One fifth of children entering primary have "a particularly concerning pattern" of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties which could affect their longer-term success at school, according to findings from a major Scottish study.
The researchers have called for action to be taken to smooth the transition from nursery to primary school.
Two thirds of children demonstrating emotional problems in primary showed no evidence of difficulty at pre-school.
But the research team nevertheless advocated screening for difficulties in early nursery, as problems such as hyperactivity and inattention were apparent even then. This would allow support to be put in place for parents and children to manage and overcome such difficulties, they suggested.
The researchers were optimistic about the potential of interventions to tackle problems. The best predictors of behaviour difficulties in children were not socio-economic background or maternal education - often cited as such - but poor general health between the ages of two and five and harsh parental discipline, including smacking or shouting.
Paul Bradshaw, co-author of the report, Children's social, emotional and behavioural characteristics at entry to primary school, presented the findings to the annual conference of educational psychologists in Scotland last week.
Mr Bradshaw, who is research director at the Scottish Centre for Social Research, said: "The parenting aspect is encouraging, because it does give us a behavioural dimension that intervention could be capable of changing. However, there are already good parenting programmes in existence and always the difficulty for practitioners is getting parents to engage and participate fully."
The Growing Up in Scotland survey, carried out by the Scottish Centre for Social Research, is tracking the lives of 8,000 Scottish children from the early years, focusing initially on 5,217 children aged 0 to 1 years (birth cohort) and a second cohort of 2,859 children aged 2 to 3 years (child cohort).
In 2008-09, researchers looked at five aspects of social, emotional and behavioural development in the "child cohort", just as the youngsters were starting school: emotional symptoms; conduct problems; hyperactivityinattention; peer relationship problems and pro-social behaviour (a behaviour that benefits another person).
Around a quarter of the children (27 per cent) were found to have moderate or severe conduct problems at the start of primary. Meanwhile, 17 per cent were outwith the normal range when it came to hyperactivityinattention; 15 per cent when it came to peer problems; 10 per cent when it came to emotional symptoms; and 7 per cent when it came to pro-social behaviour.
Researchers stressed this meant that, at entry to primary school, the vast majority of children did not present with any social, emotional or behavioural difficulties.
However, when they examined the number of children with more than one difficulty in the different categories, they found that one fifth fell into one of two clusters of children who exhibited "a particularly concerning pattern of shared difficulties".
One group had high scores on all of the problem scales, with particularly high hyperactivity scores. Children in the other cluster also had higher scores on the problem scales, but came out with particularly high emotional symptoms scores.
The report said: "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."
The Early Years Framework and Getting it Right for Every Child strategy would help improve outcomes for Scotland's youngest children, said a Scottish Government spokeswoman.
She continued: "The overwhelming majority of children (80 per cent) did not display any emotional or behavioural difficulties at entry to primary. However, we are working with local authorities and other partners to support those children and families where such problems exist."
Next year, the Growing Up in Scotland study will begin to track another 6,000 babies to see if the policy changes that come as a result of their findings are making a difference to Scotland's children.
- Original headline: Fifth of primary entrants face `multiple' social hurdles