Childhood Cognitive Flexibility and Externalizing and Internalizing Behavior Problems: Examination of Prospective Bidirectional Associations

Irina Patwardhan, Timothy D. Nelson, Megan M. McClelland, W. Alex Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The goal of this study was to examine reciprocal associations between cognitive flexibility and externalizing and internalizing behavior problems longitudinally using data on four occasions from kindergarten through first grade and test for potential gender differences in these associations. The Dimensional Change Card Sort task was used to assess children’s cognitive flexibility as a measure of executive function. Participants were 12,462 kindergarteners (49% female) from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K: 2011). Results from multivariate latent curve models with structured residuals revealed that children’s cognitive flexibility at the beginning of kindergarten was not associated with their growth in either externalizing (r = -0.01, p =.174), or internalizing (r = -0.03, p =.403) problems between kindergarten and the end of first grade. However, after controlling for individual differences in growth, cognitive flexibility at each assessment directly contributed to subsequent lower levels of internalizing (but not externalizing) behavior problems at the next assessment (b = -0.004, p = 0.013; β = -0.03), suggesting that children who are more flexible in switching from one activity to another may be less prone to developing internalizing problems. At kindergarten entry boys had lower levels of cognitive flexibility (b = -0.31, p <.001, β = -.12) and higher levels of externalizing (b = 0.25, p <.001, β =.23), and internalizing problems(b = 0.04, p = 001, β =.05) compared to girls, but did not differ from girls in their rates of change in cognitive flexibility and externalizing or internalizing behavior problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)413-427
Number of pages15
JournalResearch on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology
Volume49
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 2021

Keywords

  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Executive function
  • Externalizing
  • Internalizing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Medicine(all)

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