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Longer-Term Preschool Assessments Can Predict Aggression in Adulthood

A new study from the United Kingdom suggests that previous studies have underestimated the ability of early childhood behavioral assessments to predict behavioral disorders and aggression later in life. The new study was undertaken by a team of professors from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, the University of Innsbruck and the University of York. The results were published Sept. 4, 2014, in the British Journal of Developmental Psychiatry.

Researchers Suspect Insufficient Behavioral Sampling in Previous Studies

According to the authors of the new study, previous research into the predictive ability of early childhood behaviors has relied primarily on behavioral assessments from a single point in time. This may have resulted in insufficient behavioral sampling, decreasing the likelihood that the observed behaviors were truly representative of a child’s consistent, longer-term behavioral patterns. Professor Marcel Zentner of the University of Innsbruck, one of the study’s lead authors, compares predicting later life behaviors after a single behavioral assessment to predicting a player’s overall batting average from a single game. The researchers for the new U.K. study believed this might partly explain why existing studies had found relatively minor connections between aggressive-impulsive behaviors in 3- and 4-year-old children and aggressive behavior later in childhood. In order to test this theory, the new study assessed the behavior of their research subjects over an extended period rather than during a single observation session. A group consisting of 99 4-year-old children was assessed for aggressive-impulsive behaviors once a week over 15 weeks. Two nursery school teachers provided the assessments as part of the larger Mauritius Child Health Project. In two follow-up phases of the study, these children were assessed for aggressive symptoms at age 8 and again at age 10. These “externalizing” behavioral problems consisted of behaviors such as destroying other children’s belongings or fighting.

Results Show Much Greater Predictive Ability

The results of the new study suggest that previous research has underestimated the predictive ability of early childhood behaviors by as much as 50 percent. In addition to evaluating the overall predictive ability of the full 15 weeks’ worth of assessments, the researchers also evaluated the reliability and predictive ability of individual week assessments as well as combined assessments from increasing numbers of weeks up to the full 15. They found that the reliability of the assessments as well as the predictive ability of the assessments increased when results from several ratings were combined. This suggested that early childhood (preschool) behavior is more reliable at predicting later aggressive behavior than previous research has shown, and it also suggests that insufficient behavioral sampling is a likely explanation for the fairly low predictive ability demonstrated by previous studies.

Accurate Predictions Could Mean Early Intervention

The ability to accurately identify preschool age children who are likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors later in childhood and into adulthood could improve our ability to provide effective early intervention. Without reliable predictions of aggression, it becomes difficult to know which children should be the focus of efforts to improve socialization and decrease aggressive and impulsive tendencies. Earlier prevention and treatment efforts could improve both the effectiveness of such interventions and decrease the costs that are currently associated with treating behavioral disorders. The ability to accurately recognize behaviors that put children at risk for behavioral disorders could mean the difference between relatively straightforward interventions for at-risk behaviors compared to much more complex and expensive treatment after full-on behavioral disorders have developed.

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