Childhood externalizing and internalizing behavior problems constitute a major risk factor for current and continuing antisocial behavior, delinquency, and mental health service utilization. Externalizing behavior problems, defined in the research literature as disorders consisting of aggressive, impulsive, and hyperactive behaviors, contribute to delinquent and violent behavior. Internalizing behavior problems, characterized by anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and low self-esteem contribute to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Externalizing and/or internalizing behavior problems in childhood may potentially set up developmental pathways to future psychopathology and maladaptation. Executive function (EF), defined as higher order, self- regulatory, cognitive processes that aid in the monitoring and control of thought and action, has been linked to both externalizing and internalizing behavior problems. Although basic predictive relationships between EF and problem behaviors have been established, it is still remains unclear how these processes are related, and the extent to which these relations are influenced by family and school contexts. Guided by developmental systems theory, the proposed study will extend previous research by applying a multi-analytic approach to longitudinal associations between EF and externalizing and internalizing problems in the same project, providing evidence for general vs. specific effects, reciprocal associations, and heterogeneity in EF (Aim 1) thereby advancing our understanding of the mechanisms of change in associations between EF and problem behaviors across the elementary school years. Further, following ecological systems theory, the project will examine how associations between EF and problem behaviors vary as a function of family and school contexts (Aim 2), thereby providing nuanced information necessary for advancement of the EF-focused interventions. Moreover, gender differences in the patterns, moderators, and correlates of EF and problem behaviors will be explored (Aim 3), potentially leading to tailored intervention strategies. The proposed R03 will accomplish these aims through analyses of the public-use data (N = 18,174) from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 (ECLS-K: 2011). Multi-rater (researchers, parents, teachers, children), multi- method (direct child assessments, structured interviews) data are available for analysis and draw from widely used, psychometrically sound measurement tools. The rationale for studying associations between EF and problem behaviors in such cohort is that it contains data on EF assessment that was conducted twice a year (i.e., in fall and spring), enabling us to capture rapid changes in development of EF during the critical period of early elementary years. The central hypotheses are that correlated growth patterns between EF and externalizing and internalizing problems will be identified, where EF will have stronger bidirectional associations with externalizing rather than internalizing problems, and that moderators drawn from the family and school contexts can promote resilience for children with lower EF and/or higher behavior problems. Applying a multi-analytic approach is novel, since most studies have addressed unidirectional predictive relationship between EF and problem behaviors. The proposed project is significant because it aims to determine thorough mechanisms of change in associations between EF and problem behaviors thereby holding promise for advancing theory and early screening and intervention efforts designed to identify poor executive function trajectories early in development.
This study addresses both the NIH and NICHD research priority to stimulate research on building resilience in at-risk children, in this case, identifying family and school factors that can promote the positive development of children who are on early trajectories of poor executive function development. Findings can help inform the development of targeted interventions that have the potential to improve problem behaviors, including externalizing and internalizing problems, in at-risk school-age children with executive function difficulties. The team is unique in being comprised of service provider-based researchers and an experienced consultant who have experience translating study findings into practice for public health benefit.