• parenting;
  • self-regulation;
  • effortful control;
  • intervention


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments

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.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments

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).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments


Participants were 731 families who were recruited from Women, Infant, and Children Clinics if they had a two-year-old child and met the study criteria by having socioeconomic, family, and/or child risk factors for future behavior problems (Dishion et al., 2008). The sample consisted of 272 (37 percent) families in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 271 (37 percent) in Eugene, Oregon, and 188 (26 percent) in Charlottesville, Virginia. Children (49 percent female) had a mean age of 29.9 months [standard deviation (SD) = 3.2) at the time of age-two assessment. Most children were European American (50 percent) and African-American (28 percent), with smaller numbers of biracial (13 percent) and other (9 percent). At recruitment, more than two thirds of families had an annual income of less than $20 000. Forty-one percent of primary caregivers (97 percent mothers) had a high school diploma, and 24 percent had less than high school education. Fifty-eight percent of children lived in a two-parent household.


Of the original 731 families, 659 (90 percent), 629 (86 percent), and 621 (85 percent) participated at the follow-up at the ages of three, four, and five, respectively. Selective attrition analyses revealed that families with lower levels of parental education were more likely to drop out of the study over time: at the age of three, F(1, 730) = 5.24, p < .05; at the age of four, F(1, 730) = 10.76, p < .01; and at age of five, F(1, 730) = 15.81, p < .001. Otherwise, there were no significant differences in attrition by project site, intervention status, child gender, ethnicity, or parental report of child problem behavior.


Assessment Protocol

At the age of two, families were scheduled for a 2.5-hr home visit. The assessment began with a 15-min free play in which children were introduced to an assortment of age-appropriate toys whereas caregivers completed questionnaires. Children then engaged in a series of structured tasks with their parents (e.g., cleanup, delay of gratification, and teaching tasks) or the examiner (e.g., language test and effortful control tasks). Similar procedures were repeated at the ages of three, four, and five, with minor modifications made to adjust for the child's developmental status.

Families were randomly assigned to the intervention or control group. Using a computer-generated sequence, randomization was balanced by gender to assign an equal number of boys and girls in each group. To ensure blindness, the examiner opened a sealed envelope to reveal the family's intervention status only after the age-two assessment was completed and shared this information with the family. Examiners carrying out follow-up assessments were unaware of the family's assigned condition.

Intervention Protocol: The FCU

Families in the intervention group were then scheduled to meet with a parent consultant for two or more sessions, depending on the family's preference. After the initial assessment as described earlier, the parent consultant met with the family for a ‘get to know you’ (GTKY) session during which parent concerns were explored, focusing on family issues that were important to the child's functioning. The third meeting involved a feedback session during which the parent consultant used motivational interviewing techniques to share the results of the assessment, highlighting areas of family strength as well as areas of improvement. The parent was also offered in-person or phone follow-up sessions that focused on parenting practices and other family issues based on an empirically validated parent management curriculum to promote three dimensions of parenting (i.e., positive behavior support, healthy limit setting, and communication and problem-solving skills; Dishion et al., 2011). The sessions were tailored to address the specific needs of each family. Families in the intervention group engaged in the FCU after annual assessment at child ages two, three, and four (Dishion et al., 2008).

The proportion of families in the intervention group who participated in the FCU (i.e., received GTKY and feedback sessions, or more) were 73.8 percent at the age of two, 62.7 percent at the age of three, and 59.7 percent at the age of four.1 At baseline, there were no significant differences between families who engaged in the FCU and those who did not on demographic or child characteristics. For the intervention group, the average number of sessions per family was 3.09 (SD = 4.56) at the age of two, 2.63 (SD = 4.55) at the age of three, and 2.76 (SD = 5.18) at the age of four, with the GTKY and feedback sessions counted as two of those sessions. Overall, of the 367 families in the intervention condition, a total of 317 (86.4 percent) engaged in the FCU at least once between the ages of two and four. We employed an intention-to-treat design for all analyses.


Demographic Questionnaire

Parents responded to questions about parental education and income, family structure, and child ethnicity. Parental education was assessed on a scale of 1 (no formal schooling) to 9 (graduate degree).

