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Adversity and Regulatory Processes in Preschool Children: Impact on Psychosocial Adjustment


The purpose of this investigation was to examine the development of self-regulation across preschool and early childhood, with an emphasis on identifying basic developmental processes, implications for adjustment, and contextual influences. Study 1 utilized a path analytic framework to assess longitudinal transactional relations between emotion and behavior regulation. Study 2 utilized a latent change analytic framework to assess the development of self-regulation and the influence of context. The use of these two complementary paradigms sought to clarify individual patterns of growth and stability, and to elucidate the mechanism behind potential cross domain effects.

Data were drawn from a diverse sample of 250 children who completed annual observational assessments of regulation during laboratory tasks at ages four, five, and six. Additional measures included parent report of adversity exposure, teacher report of social competence, internalizing problems, and externalizing problems, and laboratory-measured academic achievement.

Study 1 found modest stability of regulation across early childhood, and bidirectional prospective relations between emotion and behavior regulation. Better behavior regulation at age four predicted better emotion regulation at age six, while better emotion regulation at age five predicted better behavior regulation at age six. Each cross-domain longitudinal relation controlled for the stability of prior within-domain regulation and concurrent cross-domain relations. Behavior regulation evidenced direct relations with adjustment in multiple domains, with indirect effects of emotion regulation emerging through its effect on behavior regulation.

Study 2 found that emotion and behavior regulation evidenced different patterns of growth. Emotion regulation improved from age four to five, and remained relatively constant from age five to six. Furthermore, higher levels of cumulative adversity predicted a decrease in the slope of emotion regulation trajectories, such that children who experienced more adversity improved less in emotion regulation over time. There was no significant effect of adversity on initial levels of regulation. Although behavior regulation appeared to increase in a linear fashion, a latent change model could not be fit successfully, which precluded assessing the effect of adversity on behavior regulation, or interrelations between regulatory trajectories. Implications are for the development of context-sensitive interventions and increased specification of key domains of self-regulation in investigations.

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