Because it is developmentally appropriate for young children to exhibit behavioral problems, it is often difficult to determine which behaviors are transient and part of the normal course of development, and which are indicative of a more severe and persistent problem. Six-year outcome data for a nationally representative sample of 834 4-7 year olds, followed up twice at 3-year intervals, were used to examine the correlates and stability of early childhood behavior problems, the early childhood variables that predict later behavior problems, and the factors that moderate and mediate the link between early and later behavior problems.
Analyses suggested that higher family/environmental stress at age 4-7 was concurrently associated with higher externalizing, but not internalizing problems. Early externalizing, internalizing, social and attention problems were moderately stable over a 3- and 6-year-period; 29-53% of children with problems in the deviant range at Time 1 continued to present in the deviant range on that same problem scale 6 years later. Early childhood behavior problems were the best predictors of behavior problems 6 years later, accounting for 13-32% of the variance. School competence at Time 2 mediated the link between Time 1 and Time 3 externalizing, social and attention problems. Persistent externalizing problems were associated with poorer social and school competence, and higher family/environmental stress. Additionally, persistent social problems were linked with higher family/environmental stress, and persistent attention problems were associated with poorer school competence. Furthermore, the higher the level of family/environmental stress at Time 1, the more likely it was that children with deviant externalizing problems at Time 1 would still be deviant on externalizing problems at Time 3.
These data suggest that for some children, early behavior problems are not just a normative response to a challenging developmental period, but rather are indicative of a more persistent problem. In addition, family/environmental stress, poor social competence and/or poor school competence early in life are not independently strong predictors of later behavior problems, but rather, the combination of early behavior problems with family/environmental stress and/or poor competence increases the likelihood that behavior problems in early childhood will persist.
"The route through childhood is shaped by many forces, and it differs for each of us. Our biological inheritance, the temperament with which we are born, the care we receive, our family relationships, the place where we grow up, the schools we attend, the culture in which we participate, and the historical period in which we live — all these affect the paths we take through childhood and condition the remainder of our lives."