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We examined associations of proactive parenting, child verbal ability, and child effortful control within the context of a randomized prevention trial focused on enhancing parenting practices in low-income families. Participants (N = 731) were assessed annually from the age of two to five, with half randomly assigned to the Family Check-Up (FCU). Results indicated that the child's verbal ability at the age of three partially mediated the influence of proactive parenting at the age of two on children's effortful control at the age of five. More importantly, the FCU indirectly facilitated children's effortful control by sequentially improving proactive parenting and children's verbal ability. The findings are discussed with respect to taking a more integrative approach to understanding early predictors and the promotion of self-regulation in early childhood.
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Effortful control refers to the efficiency of executive attention and the capacity to inhibit an automatic response to perform an alternative response (Rothbart & Bates, 2006). As a key aspect of self-regulation, effortful control has been linked to academic and socioemotional indicators from preschool (Allan & Lonigan, 2011; Kochanska & Knaack, 2003) to school age (Blair & Razza, 2007; Eisenberg et al., 2009). Additionally, the ability to self-regulate has been found to be a central component of resilience and thus may be particularly important to promote social and instrumental competence in children of poverty who are at higher risk for school failure and psychopathology (Masten, 2001).
This study was designed to advance our understanding of early predictors and the promotion of effortful control by examining relations among proactive parenting, child verbal ability, and effortful control within the context of a randomized trial. Specifically, a mediational model was examined in which proactive parenting was expected to affect effortful control via its effect on child verbal ability. In addition, we investigated whether children's effortful control can be facilitated indirectly by their parents' participation in the Family Check-Up (FCU), an early home-based intervention to enhance parenting practices in low-income families (Dishion et al., 2008).
Proactive Parenting and Effortful Control
Parents play a key role in the early development of foundational skills such as self-regulation (Chang, Olson, Sameroff, & Sexton, 2011; Kochanska & Knaack, 2003; Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000). One aspect of parenting that has been studied to a lesser degree with respect to effortful control is proactive parenting. The term proactive parenting encompasses a set of techniques (e.g., scaffolding, structuring, and reasoning) that parents adopt to minimize the child's negativity and misbehavior in potentially troublesome situations. These strategies are often used preemptively before a conflict arises and have been found to be associated with child behavior independently of negative parenting (Gardner, Shaw, Dishion, Burton, & Supple, 2007).
Theoretical and empirical studies have provided support for a more specific link between proactive parenting and children's self-regulation compared with other family or parenting variables (Bernier, Carlson, & Whipple, 2010; Grusec & Goodnow, 1994; Hughes & Ensor, 2009). For example, an increase in proactive parenting from the age of two to three predicted higher levels of child behavioral control at the age of three during a delay of gratification task in the current sample (Shelleby et al., 2012). It is noteworthy that other dimensions of positive parenting (i.e., involvement, positive reinforcement, and engaged parent–child interaction) did not show significant associations with child regulatory behavior (Shelleby et al., 2012), highlighting the importance of proactive parenting in promoting children's self-regulation.
Proactive parenting may promote children's effortful control in many ways. For example, parental scaffolding may promote children's regulatory efforts and autonomy by providing support or direction only when it is necessary, encouraging children to take the lead otherwise (Gauvain & Perez, 2008; Landry, Miller-Loncar, Smith, & Swank, 2002). Parents may also teach children ways to regulate their own behavior such as reframing the situation or redirecting attention. Moreover, parents' execution of proactive strategies models self-regulatory processes for children, as parents need to control their own impulses in successfully performing goal-directed behaviors. Yet another possibility is that parents may facilitate processes within the child (e.g., verbal ability) that in turn assist the child to acquire regulatory skills more easily.
A parent's capacity to plan ahead and employ preventive strategies may be particularly important during the ‘terrible twos’ when the parent's role as the primary socializing agent takes on greater importance with children's increasing physical mobility in the context of naïve understanding of the world (Shaw & Bell, 1993). Indeed, numerous studies have documented the association between proactive parenting and better regulation of behavior and emotion in toddlers and preschoolers (Bernier et al., 2010; Lengua, Honorado, & Bush, 2007). Together, the literature points to proactive parenting as a promising target for promoting skills in self-regulation and related difficulties in young children.
