The SDQ Questionnaire to Evaluate Skills and Difficulties in Children

May 28, 2020
The SDQ questionnaire allows early detection of psychological difficulties in children. Read on to learn more!

Experts estimate that 15% of children from some sort of psychological disorder. However, it’s difficult to detect and make precise diagnoses since, in many cases, the line between clinical symptomatology and actions and behaviors that aren’t indicative of a disorder is often blurry. That’s where the SDQ questionnaire comes in.

In this article, we’ll be talking about this excellent resource for identifying possible mental health difficulties in children and young people.

Childhood is a crucial stage, in which early detection can prevent the progression of different disorders. However, it’s also a great time to build a child’s strengths and skills. It’s precisely for that reason why this comprehensive questionnaire shows us both children’s weaknesses and strengths.

A sad boy.

The SDQ questionnaire for early detection

The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) is a screening test. This means that its goal is to detect possible conditions. After the questionnaire, experts need to corroborate this information and carry out an in-depth assessment with other tools. However, we have to say that it’s a really valuable initial tool.

So, what is the SDQ exactly? It’s a simple 25-item questionnaire that’s divided into five scales. Four of them assess difficulties, while the last one measures prosocial behavior. It can be applied to children between the ages of four and 16. In fact, it has different versions that can be completed by parents, teachers, or by the child themselves if they have the necessary cognitive maturity.

Each statement has three response options: not true, somewhat true, or certainly true. Based on the answers, a score is obtained for each area that’s evaluated, as well as an overall difficulty index. The scales that make up the questionnaire are the following:

Emotional symptoms

  • The child often complains of headaches, stomach aches, or nausea.
  • They’re concerned about many things and often seem restless or worried.
  • They often feel unhappy, discouraged, or tearful.
  • The child is nervous or dependent on others when they have to face new situations and easily loses confidence.
  • They have many fears and are easily frightened.

Behavioral problems

  • The child often has tantrums or is usually bad-tempered.
  • They’re usually obedient and usually do what adults ask them to do. *
  • The child frequently fights with other children or picks on them.
  • They often lie or cheat.
  • They steal things from their home, school, or other places.

Hyperactivity

  • They’re restless, hyperactive, and can’t stay still for long.
  • They’re constantly moving and unruly.
  • The child is easily distracted; their concentration tends to fade easily.
  • They think things through before they do them. *
  • They finish what they start and have good concentration. *

Problems with peers

  • The child is more of a loner and tends to play alone.
  • They have at least one good friend. *
  • The other kids usually like them. *
  • The other kids pick on them or make fun of them.
  • They get along better with adults than with other children.

The prosocial scale

  • They take other people’s feelings into account.
  • They frequently share with other children.
  • The child offers help when someone is hurt, upset, or sick.
  • They treat younger children well.
  • They offer their help to parents, teachers, or other children.
Two children sharing an apple.

Interpretation of the SDQ questionnaire

When experts evaluate the questionnaire, they only take the first four scales (not the prosocial behavior section) into account. They get a “difficulty score” by taking the answers into account, and this will determine whether a more in-depth exploration is necessary due to the detection of an anomaly in the child’s profile.

The score is obtained as follows, statement by statement:

  • “Not true” is worth zero points.
  • “Somewhat true” is worth one point.
  • “Certainly true” is worth two points.

On the items we’ve marked with an asterisk, it’s the other way round: “not true” is two points, “somewhat true” is one point, and “certainly true” is zero points.

If a child has a score of 16 or more, experts consider that the child has some sort of emotional or behavioral difficulty and that an in-depth evaluation is necessary. Thus, this questionnaire is useful among all children, either at school or at a check-up.

This way, experts will be able to detect potential conditions that might otherwise not have been identified and catch them early on. This will allow them to make an appropriate assessment and diagnosis, which leads to appropriate treatment. As a result, it minimizes the impact of the disorder, slowing its course and preventing future problems.

  • Zubillaga, M., Rodríguez, Á. S., Hinojal, C. T., Serrano, A. C., & García, E. O. (2009). Uso del Cuestionario de Capacidades y Dificultades (SDQ) como instrumento de cribado de trastornos psiquiátricos en la consulta de pediatría de Atención Primaria. Bol Pediatr49, 259-262.
  • Castillo, M. (2018). Estudio estructural del Cuestionario de capacidades y dificultades (SDQ) en niños de 2 a 4 años de Montevideo y Canelones.