, these differences were in the direction of a higher rate of problems among children from regional localities. There were trends for differences on a further seven items, but these did not reach the adjusted significance level.

9.5 Competencies at 4-5 years

The prosocial behaviour scale from the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire was used to assess children's competencies at 4-5 years of age. The five items cover behaviours such as kindness to others, considerateness, helpfulness and willingness to share. Mothers rated how often the behaviours had occurred during the past six months, using a three-point scale of 0 = "Not true", 1 = "Somewhat true" and 2 = "Certainly true". When scores on the items were summed, the cohort mean score was 7.7 (SE 0.03) out of a possible range of 0 to 10. As this mean score is towards the top end of the range, it suggests that levels of competency were typically high among LSAC children. The mean score equates to almost four out of five prosocial behaviours being "certainly" present.

Table 9.4 shows the specific prosocial behaviours measured, and which behaviours were most common. Kindness to younger children was the most frequently occurring behaviour, with this being very characteristic of approximately three-quarters of children. A majority of children were typically helpful when another person was hurt or upset, and/or were considerate of others' feelings. At the other extreme, generally only 1-4% of children did not display prosocial behaviours.

Table 9.4 Percentage of children showing prosocial behaviour at 4-5 years, SDQ (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3
  Not true % Somewhat true % Certainly true % Total %
Kind to younger children 1.5 25.0 73.5 100.0
Helpful if someone is hurt, upset or feeling ill 2.4 34.5 63.1 100.0
Considerate of other people's feelings 1.7 44.5 53.8 100.0
Often volunteers to help others (parents, teachers, other children) 4.5 49.5 46.0 100.0
Shares readily with other children (treats, toys, pencils etc.) 2.6 53.3 44.1 100.0

Note: Percentages may not total 100% due to rounding.

Differences between 4-5 year old boys and girls on prosocial behaviour

Girls and boys were compared on their total number of prosocial behaviours, which are shown in Figure 9.8. Girls tended to have significantly more competencies than boys.50 These gender differences were evident over all the facets of prosocial behaviour examined, with differences most noticeable in being kind to younger children (12% more girls were "certainly" like this) and volunteering to help others (15% more girls "certainly" did so).51

Figure 9.8 Comparison of 4-5 year old subgroups on SDQ prosocial behaviour scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3

Figure 9.8 Comparison of 4-5 year old subgroups on SDQ prosocial behaviour scale (mothers' reports), B cohort, Wave 3 - as described in text

Note: SEP = Family socio-economic position.

Differences between 4-5 year old children from differing socio-economic backgrounds on prosocial behaviour

There were significant differences on overall levels of prosocial skills when children from families in the lowest 25%, middle 50% and highest 25% on socio-economic position were compared via ANOVA analysis (see Figure 9.8).52 Children from families in the lowest 25% showed significantly lower skills than children in the other two groups. The two more advantaged groups did not differ significantly.

Looking next at the specific prosocial items, there were significant differences on three of the five items (kind to younger children; helpful if someone is hurt, upset or ill; considerate of others' feelings).53 Children from the most disadvantaged families were somewhat less likely to show these prosocial behaviours.

Differences on prosocial behaviour between 4-5 year old children according to the number of siblings in the family

As Figure 9.8 suggests, there were no significant differences between children with differing numbers of siblings in their overall levels of prosocial skills.54 Further, on only two items (being considerate of others' feelings and being helpful if someone is hurt, upset or ill) were there significant differences between children who had no siblings, one sibling, two siblings, and three or more siblings.55

Differences on prosocial behaviour between 4-5 year old children from metropolitan and regional localities

There were no significant differences between children from metropolitan and regional localities on overall levels of prosocial skills or on any of the individual prosocial behaviour items.56