Child Verbal Ability as a Mediator
In addition to the link to each other, parenting and effortful control have each been documented to be related to child language skills. In what follows, we review findings on those associations and present an integrative model that posits the effects of proactive parenting on children's effortful control to be at least partially mediated by their verbal ability.
Parenting and Verbal Ability
The association between parenting and children's language development has been well established (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal, McAdoo, & Garcia Coll, 2001). However, few studies have focused on the construct of proactive parenting as it relates to children's verbal ability. Parental sensitivity, a dimension of parenting that shares several aspects of proactive parenting (e.g., anticipation and respect for child autonomy) has been shown to be associated with more sophisticated verbal skills in preschoolers (Raviv, Kessenich, & Morrison, 2004). A proactive parent may provide the child with a positively engaging environment where effective learning is facilitated and the child's efforts to gain autonomy and confidence is reinforced.
Verbal Ability and Effortful Control
Children's verbal skills have been found to be significantly associated with their regulatory capacities. For instance, in an Early Head Start sample, toddlers' language capacity was positively associated with their self-regulation both concurrently and longitudinally (Vallotton & Ayoub, 2011). Further support comes from the psychopathology literature in which language impairment has been shown to be most substantially associated with externalizing disorders characterized by deficits in self-regulation (Cohen, 2002). Such findings are consistent with the notion that language provides children with a powerful tool to monitor their internal states and communicate their needs appropriately (Cole, Armstrong, & Pemberton, 2010). Language may also help children to internalize other's expectations, rules, and strategies, a process that is critical in Vygotsky's (1962) theory of development.
An Integrative Model
The triangular connection among proactive parenting, verbal ability, and effortful control raises questions about the nature of the relation among those constructs. However, studies have rarely investigated their associations simultaneously, with only a few exceptions in the executive function literature. Executive function represents a broader construct than effortful control, having its origins in neuropsychological research and sharing many overlapping components (e.g., attention and inhibitory control; Zhou, Chen, & Main, 2012). In one study of low-income children, maternal scaffolding during daily activities at the age of three was related to the child's increased verbal ability at the age of four, which in turn predicted higher levels of executive function at the age of six (Landry et al., 2002). More recently, parental scaffolding during a problem-solving task at the age of two was found to have an indirect effect on executive function at the age of four through its effect on child verbal ability at the age of three in middle-income families (Hammond, Müller, Carpendale, Bibok, & Liebermann-Finestone, 2012). Together, emerging evidence suggests that one mechanism that underlies the association between proactive parenting and children's self-regulation may involve their language skills.
However, a direct test of this hypothesis in relation to effortful control has not been conducted. Additionally, little is known about the role of developing language ability as it supports regulatory behavior in young children because verbal ability was assessed only once in most prior studies. Considering the growth of verbal ability may provide additional information in understanding the indirect effect of proactive parenting on children's self-regulation via language skills. For example, although proactive parenting was not included, a recent study has suggested that different family and parenting factors may predict initial levels vs. rates of growth in children's verbal abilities in early childhood (Pungello, Iruka, Dotterer, Mills-Koonce, & Reznick, 2009).
The Family Check-Up (FCU)
In addition to the lack of a direct examination of the indirect pathway by which proactive parenting may promote children's self-regulation via its effect on their language skills, no study to date has addressed the question of modifiability of this indirect pathway as a result of an intervention. Clarifying mechanisms of change would confirm and inform preventive efforts to promote positive development. The intervention model used in this study is the FCU, a brief, ecologically based program that focused on improving parenting practices using motivational interviewing techniques (Dishion et al., 2008). The FCU has previously been used successfully with adolescents (e.g., Connell, Dishion, Yasui, & Kavanagh, 2007) and more recently been repeatedly validated with toddlers at risk for problem behavior (Dishion et al., 2008; Shaw, Dishion, Supplee, Gardner, & Arnds, 2006). One unique aspect of the FCU is that it relies heavily on a comprehensive assessment of the family and community ecology. Typically, the FCU involves three meetings with the family: an initial contact session, a home-based multi-informant ecological observational assessment session, and a feedback session (Dishion et al., 2008). Following feedback given to parents based on assessment, parents are offered individually tailored interventions following a parent-training curriculum (Dishion, Stormshak, & Kavanagh, 2011). In contrast to more traditional clinical models, the FCU is a health maintenance approach in which the families are invited in every year for a brief contact to help them through multiple transitions. Despite its brevity, the FCU has been found to enhance positive parenting skills, including proactive parenting (Dishion et al., 2008).
