Science Briefs

Effortful Control in the Context of Socioeconomic and Psychosocial Risk

Researchers are increasingly incorporating the study of individual temperament and physiological differences in the examination of the effects of stress and adversity on children’s adjustment.

By Liliana J Lengua

Liliana J LenguaA central goal of child clinical research is to understand children’s adjustment in response to stress and adversity, explaining why some children develop adjustment problems and psychopathology while others emerge well adjusted even in the face of significant stress. Understanding person–by-environment interactions is critically important for child clinical research examining the emergence of children’s social, emotional and behavioral problems in response to risk. With relevance to the emergence of adjustment problems and psychopathology, effortful control appears to be a central construct in this endeavor. Effortful control reflects an individual’s ability to act purposefully in modulating thoughts, emotions and behavior, and therefore, has broad-reaching implications for children’s adjustment. Evidence shows that effortful control is a critical predictor of a range of indicators of children’s adjustment, and it moderates the relation between contextual risk and adjustment problems. Given this, it is important to understand not only how effortful control develops in children growing up in high-risk contexts but also the family and contextual factors that shape its development.

Researchers are increasingly incorporating the study of individual temperament and physiological differences in the examination of the effects of stress and adversity on children’s adjustment (e.g., Boyce & Ellis, 2005). Temperament is defined as individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation that are genetically influenced, biologically based, and shaped by socialization and contextual experiences (Rothbart & Bates, 2006). Reactivity can be defined as autonomic and affective responses to events or contexts, and thus should be relevant in differentiating children’s response to stress. Self-regulation is defined as the ability to modulate reactivity, and a key basis of self-regulation is effortful control, that is, executive-based abilities that regulate attention, behavior, and emotions. Effortful control is thought to serve to down-regulate high levels of negative reactivity through the inhibitory control of automatic cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses. Thus it reduces the likelihood of children emitting inappropriate or undesirable responses as a result of high negative reactivity, but also allows children to overcome inhibition and avoidance given the reduced motivation to engage in an emotionally arousing situation. As a result, greater ability to regulate reactivity can serve to mitigate the effects of other risk factors. Therefore, children’s characteristic physiological and affective responses to stress and their ability to regulate their responses are expected to play an important role in the degree to which they develop adjustment problems in the presence of risk.

The hypothesis of organismic-specificity (Wachs, 1991) suggests that individuals respond differently to the environment according to their own reactivity, a concept that is echoed in Belsky’s (2005) differential susceptibility and Boyce & Ellis’ (2005) biological sensitivity hypotheses. These models suggest that children with certain characteristics, particularly high negative emotionality or stress reactivity, are more susceptible to environmental and socialization influences, being more adversely affected by high-risk influences but benefitting more from positive experiences. Extending from this, effortful control should serve as an important protective factor in the face of risk by modulating children’s negative reactivity and mitigating the effects of risk. It should also allow children to benefit from positive experiences as it can facilitate appropriate engagement with those experiences. Thus, individual differences in effortful control should modulate children’s reactions to contextual influences and mitigate the effects of risk, making a child less susceptible to their effects.

There is extensive evidence supporting the moderating role of children’s temperament negative reactivity and effortful control in the relation between parenting and children’s adjustment. Negative reactivity moderates the effects of parenting such that children high in negative reactivity are more adversely affected by parents’ harsh, inconsistent or rejecting behaviors. These children may also benefit more than children low in negative reactivity from parents’ positive behaviors (Belsky, Bakermans-Kranenburg & van Ijzendoorn, 2007). Further, effortful control protects children from the adverse effects of negative parenting behaviors (e.g., Lengua, 2008; Morris et al., 2002).

