Children with below average cognitive function represent a substantial yet under-researched population for whom academic and social demands, which increase in complexity year by year, pose significant challenge. Effects on emotional-behavioural development (EBD) are not well understood. The aim of this study was to compare trajectories of EBD for children with and without below average cognitive function. The underlying hypothesis was that trajectories of EBD would differ between groups, with divergence occurring as children are subject to increasingly complex cognitive demands.
Participants consist of 7,000 children and caregivers who completed the Growing Up in Ireland survey at age 3,5 and 9 years. Cognitive function was measured at age 3 using the Picture Similarities Scale. A t-score 1-2 standard deviations below the mean was categorised as below average cognitive function (n=767), and scores above this categorised as average cognitive function (n=6418). EBD was measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) at age 3,5 and 9. Repeated measures ANOVA was used to examine the difference between the overall group means across the repeated measures of SDQ, the SDQ change over time, and the interaction between cognitive group and change over time. Further analysis of trajectories was performed using latent growth curve analysis.
Compared to those with average cognitive function, a significantly higher proportion of children with below average function were male (61.8% v 38.2%, χ2 (1, N=7134) = 42.07 p<0.001), born to a single parent family (22.4% v 14.7%, χ2 (1, N=7134) = 23.15 p<0.001), and had a parent who smoked (35.6% v 25.8%, χ2 (1, N=7134) = 33.23 p<0.001). Children with below average cognitive function had significantly higher mean total SDQ scores at all ages. Repeated measures ANOVA demonstrated a significant group-by-time interaction effect (F(2,7182)=4.649, p=0.010). The mean difference (MD) in SDQ between cognitive groups increased over time (MD Age 3:0.87, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.53-1.21, Age 9 MD:1.49,95% CI 1.08-1.91). For those with average or above cognitive function the overall SDQ decreased between age 3-9 (MD: -0.49 95% CI -0.65—0.33). This decrease was not seen for those with below average function, who had a non-statistically significant increase in SDQ between age 3-9.
Children with below average cognitive function experience higher and worsening mean SDQ scores throughout childhood. A scalable method of early identification of children at risk for below average cognitive function should be a research priority for public health, enabling early intervention for cognitive and adaptive outcomes.
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