Proactive Parenting

At the ages of two and three, proactive parenting was assessed using the coder impressions inventory (Dishion, Hogansen, Winter, & Jabson, 2004) based on videotaped parent–child interactions during the home visit. Coders were a team of 24 undergraduates who were predominantly European American (90 percent). Thus, one focus of coder training was to ensure that coding of family interactions was culturally sensitive (e.g., protocols developed by using examples of culturally sensitive coding categories). Indeed, coding differences between European American and African-American coders have been eliminated as a result of extensive training (Yasui & Dishion, 2007). Additionally, although European American coders may rate African-American parents more negatively on dimensions of control, similar discrepancies were not found for positive parent behavior (Gonzales, Cauce, & Mason, 1996). Furthermore, it has been suggested that pervasive impact of poverty may override ethnic differences as parenting behaviors have been found to be comparable across ethnicity and function similarly for European American and African-American low-income families (Whiteside-Mansell, Bradley, & McKelvey, 2009).

Although prior studies examining parenting effects associated with the FCU in this sample have relied on the broader parenting construct of positive behavior support (Dishion et al., 2008), which also includes factors that capture a broader spectrum of supportive parenting behavior, in this study we focused on only one of its dimensions, proactive parenting, because of the specific link proposed in relation to self-regulation as reviewed previously (e.g., Hughes & Ensor, 2009). Furthermore, as described earlier, a recent study using the current sample has highlighted the critical role of proactive parenting in shaping children's delay of gratification relative to other indicators in the positive behavior support construct (Shelleby et al., 2012).

Proactive parenting was rated globally after coders finished microcoding of family interaction (percent agreement for microcodes established on 20 percent of the sample = .88 and .87 for the ages of two and three, respectively). On the following six items, coders gave a global rating of the parent's tendency to anticipate potential problems and to provide prompts or structural changes to actively prevent young children from becoming upset or involved in problem behavior: the parent communicates to the child in calm, simple, and clear terms; the parent gives understandable, age-appropriate reasons for behavior change; the parent adjusts or defines the situation to ensure the child's interest, success, and comfort; the parent redirects the child to more appropriate behavior if the child is off task or misbehaves; and the parent uses verbal structuring to make the task manageable. The items were rated on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 9 (very much) and averaged to create a score of proactive parenting at the age of two (α = .84) and at the age of three (α = .87).

Child Verbal Ability

At the ages of three, four, and five, children's verbal ability was measured with the Fluharty-2 preschool speech and language screening test (Fluharty, 2000). Items on this test have been reported to be unbiased to SES or ethnicity (e.g., Simmons, 1988). The Fluharty-2 consists of four subtests: (1) repeating sentences (10 items), which measures the ability to reproduce a variety of sentence patterns; (2) following directives and answering questions (15 items), which measures the ability to comprehend and respond to an instruction correctly; (3) describing actions (10 items), which measures the ability to select a verb from the lexicon and incorporate it into an appropriate sentence structure; and (4) sequencing events (four items), which measures the ability to generate properly sequenced sentences about a given topic to convey information. Each item was scored as either correct or incorrect (0/1). The Fluharty-2 produces a standard score with a mean of 100 and SD of 15. Accordingly, the scores for each subtest were composited and converted to a single index of general language ability at the age of three (α = .90), at the age of four (α = .92), and at the age of five (α = .91).

Child Effortful Control

At the age of five, children's effortful control was evaluated using tower, wrapped gift, and draw-a-star tasks from Kochanska's behavioral battery (Kochanska et al., 2000). The tower and wrapped gift tasks were videotaped and coded by a team of undergraduate coders who were predominantly European American. However, ethnicity of coders was less of a concern for this task as the coding required little subjective judgment on the part of the coders. Inter-rater reliability was established on 16 percent of subjects and ranged from .97 to 1.00. The draw-a-star task was directly coded by the examiner at the time of the administration.

(1) Tower

The child and the examiner took turns building a tower using 20 blocks (three trials). The examiner was deliberately slow in responding to his or her turn. Coding reflected the proportion of blocks placed by the child in relation to the total number of blocks placed by the dyad. The mean score across trials was computed (α = .60).