The interaction between temperament and other risk factors has been investigated much less frequently than interactions with parenting. However, evidence indicates that temperament, and effortful control in particular, moderates the effects of contextual risk. For example, infants high in negative reactivity demonstrated more behavior problems compared to infants low in negativity when exposed to poor quality childcare settings but fewer behavior problems when in high quality childcare settings (Pluess & Belsky, in press).  Temperament is also shown to interact with neighborhood characteristics. A fearful temperament in children may be relatively protective against the effects of unsafe neighborhoods, but may also be associated with less benefit from the social organization and resources of low-risk neighborhoods (Bush, Lengua & Colder, 2008; Colder, Lengua, Fite, Mott & Bush, 2006). Impulsivity, which can be an indicator of poor self-regulation, increases the likelihood of youth developing problems in the context of a high-risk neighborhood (Bush et al., 2008; Lynam et al., 2000). In addition, effortful control moderated the effects of socioeconomic (Kim-Cohen, Moffitt, Caspi & Taylor, 2004) and cumulative contextual risk (Lengua, 2002 Lengua, Bush, Long, Trancik & Kovacs, 2008). Specifically, children lower in effortful control demonstrated greater adjustment problems and increases in problems at higher levels of contextual risk, whereas children higher in effortful control were relatively protected from the effects of contextual risk.

Effortful Control in the Context of Socioeconomic and Psychosocial Risk
Figure 1

These findings suggest that effortful control is a critical factor to consider in understanding children’s development in high-risk contexts. It appears to serve as a protective factor mitigating the effects of socioeconomic and contextual risk. In addition, effortful control predicts a range of child adjustment indicators, including academic readiness and success (e.g., Blair & Razza, 2007; McClelland et al., 2007; Valiente, Lemery-Chlfant, Swanson & Reiser, 2008), empathy, compliance and social competence (Eisenberg et al., 2003; Kochanska, 1997; Lengua, 2003), and lower internalizing and externalizing problems (Eisenberg et al., 2001; Lengua, 2003; Rothbart, Ahadi & Evans, 2000). Thus, it appears to have broad relevance in children’s adjustment, also predicting adjustment above the effects of other risk factors (e.g., Lengua, 2002).  Further, effortful control appears to facilitate more effective coping in the presence of stress. Children higher in effortful control are more likely to use adaptive forms of coping (Lengua & Long, 2002) and to benefit more from their coping efforts (Lengua & Long, 2002; Lengua & Sandler, 1996). Given this, it is a critical task for researchers to understand the development of effortful control, particularly in children growing up in high-risk contexts, and to identify predictors of the development of effortful control which can be targets of interventions aimed at promoting effortful control in children.

Individual differences in effortful control are evident by the end of the first year of life with infants showing differences in their attention regulation (Rothbart & Bates, 2006). Effortful control demonstrates its most dramatic developmental increase in the preschool period (Kochanska et al., 1996), with continued growth at a moderate rate during middle childhood (Lengua, 2006). Apart from the examination of parental influences (e.g., Kochanska et al., 2000; Lengua et al., 2007), there has been very little research examining the factors that contribute to the development of effortful control. Evidence suggests that children in low-income families have lower effortful control as early as the preschool period (Buckner et al., 2003; Evans & English, 2002; Li-Grining, 2007; Raver, 2004), but the pathways from low income to low effortful control are poorly understood.

Our research has used a bioecological model (Bronfrenbrenner & Morris, 1998) to understand the socioeconomic, family, parenting, and physiological factors that contribute to the development of effortful control. We hypothesized that low family income would increase the likelihood of family disruptions, including negative life events, residential instability, maternal depression and family conflict. These, in turn, would contribute to compromised parenting behaviors, including more negative affect, inconsistent discipline, lower responsiveness and less support for autonomy. Compromised parenting was expected to predict lower effortful control directly and indirectly through children’s physiological stress responses. In turn, this process would be expected to influence children’s social-emotional development and the emergence of psychopathology.

Fig. 2: Effortful Control in the Context of Socioeconomic and Psychosocial Risk
Figure 2

During the preadolescent period, we found strikingly few predictors of the development of effortful control, despite effortful control demonstrating significant growth and individual variability in rates of growth (Lengua, 2006). Sociodemographic (income, parental education, single parent status), environmental (neighborhood and home environment), family disruptions (negative life events, residential instability, family conflict, maternal depression), and parenting (acceptance, rejection, inconsistent discipline, physical punishment) risk factors were examined. Many were related to lower initial levels of effortful control in 8-12 year old children. However, none of these factors was significantly related to growth in effortful control (Lengua, 2006, 2008; Lengua et al., 2008). This highlights the need to identify factors that predict the development of effortful control in preadolescent children.