Based on the literature linking proactive parenting and children's self-regulation, it is reasonable to expect that increases in proactive parenting as a function of an intervention would also benefit children's self-regulation. Engaging parents in the FCU was thus expected to increase parents' anticipatory awareness and help them to learn strategies to structure and scaffold children's activities, with such changes possibly translating into improvements in the child's self-regulatory abilities. In addition to reducing problem behavior, recent findings have suggested that the FCU may also facilitate positive attributes such as verbal skills and inhibitory control in preschoolers (Lunkenheimer et al., 2008). Additionally, adolescents randomly assigned to the FCU have been found to report higher levels of effortful control compared with those in the control group (Stormshak, Fosco, & Dishion, 2010). However, no study to date has clarified the effects of the FCU on more objective measures of effortful control and, more importantly, has tested an integrative model of proactive parenting, child verbal ability, and effortful control.
The Present Study
The goals of this study were to test an integrative model of proactive parenting, verbal ability, and effortful control, and to examine the effects of the FCU on these processes. Such information could be useful for understanding if and how parenting and parenting-focused programs become associated with better regulated behavior in young children. Consistent with earlier studies (e.g., Hammond et al., 2012), proactive parenting was hypothesized to facilitate children's effortful control at least partially indirectly by promoting both levels and growth in their verbal ability. We also anticipated that the FCU would predict increased levels of proactive parenting, which in turn would be associated with higher levels of children's verbal ability and effortful control. Data were used from a multi-site prevention trial for low-income children. Using this sample offered an opportunity to investigate early pathways to effortful control among children for whom this ability may be most critical for successful adjustment (Masten, 2001).
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Our goal was to test an integrative model of proactive parenting, child verbal ability, and child effortful control within the context of a parenting-focused intervention for toddlers of low-income families. As hypothesized, child verbal ability at the age of three partially mediated the association between proactive parenting at the age of two and child effortful control at the age of five. More importantly, the FCU promoted children's effortful control via this indirect pathway. The findings were still evident after accounting for the influences of early child disruptive behavior and demographic covariates.
Proactive parenting is a unique aspect of positive parenting in that it highly resembles the process of self-regulation on the part of the parent, the very ability that the child needs to learn. By planning ahead, scaffolding, structuring child activities, and staying calm, not only are parents teaching their children effective regulatory skills, they are also successfully modeling those strategies to children. The current findings suggest that such processes may in part occur through children's language skills. This is not surprising given that proactive parenting may facilitate the child to learn many foundational skills, including language. Thus, children whose parents are more proactive would be able to acquire more advanced linguistic skills and use them to regulate their internal states and express their needs appropriately. This is also consistent with Vygotsky's (1962) framework in which the language plays a critical role in children's monitoring, planning, and guiding their own behavior.
Additionally, proactive parenting was found to be directly associated with higher levels of children's effortful control, an effect that was not mediated by their verbal ability, suggesting that parental use of proactive strategies may influence children's self-regulation via multiple pathways. This finding is also consistent with Vygotsky's (1962) work on scaffolding, in that proactive parents may encourage children's learning by providing experiences within their zones of proximal development. From an attachment perspective, the direct link may be due to a positive relationship that has developed prior to children's acquisition of language, which may heighten the child's motivation to comply and internalize parental requests. The direct pathway may also reflect shared genotypes between the parent and the child as effortful control has been found to have a heritable component (Rothbart & Bates, 2006).
An unexpected finding was the lack of effects of proactive parenting on the rates of growth in child language. Specifically, in both the baseline and intervention models, parental use of proactive techniques was significantly associated with the initial levels of children's verbal skills at the age of three, but not with its change over time from the age of three to the age of five. This suggests that the indirect effect of proactive parenting on children's effortful control via child language ability may be established quite early in life. Thus, it may be particularly important to promote proactive parenting skills in early childhood for families living in poverty. Alternatively, the finding may be due to the relatively narrow focus of this study on a single dimension of parenting. Although proactive parenting is conceptually closely related to self-regulation (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994), other parenting or home characteristics may also play important roles particularly with respect to children's language development. For example, the qualities of parental speech (e.g., Hoff, 2003) and the home learning environment (e.g., Rodriguez & Tamis-LeMonda, 2011) have been found to promote children's verbal abilities. Thus, the developmental pathway from proactive parenting to child effortful control may just be one of many mechanisms that underlie the association between early parental and home qualities and children's self-regulation.