(2) Wrapped gift

The child was asked to sit facing away from the examiner who noisily wrapped up a gift for the child (60 s). The child was told not to look. Then the examiner left the room to find a bow, and the child again was told to wait without peeking (120 s). The child received the gift upon the examiner's return. The child was coded for the frequency of peeking, the latency to first peek (in seconds), and the extent of touching or opening the gift (0 = does not touch; 1 = touches but does not open gift; 2 = touches and opens gift). The frequency of peeking and the extent of touching or opening the gift codes were reversed so that higher scores reflected higher levels of effortful control. A single score for the wrapped gift task was created by standardizing and aggregating individual codes (α = .88).

(3) Draw-a-star

The child was instructed to draw a star on a picture of a star, staying between the lines. There were three trials: baseline, fast (i.e., the child was told to draw as fast as possible), and slow (i.e., the child was told to draw as slowly as possible). For each trial, the examiner recorded the number of seconds it took the child to complete the star and the number of instances the child crossed the borders in drawing the star (i.e., errors). The difference of time in seconds between the fast trial and the slow trial, and the average number of errors (reversed) were standardized and composited (α = .42).2

Early Disruptive Behavior

Although effortful control was not assessed before the age of five, disruptive behavior at the age of two was included in the analysis as a proxy for regulatory skills to control for earlier variations in children's self-regulation. At the age of two, disruptive behavior was measured observationally using the parent busy task (5 min), in which the child had to wait for the parent to complete questionnaires with nothing to do. Disruptive behavior was defined as the child's verbal or physical expression of negativity (e.g., yelling, hitting, and threatening). The proportional duration of disruptive behavior was coded by the same team of coders who provided ratings on proactive parenting (average team percent agreement based on 20 percent of the sample = .87, kappa = .86).

Analysis Plan

Following preliminary analyses (Table 1), substantive research questions were addressed in structural equation modeling. Firstly, a latent growth model was estimated to observe systematic changes in children's verbal ability over time. Specifically, latent growth factors were constructed by imposing a priori factor loadings, with the intercept's loadings fixed to ‘1’ and the slope's loadings set to correspond to the study's time scale. For each growth factor, the mean describes the average initial score (intercept) or change over time (slope), and the variance specifies whether there is a significant variability across individuals in the parameter. The covariance between the intercept and slope factors indicates the relation between individuals' starting points and their growth rates.

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics and Bivariate Correlations
VariablesMSD Demographic variablesParentingLanguageEffortful control
  1. Notes: For intervention, 0 = control, 1 = intervention; for child gender, 0 = male, 1 = female; for child ethnicity, 0 = non-African-American, 1 = African-American. M = mean; SD = standard deviation.

  2. * p < .05, ** p < .01.

 1. Intervention           
 2. Child gender.00          
 3. Child ethnicity.00.04         
 4. Parent education5.191.14.01−.03−.14**        
 5. Proactive parenting, age 25.901.44.02.03−.18**.23**       
 6. Proactive parenting, age**−.01−.21**.27**.49**      
 7. Language, age 380.5010.29−.07.07−.08.22**.19**.17**     
 8. Language, age 488.4112.68.00.08*−.11*.25**.29**.23**.68**    
 9. Language, age 593.2011.98−.01.17**−.14**.19**.17**.15**.54**.72**   
10. Tower, age−.03−.*.08  
11. Wrapped-gift, age**−.08−.06.16**.09.08.17**.22**.24** 
12. Draw-a-star, age 5.00.81−.03.03−.13**.10*.16**.08.24**.31**.33**.17**.21**
13. Disruptive behavior, age 2.03.10−.01−.03.05.00−.14**−.05−.07−.10*−.08−.14**−.12**−.02

Subsequently, the associations between proactive parenting, child verbal ability, and child effortful control were investigated (baseline model) as well as the effects of the FCU (intervention model). In the baseline model (Figure 1), effortful control at the age of five was regressed onto proactive parenting at the age of two. Child disruptive behavior at the age of two was also included in the analysis to account for earlier variations in regulatory behavior. Additionally, the growth of child verbal ability from the age of three to the age of five was included as a potential mediator of the relation between proactive parenting and child effortful control. Unlike Baron and Kenny's (1986) theory that required a significant direct relation between predictor and outcome as a prerequisite for testing mediation, more recent approaches have supported the test of mediation in the context of non-significant direct relations (MacKinnon, Krull, & Lockwood, 2000). This is partly because multiple mediators may be involved that function in different directions, which would result in a non-significant association between predictor and outcome (e.g., proactive parenting and child effortful control might be negatively associated if parents tend to be more proactive if their children experience difficulties in self-regulation; MacKinnon et al., 2000). In this study, we followed the more recent approach to testing mediation based on the distribution of the product, which has also been found to be superior to other methods in terms of error rates and power (MacKinnon, Lockwood, Hoffman, West, & Sheets, 2002).


