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Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children

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Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children: An Ecological Exploration Brenda Jones Harden University of Maryland Monique B. Winslow Research Triangle Institute Kimberly T. Kendziora American Institutes for Research Ariana Shahinfar LaSalle University Kenneth H. Rubin University of Maryland Nathan A. Fox University of Maryland Michael J. Crowley University of Maryland Carolyn Zahn-Waxler National Institute of Mental Health Running Head: Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children The authors are grateful for the financial support of the MetLife Foundation in the implementation of this study. We would also like to extend our gratitude to the Head Start children, families, and teachers without whom this research would not have been possible.Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children: An Ecological Exploration ABSTRACT The increased familial and environmental stressors affecting Head Start families over the last two decades have precipitated an escalation of mental health difficulties among participant children (Yoshikawa & Knitzer, 1997). Using an ecological framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), this study explored externalizing behavior problems among a group of Head Start children in a suburban county. Children (N=155) were assessed for externalizing behavior problems in the home and classroom. Additionally, parents participated in interviews about a variety of ecological factors related to children’s behavior problems. Almost one-quarter of the children were identified by their parents as having externalizing behavioral problems in the borderline or clinical range. Twice as many girls as boys had borderline or clinical levels of behavioral problems. Child externalizing behavior was positively associated with child internalizing behavior, parent psychological symptomatology, child temperament, family environment, and exposure to community violence. Children with parent-identified externalizing behavior did have specific social problem-solving skills deficits. Additionally, they were observed to have high levels of specific inappropriate behavior, but did not exhibit high levels of teacher-rated behavior problems. The implications of these findings for Head Start program planning are discussed.Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children Externalizing Problems in Head Start Children: An Ecological Exploration Children reared in poverty are experiencing unprecedented challenges to their mental health, including exposure to family and community violence, familial drug involvement, and dwindling community and societal resources. Current evidence points to a strong association between adverse environmental factors, such as poverty, and externalizing (i.e., outer-directed) behavioral problems in children (Sanson, Smart, Prior & Oberklaid, 1993; Bolger, Patterson, Thompson & Kupersmidt, 1995). However, factors within the child (e.g., temperament) and within the proximal ecologies of children (e.g., parent factors) seem to have a greater impact than more distal factors, such as poverty (Shaw, Owens, Vondra, Keenan & Winslow, 1996). Head Start, with its emphasis on serving children living in poverty, is a prime venue for advancing research on the individual and ecological contributions to externalizing problems in young children from low-income backgrounds. Using an ecological framework (Bronfenbrenner, 1977), we examined herein the intra-individual and environmental factors which potentially relate to externalizing behavior problems in Head Start children. Because of the evidence on the primacy of the family ecology, it is a particular focus of this investigation. Externalizing Behavior in Preschool Children Externalizing behavior problems in young children are receiving increasing empirical attention (Campbell, 1995). Research indicates that the most prevalent mental health difficulty in preschool children is externalizing behavior, defined as non-compliance, poor self-control, and problematic social relationships (Campbell, 1990). Empirical interest in preschool behavior problems has also been fueled by evidence of a link between early onset of externalizing behavior problems and antisocial behavior disorders in later childhood and adolescenceExternalizing Problems in Head Start Children (Campbell, 1995; Tremblay, Pihl, Vitaro & Dobkin, 1994; Patterson, Reid & Dishion, 1992; Farrington, 1991). Given that externalizing behavior has been identified as a major mental health concern of the preschool years, research which investigates the rate at which this phenomenon occurs in specific populations is important. Campbell (1995) states that approximately 10-15% of preschool children have mild to moderate behavior problems. Data about the prevalence of externalizing behavioral problems in young children from impoverished backgrounds are limited. Although Head Start scholars and practitioners have called for documentation of the prevalence of externalizing behavior among participant children, such data are sparse. There is a growing body of evidence on the prevalence of emotional problems in general in the Head Start population. A national study of Head Start children revealed that 0.5% had emotional or behavioral disabilities based on information received from programs (Piotrkowski, Collins, Knitzer & Robinson, 1994). However, Forness and colleagues (1993) have posited that Head Start children with emotional disturbance remain underidentified at a rate of perhaps 50% of what the rate actually may be. Yoshikawa and Knitzer (1997) have pointed to underestimation of the mental health needs of Head Start children as well, citing the discrepancy between Head Start Program Information Reports (PIR’s) and empirical studies of this phenomenon. These findings suggest that externalizing behavior problems, as one class of mental health difficulty, are underidentified among Head Start children as well. The Ecology of Externalizing Behavior There are multiple risk and protective factors which influence the emergence of externalizing behavior in young children. An ecological framework emphasizes the contributionExternalizing Problems in Head Start Children of the individual and the environment to developmental outcome. Preschool behavioral difficulties have been found to be the result of a complex interplay of intrapersonal and interpersonal factors, including gender (Campbell, 1990), difficult


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