Deconstructing the externalizing spectrum: growth patterns of overt aggression, covert aggression, oppositional behavior, impulsivity/inattention, and emotion dysregulation between school entry and early adolescence

The purpose of this study was to determine whether five subcomponents of children's externalizing behavior showed distinctive patterns of long-term growth and predictive correlates. We examined growth in teachers' ratings of overt aggression, covert aggression, oppositional defiance, impulsivity/inattention, and emotion dysregulation across three developmental periods spanning kindergarten through Grade 8 (ages 5-13 years). We also determined whether three salient background characteristics, family socioeconomic status, child ethnicity, and child gender, differentially predicted growth in discrete categories of child externalizing symptoms across development. Participants were 543 kindergarten-age children (52% male, 81% European American, 17% African American) whose problem behaviors were rated by teachers each successive year of development through Grade 8. Latent growth curve analyses were performed for each component scale, contrasting with overall externalizing, in a piecewise fashion encompassing three developmental periods: kindergarten-Grade 2, Grades 3-5, and Grades 6-8. We found that most subconstructs of externalizing behavior increased significantly across the early school age period relative to middle childhood and early adolescence. However, overt aggression did not show early positive growth, and emotion dysregulation significantly increased across middle childhood. Advantages of using subscales were most clear in relation to illustrating different growth functions between the discrete developmental periods. Moreover, growth in some discrete subcomponents was differentially associated with variations in family socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Our findings strongly affirmed the necessity of adopting a developmental approach to the analysis of growth in children's externalizing behavior and provided unique data concerning similarities and differences in growth between subconstructs of child and adolescent externalizing behavior.