9.6 Summary of trends at 4-5 years

The picture of children's social and emotional wellbeing that emerged at 4-5 years is similar to that which we saw at 2-3 years. Prosocial behaviours were extremely common, particularly kindness towards others, helpfulness and considerateness. Nevertheless, externalising behaviours such as conduct problems or hyperactivity were quite common as well, although only approximately 10% of children showed definite problems in these areas. However, while certain specific types of behaviour problems were quite common, the total level of problems was generally relatively low when behaviours were summed for the four sub-scales of conduct problems, hyperactivity, emotional symptoms and peer problems (means ranging from 1.5-3.5 in a possible range of 0-10). On the other hand, the total level of competencies, as measured on the SDQ prosocial scale, tended to be high (mean score of 7.7 on a possible range of 0-10).

More boys showed hyperactivity and peer problems than girls, while more girls than boys showed emotional symptoms. Boys also tended to have less well developed prosocial skills. Levels of behaviour problems were significantly higher among children from families in the lowest 25% on socio-economic position than among other children, and their prosocial skills tended to be less well developed as well. Children with no siblings or three or more siblings tended to have slightly more behaviour problems than other children, but were similar in their levels of prosocial behaviour. There were some differences between children living in metropolitan and regional localities, with those from regional localities a little more likely to show problems. However, they did not differ on prosocial capacities.

9.7 Summary

This chapter has provided an overview of how 2-3 year olds (see section 9.3) and 4-5 year olds (see section 9.6) participating in LSAC were faring in terms of their social and emotional wellbeing. While behaviour problems were evident among some - especially externalising types of problems - a substantial majority of children showed high levels of competencies and prosocial behaviours. It could therefore be concluded that, on balance, most children were progressing well at this stage of development.

9.8 Further reading

  • Edwards, B. & Bromfield, L. (2009). Neighborhood influences on young children's conduct problems and pro-social Sanson, A. (2008). Do today's Australian children have more problems today than twenty years ago? Family Matters, 79, 50-57.

9.9 References

  • Axelson, D. A., & Birmaher, B. (2001). Relation between anxiety and depressive disorders in childhood and adolescence. Depression and Anxiety, 14, 67-78.
  • Biederman, J., Faraone, S., Milberger, S., Curtis, S., Chen, L., Marrs, A., Ouelette, S., Moore, P., & Spencer, T. (1996). Predictors of persistence and remission of ADHD into adolescence: Results form a four-year prospective follow-up. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 35, 343-351.
  • Briggs-Gowan, M. J., & Carter, A. S. (2006). BITSEA: Brief Infant-Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment (Examiner's Manual). USA: Harcourt Assessment.
  • Brady, E.U., & Kendall, P. C. (1992). Comorbidity of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 244-255.
  • Campbell, S. B. (2002). Behavior problems in preschool children: Clinical and developmental issues (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Connor, D. F., Steeber, J., & McBurnett, K. (2010). A review of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder complicated by symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 31, 427-440.
  • Egger, H. L., & Angold, A. (2006). Common emotional and behavioural disorders in preschool children: Presentation, nosology and epidemiology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 313-337.
  • Elias, M. J., & Haynes, N. M. (2008). Social competence, social support, and academic achievement in minority, low-income, urban elementary school children. School Psychology Quarterly, 23, 474-495.
  • Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. N. (1990). Social Skills Rating System manual. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.
  • Hagekull, B., & Bohlin, G. (1992). Prevalence of problematic behaviors in four year olds. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 33, 359-369.
  • Koot, H. M., Van Den Oord, E. J., Verhulst, F., & Boosma, D. I. (1997). Behavioral and emotional problems in young preschoolers: Testing the validity of the Child Behaviour Checklist/2-3. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25, 183-196.
  • Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Dickson, N., Silva, P., & Stanton, W. (1996). Childhood-onset versus adolescent-onset antisocial conduct problems in males: Natural history from ages 3 to 18 years. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 399-424.
  • Pierce, E. W., Ewing, L. J., & Campbell, S.B. (1999). Diagnostic status and symptomatic behavior of hard-to-manage preschool children in middle childhood and early adolescence. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 44-57.
  • Sawyer, M. G., Arney F. M., Baghurst, P. A., Clark, J. J., Graertz, B. W., Kosky, R. J., Nurcombe, B., Patton, G. C., Prior, M. R., Raphael, B., Rey, J., Whaites, L. C., & Zubrick, S. R. (2000). The mental health of young people in Australia. Canberra: Mental Health and Special Programs Branch, Department of Health and Aged Care.
  • Thomas, B. H., Byrne, C., Offord, D. R., & Boyle, M. H. (1991). Prevalence of behavioral symptoms and the relationship of child, parent and family variables in 4- and 5-year-olds: Results form the Ontario Child Health Study. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 12, 177-184.
  • Tolan, P. H., Gorman-Smith D., & Loeber, R. (2000). Developmental timing of onsets of disruptive behaviors and later delinquency of inner city youth. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 9, 203-220.

