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DECA Preschool Theory
The Devereux Early Childhood Assessment (DECA) A Measure of Within-Child Protective Factors in Preschool Children

Paul A. LeBuffe & Jack A. Naglieri


The 1980s witnessed a burgeoning interest in the delineation and investigation of protective factors in children, which has persisted in the current decade. Protective factors are individual and environmental characteristics that are thought to moderate or buffer the negative effects of stress and result in more positive behavioral and psychological outcomes in at-risk children than would have been possible in their absence (Masten & Garmezy, 1985). Children whose behavior reflects these protective factors tend to have positive outcomes despite stress and are often characterized as "resilient." Children lacking, or with underdeveloped protective factors, are more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems under similar risk conditions and are described as "vulnerable."

Interventions premised on strengthening protective factors in young children have shown promise in reducing the occurrence of severe emotional and behavioral disorders and other negative life outcomes. Typical interventions include providing preschoolers with the opportunity to establish relationships with supportive caring adults who serve as positive role models or mentors, developing parent training programs that offer family-centered support and strategies to promote resilience, and teaching caregivers how to encourage the development of independence, self-esteem and self-efficacy in preschoolers.

Garmezy (1985) suggested that protective factors could be divided into three categories: 1) dispositional attributes of the child, 2) supportive family environment, and 3) external support systems. Although reliable measures of Garmezy's second and third categories exist, to date no empirically sound and widely available measure of child behaviors related to resiliency (i.e. "within-child" protective factors) has been developed.

In addition to hindering program development, refinement and evaluation, the lack of such an instrument has also made it difficult to reliably identify individual children who may have low protective factors and are therefore at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioral problems. Identifying these children is particularly important in that they might benefit most from resilience enhancing interventions.

This report reviews the development, standardization, validation and use of a new, nationally standardized measure of within-child protective factors, the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment, that has been developed as part of a national initiative, sponsored by the Devereux Foundation, to foster the healthy emotional growth of preschool children.

The Devereux Early Childhood Assessment

Developed over a two year period in 1996-98, the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment or DECA is a nationally normed assessment of within-child protective factors in preschool children aged two to five. Completed by parents, family caregivers or early childhood professionals (preschool teachers and child care providers), the DECA evaluates the frequency of 27 positive behaviors (i.e. strengths) exhibited by preschoolers. Typical items include "chooses to do task that are challenging for him/her," "shows patience," and "ask adults to play with or read to her/him." These items were derived from the childhood resilience literature and through focus groups conducted with parents and early childhood professionals. The DECA also contains a 10-item behavioral concerns screener.

The three primary purposes of the DECA are: 1) to identify children who are low on the protective factors so that targeted classroom and home-based strategies can be implemented leading to the strengthening of these abilities, 2) to generate classroom profiles indicating the relative strengths of all children so that classroom design and instructional strategies can build upon these strengths to facilitate the healthy social and emotional growth of all children, and 3) to screen for children who may be exhibiting behavioral concerns so that these can be addressed before they become entrenched and possibly develop into behavioral disorders.

Thus, the DECA may be used by progams as both an assessment and a screener.

Standardization Sample - The DECA was standardized on a sample of 2,000 preschool children who resided in 28 states. Half of the children in the sample were rated by a parent or other family caregiver; and half by a preschool teacher or child care center staff. Similarly, 51% of the children rated were boys and 49% girls. One quarter of the children in the sample were from poor families (defined as either receiving public assistance or subsidized child care) which matches the prevalence of poverty among young children. The sample was stratified on race, Hispanic ethnicity, and region of residence. The most recent data available from the United States Department of the Census was used to identify appropriate percentages for these variables. As indicated in Table 1 (race), Table 2 (Hispanic ethnicity) and Table 3 (Region of Residence) the DECA Standardization Sample very closely approximates the preschool population of the United States. These results indicate that the DECA was normed on a sample of children that accurately reflects the diversity of preschool children in the country.

Scale Development - Exploratory factor analysis of the standardization items yielded a comprehensible series of scales that were consistent with published descriptive longitudinal research on protective factors (e.g., Werner and Smith, 1982). A three-factor solution fit the data best. Based on an inspection of the item content of the three factors, the scales were labeled:
Initiative - which measures the child’s ability to use independent thought and action to meet his or her needs.

Self Control - which assesses the child's ability to experience a range of feelings and express them using the words and actions that society considers appropriate.

Attachment a measure of a mutual, strong, and long-lasting relationship between a child and significant
adult(s).
Reliability of the DECA - As shown in Table 4, the DECA is a highly reliable instrument. Each of the alpha coefficients for the protective factor scales meets or exceeds the .80 "desirable standard" established by Bracken (1987) for internal consistency estimates. The alpha coefficent for the Behavioral Concerns Scale is lower, reflecting the heterogeneity of this scale.

Test-Retest reliabilities over a 24-hour period were calculated for both parents and teachers. The reliabilities for the protective factors ranged from .55 to .80 for parents and .87 to .94 for teachers. All of these correlations were significant at the .01 level.