The lack of the FCU's effect on the growth of child language may also be due to ceiling effects of the outcome scaling, such that if a child starts high, he or she cannot grow as much. The fact that the intercept and slope factors of the language growth were negatively correlated provides support for this speculation. The language screener used in this study was intended for children aged two to six years. Thus, for a child who had already scored high on this measure at the age of three, the room for improvement over time may not be as large as a child with relatively lower verbal scores at the age of three.
Furthermore, the findings suggest that an early family intervention may promote children's self-regulation via an indirect pathway that sequentially leads to improvements in proactive parenting, children's verbal ability, and their effortful control. A parenting-focused approach may be especially important in early childhood when parents are primary agents of socialization, and the capacity for interventionists to directly work with children is somewhat limited. This study highlights the potential value of helping parents to develop planful, proactive strategies to advance their child's effortful control skills. Proactive parents may facilitate children's acquisition of self-regulation by attending to children's needs before they are overly aroused, providing scaffolding to foster learning, and teaching and modeling self-regulation strategies to effectively deal with daily challenges.
However, it should be acknowledged that intervention effects in this study were modest. This is not surprising given that the FCU was originally designed to reduce children's problem behavior rather than to enhance positive attributes like effortful control. The target of the FCU was parents' positive behavior in general rather than their use of proactive strategies, which may be more directly linked to self-regulation. Moreover, the fact that the FCU did not show a direct effect on child effortful control raises questions about other mechanisms that might underlie the link between parenting and children's self-regulation. In future research, it would be beneficial to consider how the FCU might be further refined to have more significant effects on this critical dimension of children's adaptation. For instance, more specifically targeting proactive parenting skills may be particularly helpful for young children at risk for behavioral dysregulation.
An interesting contrast between the baseline and intervention models emerged. In the baseline model, proactive parenting at the age of two (i.e., pre-intervention) demonstrated direct effects on children's effortful control in addition to indirect effects through children's language skills. Conversely, in the intervention model, proactive parenting at the age of three (i.e., post-intervention) did not show similar direct effects on children's effortful control. Although proactive parenting at the age of two was included in the intervention model to control for earlier levels of parent behavior, the findings raised questions as to whether such preexisting differences might have contributed to effects on children's effortful control. Thus, in Figure 2, we specified an additional path from proactive parenting at the age of two to child effortful control at the age of five. This path was significant (β = .18, p < .05), suggesting that despite the modifiability of proactive parenting, variations in the parent's ability to use proactive strategies that existed prior to the intervention may have contributed to the development of effortful control. This finding suggests that proactive parenting early in development is critical in toddlerhood, establishing language and daily routines upon which child's self regulatory behavior can grow and develop.
Limitations, Future Directions, and Conclusion
This study has a few limitations. Firstly, because the families were low income and mostly European American and African-American, the findings may not generalize to children from different economic or ethnic backgrounds. Secondly, although we were primarily interested in the role of proactive parenting for theoretical and empirical reasons, it is possible that other aspects of parenting or home environment may have impact on children's language and effortful control. Thirdly, the language test used in this study did not assess the child's vocabulary, an important aspect of language development. Incorporating measures of vocabulary in future studies would confirm and expand the current findings. Lastly, the direction of causality between child and parent behavior cannot be determined. Although we focused on the effects of parenting on children's effortful control, studies have also found support for the evocative effects of child behavior on parent behavior (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 2010). Therefore, a goal for future research would be to better understand the reciprocal relationship between parental behavior and children's self-regulation.
Nevertheless, this study represents an early effort to integrate prior research on early predictors and the promotion of children's effortful control. The findings suggest that proactive parenting facilitates the development of effortful control partly by its effect on children's verbal ability. More importantly, this study highlights the potential of early parenting-focused programs for improving those processes in low-income children at high risk for deficits in self-regulation and related difficulties.