The pattern of findings, particularly the consistent association of risk factors with lower initial levels of effortful control, points to the possibility that these risk factors exerted their influence earlier in development, a possibility we examined in preschool-age children. In this age group, poverty, cumulative contextual risk, family disruptions, and parenting were significantly related to smaller developmental increases in effortful control across six months (Lengua, 2007; Lengua, Honorado & Bush, 2007). Further, parenting mediated the effects of poverty and cumulative contextual risk. Specifically, mothers’ appropriate limit setting and scaffolding, composed of responsiveness to negative affect and support of autonomy, were related to greater increases in effortful control and accounted for the effects of contextual risk (Lengua et al., 2007). It appears that mothers’ structuring of their children’s emotional and behavioral responses together with support for autonomous behavior can promote the development of effortful control.

To further understand the pathways from poverty and parenting to the development of effortful control, we examined the relations of these factors to children’s physiological stress responses as indicated by disrupted diurnal cortisol patterns. Typical diurnal cortisol patterns are characterized by high morning levels and low evening levels. However, a small portion of children in our study failed to demonstrate morning elevations in cortisol, instead having low levels throughout the day. This diurnal pattern has been found in samples of children in foster care who have experienced disruptions in early care giving experiences (e.g., Dozier et al., 2006; Fisher et al., 2007) and indicates disruptions in the regulation of neuroendocrine functioning. Our preliminary findings suggest that this disrupted diurnal cortisol pattern was more common among children living in poverty and was related to lower effortful control (see Figure 3). In addition, a negative affective quality of maternal parenting, that is mothers’ low warmth and high negativity, was related to a greater likelihood of the disrupted diurnal cortisol patterns (Lengua, 2008). These findings suggest that parenting and physiological stress responses might mediate the effects of poverty on children’s developing effortful control. Thus, it appears that early childhood might be a sensitive period during which sociodemographic, family, parenting and physiological factors shape this very important aspect of self-regulation, with implications for children’s social, emotional, and behavioral adjustment.

Fig. 3: Effortful Control in the Context of Socioeconomic and Psychosocial Risk
Figure 3

This research highlights the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the development of effortful control and its potential role as a protective factor in the presence of risk. Further investigation of its protective role, moderating the relation between risk and adjustment, is needed. Such research should also examine multiple system levels of influence to better understand the role of socioeconomic, family and parenting factors, as well as neuropsychological and physiological mediators of their effects on adjustment. In addition, the relations of physiological stress processes to the development of effortful control might be better understood when examined within the full range of contextual risk.

This research also points to the importance of the developmental timing of risk. It appears that risk factors have different effects at different developmental periods, and it is possible different risk factors might predict the development of effortful control at different developmental periods. The incorporation of developmental models that account for normative developmental processes and the timing of risk can inform the targets and timing of preventive interventions. The preschool period appears to be a sensitive period in the development of effortful control, suggesting that interventions should be targeted at preschool children and families. School-based interventions have been shown to improve pre-school children’s executive functioning, closely related to effortful control (e.g. Diamond, Barnett, Thomas & Munro, 2007; Domitrovich, Cortes et al. 2007). An important future direction is to develop parenting interventions that improve children’s effortful control or executive functioning. Parenting is a critical factor in the development of young children and it appears to be a key predictor of the development of effortful control and a mediator of the effects of other contextual risk factors (e.g., Lengua et al., 2007). Greater support for parenting, in the form of interventions and guidance for parents of preschool children, particularly in low-income families, is needed. Interventions can promote parenting that facilitates the development of effortful control, which can serve as a buffer for children growing up in high-risk contexts.

Accounting for children’s development from a bioecological perspective—which integrates socioeconomic, social, interpersonal, and individual level influences on children’s adjustment—will sharpen our etiological models of the development of adjustment problems and psychopathology in children. It will also clarify children’s vulnerability or resilience in the face of risk by identifying children who are susceptible to the effects of risk. Effortful control appears to be centrally important in protecting children faced with high levels of contextual risk. The use of a bioecological approach to understanding the development of effortful control will allow the development of preventive interventions that are systemic in nature, tailored to meet children’s and families’ needs, and potentially targeted to those who most need them.


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