Interrater reliability of the DECA was established by comparing ratings provided by teachers and teachers aides. The reliabilities for the protective factors ranged from .59 to .77. Again, all correlations were significant at the .01 level.

Validity - The criterion validity of the DECA was established by examining its ability to correctly predict whether an individual child was part of a clinical (n = 95) or a matched non-referred (n = 86) sample. Any child who had been given a psychiatric diagnosis, was being seen by a mental health professional for emotional or behavioral problems, had been asked to leave a child care program due to his/her behavior, or had an individualized behavior management plan in place was considered to be part of the clinical sample. If none of these conditions were true, the child became part of the non-referred sample.

Using the interpretive guidelines suggested in the DECA manual, the Total Protective Factors score was able to correctly classify 69% of the children in this study. This figure compares favorably with the classification accuracy of well-established scales of symptomatic behavior such as the Devereux Scales of Mental Disorders (Naglieri, LeBuffe & Pfeiffer, 1995).

Construct validity was explored by correlating scores on the protective factor scales and the Behavioral Concerns scale. An overall correlation of -.65 was obtained indicating that protective factors and problem behaviors are inversely related.

Additional validity and reliability data are presented in the DECA Technical Manual.

Implications and Importance

Since the seminal studies of Emily Werner, professionals have recognized that protective factors in early childhood have a crucial role in determining subsequent adjustment or maladjustment to life stresses. Werner's recommendation that both assessment and diagnosis in early intervention should focus on protective factors as well as risks (Werner, 1990) has been hampered by the lack of an economical, psychometrically sound, and clinically useful measure of within-child protective factors. The DECA has been developed to fill this gap and thereby provide early childhood professionals with an empirically sound tool for assessing the strength of protective factors in preschoolers.

Based on the belief that the primary value of assessment is to guide effective services for children, the DECA has been developed as part of a comprehensive program to foster the healthy social and emotional development of children.

The DECA Program consists of an integrated package for not only assessing, but also strengthening protective factors in children. In addition to the DECA, a Classroom Strategies Guide which is keyed to DECA results, a booklet for parents on fostering resilience titled, For Now and Forever, and a Classroom Observation Guide are available. Used together, this assessment and intervention package could be critically important to primary prevention efforts within the preschool system of care. Finally, the DECA, by focusing attention on a child’s strengths and the importance of protective factors, will support a more holistic, strength-based approach to working with children at risk.

Availability - The DECA Program, including the DECA, the Classroom Strategies Guide, the parent booklet - For Now and Forever, and the Classroom Observation Guide, are available from the Kaplan Company.

References

Bracken, B. A. (1987). Limitations of preschool instruments and standards for minimal levels of technical adequacy. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 5, 313-326.

Garmezy , N. (1985). Stress-resistant children: the search for protective factors. In J. E. Stevenson (Ed.). Recent research in developmental psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (Book Supplement, Number 4, pp.213-233). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Masten, A. S., & Garmezy, N. (1985). Risk, vulnerability and protective factors in developmental psychopathology. In B. B. Lahey & A. E. Kazdin (Eds.), Advances in clinical child psychology (Vol. 8, pp. 1-512). New York: Plenum.

Naglieri, J. A., LeBuffe, P. A., & Pfeiffer, S. I. (1995). The Devereux Scales of Mental Disorders. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological Corporation.

Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A study of resilient children. New York: McGraw-Hill

Table 1

Standardization Sample: Race
Total % White Black Asian/ Pacific Islander Native American Other*
DECA Sample 69.4 17.2 3.5 1.0 9.0
DECA Sample
(w/o "Other" category)
76.2 18.8 4.0 1.0 -
U.S. 79.0 15.8 4.1 1.1 -
* U.S. Bureau of the Census does not collect these data. Note . The U.S. population data are based on "Resident Population, by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Single Years of Age: 1995, Table No. 22," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1996 The National Data Book by the U.S. Bureau of the Census 1996. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Table 2

Standardization Sample: Hispanic Origin
  NE% MW% S% W% Total%
DECA Sample 15.7 4.7 11.6 12.3 10.7
U.S. Population 7.9* 3.1* 8.4* 19.9* 10.3
* Numbers based on the entire population of each region. Note . The U.S. population data are based on "Resident Population, by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Single Years of Age: 1995, Table No. 22," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1996 The National Data Book by the U.S. Bureau of the Census 1996. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Table 3

Standardization Sample: Region
  NE% MW% S% W%
DECA Sample 19.5 26.5 33.5 20.5
U.S. Population (<5) 18.5 22.4 34.6 24.5
Note : The U.S. population data are based on "Resident Population, by Age and State:1995, Table No. 34," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1996 The National Data Book by the U.S. Bureau of the Census 1996. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Table 4

DECA Reliability
DECA Scale Alpha
Initiative .87
Self-control .88
Attachment .80
Total Protective Factor .92
Ordering the DECA Program Kit

If you are interested in placing an order for the DECA Program Kit please visit the Kaplan website. (Search keyword: DECA)

Kaplan
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1310 Lewisville-Clemmons Road
Lewisville, NC 27023-0609
(800) 334-2014 - Phone
(800) 452-7526 - Fax
e-mail: Info@Kaplanco.com
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