Figure 1. Baseline Model: A Mediational Model of Proactive Parenting, Child Verbal Ability, and Child Effortful Control.

Note: Standardized estimates are presented. Solid lines represent significant paths; dotted lines represent non-significant paths.

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.

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As a final step, intervention status and proactive parenting at the age of three were introduced in the intervention model (Figure 2). Thus, in addition to the paths estimating the relations among proactive parenting at the age of three, child verbal ability, and child effortful control, the effects of the FCU on those variables were specified. Proactive parenting at the age of two and child disruptive behavior at the age of two were retained in this model to control for earlier levels of those behaviors.


Figure 2. Intervention Model: The Effects of the Family Check-Up.

Note: Standardized estimates are presented. Solid lines represent significant paths; dotted lines represent non-significant paths. For intervention group, 0 = control, 1 = intervention.

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.

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Child gender, ethnicity, and parent education were included in all models to control for their effects on the study variables, a decision supported by the literature (e.g., child gender: Else-Quest, Hyde, Goldsmith, & Van Hulle, 2006; ethnicity: Johnson, 2001; and parental education: Rowe, Pan, & Ayoub, 2005), as well as a number of significant correlations observed in the current data (Table 1). Ethnicity was dichotomized as African-American or non-African-American based on analysis of variance results showing that African-American families, the largest ethnic minority in this sample (28 percent), had significantly different scores on some variables (e.g., lower levels of proactive parenting) compared with other ethnicities (e.g., European American and biracial).

Mplus 7 with the full-information maximum likelihood estimation (FIML) was used (Muthén & Muthén, 2012). The FIML accommodates missing data by using all available data for each parameter and has been shown to be superior to other missing data methods (Enders & Bandalos, 2001). Good-fitting models are traditionally indicated by non-significant chi-squares. However, for larger samples, the chi-square is almost always statistically significant. Therefore, other indices of model fit were also considered including the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA; < .08 for acceptable fit) and the comparative fit index (CFI; > .90 for acceptable fit; McDonald & Ho, 2002).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments

Latent Growth of Child Verbal Ability

The latent growth model of child language ability demonstrated acceptable model fit: χ2 (1) = 3.91, p = .05, CFI = 1.00, RMSEA = .07. The mean intercept [B = 6.71, standard error (SE) = 0.24, p < .001] and slope (B = 8.21, SE = 0.15, p < .001) were significantly different from zero, indicating that children's verbal skills showed a linear increase from three to five years of age. Additionally, the variance of the intercept (B = 42.54, SE = 3.51, p < .001) and slope (B = 13.61, SE = 1.50, p < .001) was significantly different from zero, which suggested that children differed in terms of their initial scores and rates of growth in their language ability. The growth factors also significantly covaried with each other (r = −.33, p < .001), such that higher levels of initial verbal score were associated with lower levels of growth over time.

Baseline Model

The baseline model of proactive parenting, child language ability, and child effortful control demonstrated acceptable fit: χ2 (24) = 71.70, p < .05, CFI = 95, RMSEA = .05. As presented in Figure 1, proactive parenting at the age of two significantly predicted higher initial levels of children's verbal skills at age 3 (β = .19, p < .001) but did not predict their growth from the age of three to the age of five (β = –.05, ns). In turn, both the intercept (β = .50, p < .001) and the slope (β = .33, p < .001) of the language growth were significantly associated with child effortful control at the age of five, suggesting that children who had higher initial scores of and higher growth in verbal ability showed more advanced self-regulatory skills. Using the Sobel test, the indirect effect of proactive parenting at the age of two on child effortful control at the age of five through variability in the initial levels of child language ability (i.e., verbal skills at the age of three) was found to be significant (β = .10, p < .01). Additionally, there was a significant, direct effect of proactive parenting at the age of two on child effortful control at the age of five (β = .16, p < .05), a path that was not mediated by children's verbal skills. Child disruptive behavior at the age of two showed a marginally significant association with effortful control at the age of five (β = −.12, p < .10). Overall, this model explained 36 percent of variance in child effortful control.

