Executive functions, effortful control, and social skills as predictors of externalizing behaviors in kindergarten children: A within-informant approach

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The relations of executive functions (EF), effortful control (EC), social skills, and externalizing behaviors were examined based on performance measures and rating scales collected from parents and teachers of kindergarten students. Externalizing problems encompass the most prevalent mental health disorders for children at the kindergarten age. Prior research has found that children who exhibit difficulties with self-regulation (EF, EC) or who lack social skills are more likely to develop externalizing problems in early childhood and beyond. However, these constructs have largely been studied separately, and no studies to date have measured EF, EC, and social skills in relation to children’s externalizing behaviors across different methods of measurement and across parent and teacher informants. The current study contributed to the literature on externalizing behaviors in young children by testing the unique contributions of EF, EC, and social skills to externalizing behaviors for parents and teachers separately. Results indicated that there was low agreement between parents and teachers, but that agreement was higher for children rated in the top 15% of externalizing problems. There were both similarities and differences in the relations of constructs for home and school settings. Greater informant-reported global EF deficits, low ratings of global social skills, and low effortful control were predictive of more externalizing behaviors across parent and teacher informants. However, differences were observed at the subscale level for the specific EF deficits and social skills that predicted parent-reported versus teacher-reported externalizing problems. Additionally, many performance measures of EF, including the NEPSY-II scales and the TAT, significantly predicted teacher-reported externalizing behaviors, but not parent-reported externalizing behaviors. Overall, relations are moderate to high between constructs when both are assessed with the same informant and method of measurement. Implications of these findings for both practitioners and researchers are discussed.