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Keywords:

  • Hyperactivity;
  • conduct disorder;
  • preschool children;
  • social cognition;
  • executive function

It is widely recognised that impaired social relations are characteristic of school-aged children with behavioural disorders, and predict a poor long-term outcome (Parker & Asher, 1987). However, little is known about the early antecedents of social impairment in behaviourally disturbed children. The aim of the present study was to explore three areas of potential dysfunction in younger children: theory of mind, emotion understanding, and executive function. Forty preschoolers, rated by their parents on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, 1994) as “hard to manage” (H2M) were compared with a control group on a set of: (1) theory of mind tasks (including an emotion prediction task involving either a nice or a nasty surprise); (2) emotion understanding stories (that required affective perspective-taking skills as well as situational understanding); and (3) simple executive function tasks (adapted for preschoolers, and tapping inhibitory control, attentional set-shifting, and working memory). Small but significant group differences were found in all three cognitive domains. In particular, hard-to-manage preschoolers showed poor understanding of emotion and executive control, poor prediction or recall of a false belief, and better understanding of the belief-dependency of emotion in the context of a trick than a treat. Moreover, executive function was associated with performance on the theory of mind tasks for the hard-to-manage group alone, suggesting both direct and indirect links between executive dysfunction and disruptive behaviour.