Intervention Model

The intervention model was specified by including the family's intervention status and proactive parenting at the age of three (i.e., post-intervention) to the baseline model. This model demonstrated acceptable fit: χ2 (40) = 116.55, p < .05, CFI = .93, RMSEA = .05. Families in the intervention condition showed higher levels of proactive parenting at the age of three (β = .13, p < .01), controlling for earlier levels of proactive parenting at the age of two, which in turn was associated with higher initial levels of child verbal skills (β = .16, p < .01). Subsequently, the intercept of children's language ability positively predicted their effortful control two years later (β = .52, p < .001). Using the Sobel test, the sequential indirect effect (i.e., intervention [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] proactive parenting at the age of three [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] intercept of child verbal skills [RIGHTWARDS ARROW] effortful control) was significant (β = .01, p < .05). Additionally, the rate of growth (i.e., slope) in child language ability predicted child effortful control (β = .33, p < .001), although it was not significantly related to variations in proactive parenting at the age of three. In contrast to the baseline model, proactive parenting at the age of three did not directly predict child effortful control (β = .03, ns). Early disruptive behavior at the age of two significantly predicted effortful control at the age of five (β = –.14, p < .05). Finally, except for proactive parenting, the FCU did not demonstrate significant, direct associations with children's language or effortful control skills. Overall, the model explained 33 percent of variability in child effortful control.3


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments

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.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments
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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. References
  8. Acknowledgments

This research was supported by grants 023245 and 2003723 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to the second, third, and fifth authors. This article was also supported by Samsung Research Fund, Sungkyunkwan University, 2012 to the first author. We are grateful to the staff and study families of the Early Steps Project for making this research possible.

  1. 1

    Note that these engagement figures are slightly lower than those reported in Dishion et al. (2008) because past studies calculated engagement based on a subsample that had both assessments and feedback sessions and this current figure now includes the percent of families that had a feedback session out of the total intervention half of the 731 participant total sample.

  2. 2

    The relatively low alpha for the draw-a-star task may be partly due to a modestly negative correlation between the difference in time between the trials and the average number of errors (r = −.26, p < .01). Although the latter was reverse-scored to form a composite, the association between the two variables derived from the task was still modest. Most prior studies have only used the time difference as an indicator of child effortful control (e.g., Kochanska et al., 2000). We decided to use information on both time and accuracy for two reasons: (1) child was instructed to complete the picture of the star as fast vs. slow as possible without crossing the borders and (2) there may be children who sacrifice accuracy for the sake of time (i.e., a child who shows good control of motor speed but makes many errors). Consequently, the alpha for the aggregate score is not very high. However, the composite held together better with other effortful control tasks (i.e., tower, wrapped gift; factor loadings ranged from .45 to .62) compared with the score just based on the time difference (.24 to .69), supporting the value of considering both time and accuracy.

  3. 3

    Additional models were estimated to further clarify and control for possible effects of parental talkativeness and child verbal ability on proactive parenting. Specifically, proactive parenting at the ages of two and three were regressed onto measures of general level of observed parental talkativeness (i.e., duration of parental verbalization toward the child relative to the total interaction time during home assessment) at the ages two and three, respectively, and child verbal ability at the age of two (i.e., parent report of children's vocabulary on the MacArthur language development inventory; Fenson, Dale, Bates, Thal, & Pethick, 1994). Models demonstrated adequate fit: χ2/degrees of freedom ≤ 2.97, CFI ≥ 91, RMSEA ≤ .05. Parental talkativeness at the ages of two and three were significantly associated with proactive parenting at the ages of two (β = .30, p < .001) and three (β = .21, p < .001), respectively. Child verbal ability at the age of two did not significantly predict proactive parenting at the age of three (β = .01, ns). Overall, despite slight differences in the coefficients, the pattern of results (e.g., level of statistical significance) was identical to our main findings for both the baseline and intervention models. This suggests that proactive parenting may contribute to child behavior over and above the quantity of parental child-directed speech and that such effects may not be child driven (i.e., linguistically advanced children soliciting more proactive parenting).