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June 02, 2011

What links pre-school and early-school aggression?

Olson, S.L., Lopez-Duran, N., Lunkenheimer, E.S., Chang, H., & Sameroff, A.J. (2011). Individual differences in the development of early peer aggression: Integrating contributions of self-regulation, theory of mind, and parenting. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 253-266.

In preschool, most children struggle to control aggressive impulses and have difficulty managing their emotions. However, these are normal developmental tasks which children generally shown good mastery of by the time they enter formal schooling. These authors wanted to better understand the degree to which these factors are associated with aggressive behaviour, and whether they help to explain why some children continue to be aggressive and disruptive even when they have entered school. The specific factors these authors were interested in were:
  • The degree to which children are able to control their negative emotional reactions.
  • Children’s understanding of other people’s beliefs and intentions, known as Theory of Mind
  • parenting behaviour, specifically use of physical punishment and levels of warm, responsive parenting.

199 American 3-year-old children took part (118 girls). They took part in a testing session to assess the variables of interest, and their mother’s reported on their child’s temperament and behaviour. When the children were 6-years-old, teacher’s reported on then children’s adjustment and observations of the children’s aggression in class and playground settings were also conducted.

Boys experienced higher levels of physical punishment than girls, and had lower scores on theory of mind. There were no gender differences on emotional reactivity or levels of maternal warmth. Preschool children’s levels of theory of mind and emotional reactivity were not useful in predicting aggression at age 6. Children’s early ability to control their own behaviour and to stop them selves acting on impulses did however predict later aggressive behaviour. However, the most important predictor was physical punishment used by parents. It was also true that children with low theory of mind and low maternal warmth were at risk for acting aggressively later. These findings were true for both boys and girls.

The authors conclude by highlighting the importance of family based interventions as problematic pre-school parenting was the most important factor in explaining later child aggression.

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