Differentiating Externalizing Behaviors in Early Childhood: The Role of Negative Affectivity and Attentional Control

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Virginia Tech


My thesis project aimed to assess potential meaningful differences in the behavioral subtypes of externalizing behaviors in children. Externalizing behaviors are a style of behavioral adjustment that are characteristic of early childhood behavior problems. They are commonly measured in developmental and clinical research using the Externalizing Scale of the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). The scale is comprised of Aggressive and Rule-Breaking Behaviors, which are divergent in their developmental trajectory and personological distinctions: aggressive behaviors have emotional underpinnings like frustration, whereas rule-breaking is linked to behavioral impulsivity. In situations of low regulation, negative affectivity may differentially predispose children to these behaviors due to a reactive propensity for anger and frustration. Attentional control can act to regulate these behaviors through shifting and focusing of attention, but may execute this regulation differently based on the situational context. The role of contextual attentional control in predicting two distinct externalizing behaviors has not been sufficiently evaluated in children. AC was behaviorally coded for during a frustrating context. Child behavior problems and temperament were assessed via parent report. Two mediation models were assessed with NA, AC, and aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors, but no indirect effects were found. When individual components of AC were assessed separately as moderations as opposed to mediations, attention shifting played a prominent role and moderated both the aggressive and rule-breaking models. Findings further clarify the role of attention in the relation between temperament and childhood behavior problems.



externalizing behaviors, temperament, attentional control, early childhood