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Challenging behaviors and the role of preschool education

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    What We Know: A challenging behavior is any repeated pat-tern of behavior that interferes with learn-ing or engagement in social interactions.This includes unresponsiveness to develop-mentally appropriate guidance and actionssuch as prolonged tantrums, physical andverbal aggression, disruptive vocal andmotor behavior, property destruction, self-injury, noncompliance, and withdrawal.4

    Challenging behaviors during the preschoolyears constitute one of the strongest predic-tors of later, more serious problem behaviorsincluding delinquency, aggression, antisocialbehavior, and substance abuse.

    Participation in early care and educationis sometimes linked to higher rates of chal-lenging behaviors, especially in programsof lower quality that do not specificallyaddress the social development needs ofyoung children.

    High-quality preschool education thatincludes an emphasis on childrens socialdevelopment can reduce rates of challeng-ing behaviors and serve as a long-termprotective factor for children at risk fordeveloping challenging behaviors.

    Policy Recommendations: High-quality preschool education shouldbe provided so all children have the oppor-tunity to develop positive social skills.

    Teacher training and technical support inthe area of childrens social and emotionaldevelopment and classroom managementshould be provided, ideally on an on-goingbasis.

    No preschooler should be expelled froman early childhood program.With the rightsupports for teachers and a differentiatedapproach that provides additional layers ofthe teaching pyramid for at-risk children,this ultimate form of discipline can beprevented.

    Universal, classroom-based curricula thatinclude social skills teaching should beviewed as the base tier of a teaching pyra-mid that serves all children. Children whostruggle with challenging behaviors shouldreceive additional tiers that provide inten-tional teaching of social problem-solvingand other pro-social skills as well as inter-ventions from experts and family membersas needed.

    Developmentally appropriate screening forearly identification of problems is essential.

    December 2007, Issue 16





    Policy Brief series edited byEllen C. Frede, Ph.D., andW. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.

    National Institute forEarly Education Research

    Challenging Behaviorsand the Role ofPreschool Educationby Lisa A. McCabe and Ellen C. Frede

    Some research suggests a rise in challenging behaviors amongchildren in early care and education. Among the findings area high rate of removal from preschool classrooms for behaviorproblems,1 a possible link between early non-maternal careand aggressive behaviors in preschool,2 and concerns fromteachers that too many children arrive at school without thesocial skills required to learn.3

    This begs the question of the role preschool educationplays in regard to problem behaviorswhether under certaincircumstances it is a contributing factor or whether it can infact provide positive experiences that lead to a reduction of challenging behaviors.This policy brief reviews the research in order to answer these questions and makesrecommendations that can lead to better behavioral outcomes.

  • Preschool Policy Brief | December 20072

    A growing body of research points tolinks between challenging behaviorsin early childhood and later negativedevelopmental and social outcomes.Studies have shown that early behav-ior problems are associated withdelinquency,5 persistent aggressionand antisocial behavior,6 and sub-stance abuse.7 Yet, it is important tonote that not all children who exhibitproblem behaviors, especially aggres-sion, in early childhood maintainthese behaviors over time.8 Researchhas begun to investigate the possibletrajectories of early onset aggressionin order to distinguish normal peaksin aggression (typically in the toddlerand preschool years) from those thatlead to long-term pathological behav-iors.9 In one study, researchers work-ing with more than 300 childrenfound that although some outgrew

    their disruptive disorder, many didnot.10 Similarly, a study of low-incomemothers and their children foundmoderate stability in aggression forboys and non-compliance for girlsbetween 1 and 5 years of age.11 Inother words, aggressive children con-tinued to be aggressive throughoutthe period of the study. Finally, workfrom the large-scale National Instituteof Child Health and Human Develop-ment (NICHD) Study of Early ChildCare identified five typical trajectoriesof aggressive behavior. Three of thesetrajectories involved moderate to highlevels of aggression at some point, butonly a small portion of children (3percent of the participants) followeda path of high and sustained levelof aggression from age 24 monthsto third grade.12

