Environmental Sensitivity in Children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and Identification of Sensitivity Groups

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Abstract

A large number of studies document that children differ in the degree they are shaped by their developmental context with some being more sensitive to environmental influences than others. Multiple theories suggest that Environmental Sensitivity is a common trait predicting the response to negative as well as positive exposures. However, most research to date has relied on more or less proximal markers of Environmental Sensitivity. In this paper we introduce a new questionnaire—the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) scale—as a promising self-report measure of Environmental Sensitivity. After describing the development of the short 12-item HSC scale for children and adolescents, we report on the psychometric properties of the scale, including confirmatory factor analysis and test–retest reliability. After considering bivariate and multivariate associations with well-established temperament and personality traits, we apply Latent Class Analysis to test for the existence of hypothesized sensitivity groups. Analyses are conducted across 5 studies featuring 4 different U.K.-based samples ranging in age from 8–19 years and with a total sample size of N = 3,581. Results suggest the 12-item HSC scale is a psychometrically robust measure that performs well in both children and adolescents. Besides being relatively independent from other common traits, the Latent Class Analysis suggests that there are 3 distinct groups with different levels of Environmental Sensitivity—low (approx. 25–35%), medium (approx. 41–47%), and high (20–35%). Finally, we provide exploratory cut-off scores for the categorization of children into these different groups which may be useful for both researchers and practitioners.

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