Footnote(s)

1 The BITSEA is copyrighted. The publisher's permission is needed for use of the scale.

2 Parent 2 respondents completed only a sub-set of BITSEA items; hence, their responses are not included here.

3 Response rates varied slightly across the separate BITSEA items.

4 These analyses take into account the clusters and strata used in the study design using Stata® svy commands (see Chapter 1), so the design degrees of freedom are reported here.

5 ANOVA F(1,271) = 28.86, p < .0001.

6 Is restless, can't sit still: χ2(2) = 35.9, p < .0001; Hits, shoves, kicks or bites other children (not siblings): χ2(2) = 53.8, p < .0001; Hits, bites or kicks you (or other parent): χ2(2) = 57.1, p < .0001; Is destructive, breaks or ruins things on purpose: χ2(2) = 73.2, p < .0001; Gets hurt so often that you can't take your eyes off him/her: χ2(2) = 22.3, p < .0004; Purposely tries to hurt you (or other parent): χ2(2) = 37.5, p < .0001.

7 Is afraid of certain places, animals or things: χ2(2) = 16.7, p < .0007.

8 Has trouble adjusting to changes: χ2(2) = 10.8, p < .0098; Refuses to eat: χ2(2) = 16.7, p < .0020.

9 Runs away in public places: χ2(2) = 50.2, p < .0001; Does not react when hurt: χ2(2) = 19.6, p < .0004.

10 ANOVA F(2,270) = 57.9, p < .0001.

11 Is restless, can't sit still: χ2(4) = 56.8, p < .0001; Hits, shoves, kicks or bites children (not siblings): χ2(4) = 77.1, p < .0001; Hits, bites or kicks you (or other parent): χ2(4) = 28.7, p < .0001; Is destructive, breaks or ruins things on purpose: χ2(4) = 41.6, p < .0001; Gets hurt so often that you can't take your eyes off him/her: χ2(4) = 34.9, p < .0001; Purposely tries to hurt you (or other parent): χ2(4) = 19.5, p < .0037; Is afraid of certain places, animals or things: χ2(4) = 27.4, p < .0001; Cries or hangs onto you when you try to leave: χ2(4) = 91.3, p < .0001; Has less fun than other children: χ2(4) = 37.0, p < .0001; Seems very unhappy, sad, depressed or withdrawn: χ2(4) = 29.0, p < .0001; Refuses to eat: χ2(4) = 17.2, p < .0095; Won't touch some objects because of how they feel: χ2(4) = 57.0, p < .0001; Has trouble adjusting to changes: χ2(4) = 16.7, p < .01; Often gets very upset: χ2(4) = 23.7, p < .0010; Cries or tantrums until exhausted: χ2(4) = 39.4, p < .0001; Gags or chokes on food: χ2(4) = 20.8, p < .0018; Runs away in public places: χ2(4) = 31.3, p < .0001; Does not react when hurt: χ2(4) = 112.4, p < .0001; When upset, gets very still, freezes or doesn't move: χ2(4) = 31.3, p < .000.