    Because of the potentially serious

    consequences of behavior problemsin young children, both for the indi-vidual as well as the larger society,researchers have also begun to exam-ine the precursors of the developmentof challenging behaviors. This litera-ture13 has documented key risk factorsfor childrens challenging behaviorsincluding poor prenatal environmentsuch as exposure to drugs/alcoholand maternal malnutrition,14 familypoverty,15 and negative parentingpractices such as harsh disciplineand maternal insensitivity.16 Researchalso shows that behavioral challengesfrequently occur in the presence oflanguage delays17 and often comprisemultiple symptoms from severalclinical diagnoses including AttentionDeficit Hyperactivity Disorder,Oppositional Defiant Disorder,and Conduct Disorder.18

    Prevalence, Development and Trajectory of Aggression

  • Early Care and Education and Aggression

    Since the 1970s and 1980s,19 questionshave arisen about the link betweenparticipation in non-maternal earlycare and education settings and chal-lenging behaviors. Although numer-ous studies have examined this,20

    many of them were small in scale,failed to take into account familybackground factors or quality of care,and offered conflicting findings. Inpart to address this debate, one of thelargest child care investigations, theNICHD Study of Early Child Care,began in the early 1990s.21 This studyof 1,300 children who were followedfrom birth through grade school,gathered child care data at multiplepoints over the first 5 years of life.Results indicate that 4.5-year-old chil-dren with more child care experiencedemonstrated higher levels of exter-nalizing behavior problems such asaggression and disobedience than didchildren who spent fewer hours innon-maternal care. This held trueeven in higher quality child care set-tings. However, some have questionedhow widely this finding can be gener-alized, in part because the variabilityin quality of care in this study was notlarge enough to truly detect meaning-ful differences.22 In addition, it cannotbe ruled out that the causality runs inthe opposite direction, with challeng-ing behaviors leading to increasedtime in child care or that some otherunmeasured family background char-acteristic accounts for both increasesin difficult behaviors and time inchild care. It is also important to notethat the higher levels of externalizingbehaviors seen at age 54 months werenot evident when the same childrenwere younger (age 2 and 3),23 nor wasit evident once the children were inthird grade.24 By sixth grade, the linkbetween early child care experienceand later externalizing behaviors waslimited to those children who attend-ed center-based (as opposed to home-based or relative care) settings formore than two years.25 In addition,effect sizes were small (i.e. not

    approaching clinical levels of prob-lematic behavior) and were much lessthan those associated with parentingor family characteristics.Evidence for a possible link

    between preschool experience andchallenging behaviors also comesfrom work examining cortisol, ahormone that serves as a measureof stress in children in child care. Areview of nine studies found a rise incortisol in children who are in groupcare settings (even high-quality set-tings) when compared to children inhome care.26 This finding may berelated to the pressures of being in agroup setting and dealing with socialthreats for many hours each day. Itis not yet clear whether these elevatedcortisol levels put children at risk forlater health problems or whether theyrelate to significant behavioral chal-lenges. Still, they do suggest that whenbehavior problems are detected inpreschool settings, they may be due,at least in part, to childrens difficultycoping with social pressures in agroup setting for extended periodsof time.Findings from a longitudinal

    demonstration program forpreschool children also suggestthat participation in preschool,even a high-quality program, canbe related to problem behaviorsin children. In the Abecedarianprogram, which involved a random-ized trial of a comprehensive childcare program for African-Americanchildren from birth through age 5,researchers documented an increasein behavior problems in programparticipants once they reached ele-mentary school when compared tothe children who did not attend.27

    In response to this, developers revisedthe curriculum to include more of afocus on social skill development andsupport for teachers in this develop-mental area. Once these changes wereimplemented, the increase in challeng-ing behaviors among program childrenwas not found.

    Finally, a recent large-scale investi-gation examined the troubling prac-tice of removing children exhibitingchallenging behaviors from preschoolclassrooms. In a sample of nearly4,000 preschool classrooms from40 states, 10.4 percent of preschoolteachers reported that at least onechild had been removed from theirclassrooms28 because of behaviorproblems in the previous 12 months.29

    This removal rate is high compared torates