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Predicting the Externalizing Trajectories of Child Welfare-Involved Preschoolers: A Longitudinal Analysis of Attachment Security, the Caregiving Environment, and Participation in Early Care and Education


Background and Aims. Externalizing behaviors, or more informally, aggressive or hyperactive behaviors, in young children are concerning to both parents and child care providers, and at clinical levels pose considerable social and economic costs to society. Externalizing behaviors amongst preschoolers involved with the child welfare system is of particular concern given its theoretical etiology wherein alienation by a primary caregiver, as well as trauma resultant from system involvement, presents increased risk of an externalizing diagnosis in early childhood. Thus, it is unsurprising that children with insecure attachments are at particular risk for externalizing behaviors. Moreover, it is therefore possible that early care and education (ECE) has the potential to differentially benefit child welfare-involved preschoolers by providing both the opportunity to develop a secure attachment and through modeling of prosocial behavior in a supportive environment. This dissertation examined the effects of attachment security, ECE participation, and the caregiving context on the externalizing trajectories of child welfare-involved preschoolers.

Methods. This research utilized secondary data from the National Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) II study, following a sample of n=221 preschoolers across three waves of data spanning approximately 36-months. Given the nested, repeated measures nature of the secondary data, this study employed a weighted two-level hierarchical linear model to assess the effects of attachment security, ECE participation, child’s language and the caregiving context (maternal depression, cognitive stimulation, and spanking), controlling for caregiver SES (marital status, caregiver education, and TANF participation), child characteristics (language, gender, race/ethnicity, and age), and child welfare involvement (substantiated, unsubstantiated, or removal from home), as well as the possible moderating effects of attachment and ECE participation.

Results. Findings from hierarchical linear modeling demonstrate no association between attachment security at 18 months of age and externalizing behavior 36 months later. Moreover, this study found a significant negative relationship between ECE participation and externalizing behavior wherein participation in ECE was associated with an increase in externalizing. Maternal depression and spanking were also significantly associated with increased externalizing behavior. Child’s language and cognitive stimulation at home were protective factors and associated with decreased externalizing, though the magnitude of the effect of both were modest compared with maternal depression or corporal punishment. Moreover, there was a significant interaction between maternal depression and ECE participation wherein children with depressed caregivers differentially benefitted from ECE participation when compared with those of non-depressed caregivers.

Conclusions. While this study is limited by its inability to control for the quality of ECE settings, which is of particular concern for this at-risk population, it adds to the emerging literature on the effects of ECE specific to child welfare-involved preschoolers. Social work policy and practice implications are discussed, such as the need for increased collaboration between ECE providers and the child welfare workers, as well as targeted or triaged support of clinically depressed caregivers.

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