12 ANOVA F(3,269) = 3.88, p < .0097.

13 Is restless and can't sit still: χ2(6) = 34.3, p < .0001; Hits, bites or kicks you (or other parent): χ2(6) = 34.9, p < .0003; Purposely tries to hurt you (or other parent): χ2(6) = 53.6, p < .0001.

14 Cries or hangs onto you when you try to leave: χ2(6) = 44.4, p < .0001.

15 Won't touch some objects because of how they feel: χ2(6) = 24.8, p < .0063; Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep: χ2(6) = 23.9, p < .0039.

16 Metropolitan areas are defined as capital city statistical divisions, while regional areas are defined as the rest of the state/territory outside the capital city statistical divisions.

17 ANOVA F(1,271) = 7.28, p < .01.

18 ANOVA F(1,271) = 66.57, p < .0001.

19 Shows pleasure when succeeds: χ2(2) = 15.4, p < .0011; Hugs or feeds dolls or stuffed animals: χ2(2) = 672.5, p < .0001; Tries to help when someone is hurt: χ2(2) = 40.3, p < .0001; Follows rules: χ2(2) = 25.5, p < .0002; Can pay attention for a long time (not including TV): χ2(2) = 28.4, p < .0001.

20 ANOVA F(2,270) = 9.26, p < .001.

21 Is affectionate with loved ones: χ2(4) = 77.0, p < .0001; Shows pleasure when he/she succeeds: χ2(4) = 62.6, p < .0001; Looks right at you when you say his/her name: χ2(4) = 17.2, p < .0081; Plays well with other children (not including siblings): χ2(4) = 34.4, p < .0001; Looks for you (or other parent) when upset: χ2(4) = 35.1, p < .0001; Imitates playful sounds when asked: χ2(4) = 63.8, p < .0001; Hugs or feeds dolls or stuffed animals: χ2(4) = 18.9, p < .0030; Tries to help when someone is hurt: χ2(4) = 21.3, p < .0011; Follows rules: χ2(4) = 39.78, p < .0001; Can pay attention for a long time (not including TV): χ2(4) = 66.5, p < .0001.

22 ANOVA F(3,269) = 2.90, p = 0.035.

23 Plays well with other children: χ2(6) = 32.0, p < .01; Imitates playful sounds when you ask him/her to: χ2(6) = 25.5, p < .0029; Points to show you something far away: χ2(6) = 25.7, p < .0027.

24 ANOVA F(1,271) = 0.49, p = 0.4831.

25 Can pay attention for a long time: χ2(2) = 14.5, p < .0019.

26 Response rates varied slightly across the separate SDQ items.

27 ANOVA F(1,271) = 77.08, p < .0001.

28 ANOVA F(1,271) = 11.71, p < .0008.

29 ANOVA F(1,271) = 21.51, p < .0001.

30 ANOVA F(1,271) = 3.26, p = .072.

31 Generally obedient, usually does what adults request: χ2(2) =19.9, p < .001 (reverse scored).

32 Restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long: χ2(2) = 70.5, p < .0001; Easily distracted, concentration wanders: χ2(2) = 63.0, p < .0001; Constantly fidgeting or squirming: χ2(2) = 19.3, p < .0007; Sees tasks through to the end, good attention span: χ2(2) = 61.0, p < .0001 (reverse scored); Can stop and think things out before acting: χ2(2) = 32.2, p < .0001 (reverse scored).

33 Nervous or clingy in new situations, easily loses confidence: χ2(2) = 22.0, p < .0002; Often complains of headaches, stomach aches or sickness: χ2(2) = 28.9, p < .0001.

34 Rather solitary, tends to play alone: χ2(2) = 13.7, p < .0046; Picked on or bullied by other children: χ2(2) = 31.6, p < .0001; Generally liked by other children: χ2(2) = 18.7, p < .0022 (reverse scored).

