Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires strengths and limitations as an evaluation and practice tool in Social Work


  • Emma Amy O'Neill Presbyterian Support Northern, and the University of Auckland



Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, Social Workers in Schools, Funding Allocation


INTRODUCTION: The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) is an internationally recognised psychometric and behavioural screening tool. The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) have endorsed the SDQ as the primary behavioural screening and client outcome evaluation tool for the Social Workers in Schools (SWiS) service in 2018. The usefulness of the SDQ in social work practice and in evaluating client outcomes, however, remains unclear. This study explored two years of aggregated Youth Workers in Secondary Schools (YWiSS) SDQ scores to understand what client outcomes could be evidenced. This study further reflects on SDQs as a contractually mandated practice tool and their appropriateness in social work practice.

METHOD: Data were collected from the Family Works Northern (FWN) YWiSS database.Data modelling and analysis tested what aggregated client, parent and teacher SDQ scorescommunicated for changes in clients’ behavioural difficulties at service entry, mid-point and exit.

 FINDINGS: Analysis of two years of YWiSS client, parent and teacher SDQ scores aggregated at a service level provided inconsistent evidence of client need and outcomes by SDQ thematic categories. A number of factors, including the SDQ being voluntary, clients exiting service early and the challenge of asking the same teachers and parents to complete an SDQ, meant that there were very few SDQ scores completed by all parties at the service exit point, following a two-year intervention.

CONCLUSION: The findings in this research suggest that the SDQ as a standalone behavioural screening and outcome evaluation tool within social work is limited. Aggregated YWiSS SDQ results provided limited insights about the complexity of client needs or any intervention outcomes to practitioners, social service providers and funders. The use of SDQ in social work requires further scrutiny to test its ability to communicate a client’s level of need and any intervention outcomes to these stakeholders.

Author Biography

Emma Amy O'Neill, Presbyterian Support Northern, and the University of Auckland

Research and Evaluation Analyst Presbyterian Support Northern


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How to Cite

O’Neill, E. A. (2018). Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires strengths and limitations as an evaluation and practice tool in Social Work. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30(2), 28–41.



Original Articles