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Developmental foundations of externalizing problems in young children: The role of effortful control



Examined associations between effortful control temperament and externalizing problems in 220 3-year-old boys and girls, controlling for co-occurring cognitive and social risk factors. We also considered possible additive and/or interactive contributions of child dispositional anger and psychosocial adversity, and whether relations between effortful control and early externalizing problems were moderated by child gender. Individual differences in children's effortful control abilities, assessed using behavioral and parent rating measures, were negatively associated with child externalizing problems reported by mothers, fathers, and preschool teachers. These associations were not overshadowed by other cognitive or social risk factors, or by other relevant child temperament traits such as proneness to irritability. Further analyses revealed that associations between externalizing problem behavior and effortful control were specific to components of child problem behavior indexing impulsive-inattentive symptoms. Thus, children's effortful control skills were important correlates of children's early disruptive behavior, a finding that may provide insight into the developmental origins of chronic behavioral maladjustment.This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (RO1MH57489) to Sheryl Olson and Arnold Sameroff. We are very grateful to the children, parents, teachers, and preschool administrators who participated, and to the many individuals who gave us invaluable help with data collection and coding, especially Gail Benninghoff, Meribeth Gandy Pezda, Lisa Alvarez, Sara Miceli, and Felicia Kleinberg. We also thank the administrators of the University of Michigan Children's Center for their generous assistance, Grazyna Kochanska for allowing us to use her behavioral battery of effortful control tasks, Kathy Murray for helping us with numerous details concerning the behavioral battery, and Mary Rothbart, Jack Bates, Patricia Kerig, and Thomas Power for allowing us to use their parent self-report measures.


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Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Sheryl L. Olson, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 East University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109; E-mail:


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