35 ANOVA; Conduct problems scale: F(2,270) = 44.42, p < .0001; Hyperactivity scale: F(2,270) = 90.65, p < .0001; Emotional symptoms scale: F(2,270) = 15.64, p < .001; Peer problems scale: F(2,270) = 37.34, p < .0001.

36 Often has temper tantrums or hot tempers: χ2(4) = 61.1, p < .0001; Often argumentative with adults: χ2(4) = 46.9, p < .0001; Can be spiteful towards others: χ2(4) = 51.2, p < .0001; Often fights with other children or bullies them: χ2(4) = 51.3, p < .0001; Generally obedient, usually does what adults request: χ2(4) = 45.0, p < .0001 (reverse scored).

37 Restless, overactive, cannot stay still for long: χ2(4) = 103.1, p < .0001; Easily distracted, concentration wanders: χ2(4) = 105.8, p < .0001; Constantly fidgeting or squirming: χ2(4) = 62.5, p < .0001; Sees tasks through to the end, good attention span: χ2(4) = 73.6, p < .0001 (reverse scored); Can stop and think things out before acting: χ2(4) = 25.7, p < .0004.

38 Often complains of headaches, stomach aches or sickness: χ2(4) = 32.1, p < .0001; Often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful: χ2(4) = 33.6, p < .0001.

39 Rather solitary, tends to play alone: χ2(4) = 18.9, p < .0050; Gets on better with adults than with other children: χ2(4) = 31.3, p < .0001; Picked on or bullied by other children: χ2(4) = 47.2, p < .0001; Has at least one good friend: χ2(4) = 46.7, p < .0001 (reverse scored); Generally liked by other children: χ2(4) = 41.6, p < .0001 (reverse scored).

40 ANOVA; Conduct problems scale: F(3,269) = 0.48, p = .699; Hyperactivity scale: F(3,269) = 2.78, p = .042; Emotional symptoms scale: F(3,269) = 3.18, p = .025; Peer problems scale: F(3,269) = 12.32, p < .0001.

41 χ2(6) = 35.6 p < .0002.

42 χ2(6) = 29.9 p < .0010.

43 χ2(6) = 43.1 p < .0002.

44 χ2(6) = 32.0 p < .0033.

45 χ2(6) = 40.3 p < .0002.

46 ANOVA; Conduct problems: F(1,271) = 7.71, p < .0060; Hyperactivity: F(1,271) = 5.72, p = .0175; Emotional symptoms: F(1,271) = 1.10, p = .294; Peer problems: F(1,271) = 1.80, p = .181.

47 χ2(2) = 18.9, p < .0026.

48 χ2(2) = 29.0, p < .0001.

49 χ2(2) = 13.2, p < .0049.

50 ANOVA F(1,271) = 85.37, p < .0001.

51 Kind to younger children: χ2(2) = 64.6, p < .0001; Helpful if someone is hurt, upset or feeling ill: χ2(2) = 42.5, p < .0001; Considerate of other people's feelings: χ2(2) = 15.8, p < .0024; Often volunteers to help others: χ2(2) = 88.1, p < .0001; Shares readily with other children: χ2(2) = 37.8, p < .0001.

52 ANOVA F(2,270) = 9.15, p < .001.

53 Kind to younger children: χ2(4) = 20.2, p < .0013; Helpful if someone is hurt, upset or feeling ill: χ2(4) = 18.6, p < .0018; Considerate of other people's feelings: χ2(4) = 44.8, p < .0001.

54 ANOVA F(3,269) = 2.54, p = .057.

55 Considerate of other people's feelings: χ2(6) = 24.6, p < .0075; Helpful if someone is hurt, upset or feeling ill: χ2(6) = 25.2, p < .0018.

56 ANOVA F(1,271) = 4.49, p = .035.

Top