Summary: According to a new study, children with executive function deficits were more likely to show physical and reactive aggression later in life. Researchers suggest helping children to improve executive function could help to reduce aggression levels.
A new study finds that deficits in executive function — a measure of cognitive skills that allow a person to achieve goals by controlling their behavior — predicts later aggressive behavior. The study, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, shows that primary school children with lower executive function were more likely to show physical, relational and reactive aggression in later years, but not proactive aggression. The increased aggression — which was observed in both boys and girls — may be partly due to an increased tendency for anger in these children. The findings suggest that helping children to increase their executive function could reduce their aggression.
Aggression during childhood can create a variety of challenges for children and their parents, siblings and classmates. Understanding the basis for aggression — and how it develops over childhood — could help researchers to identify ways to reduce aggressive behavior.
Executive function includes skills for adapting to complex situations and planning, including exerting self-control in challenging situations. Previous studies have shown that antisocial behavior is related to lower executive function, and it is unsurprising that improving executive function could help to reduce aggression. However, few studies have examined the link between childhood executive function and aggression over time. Similarly, researchers do not yet understand the relationships between executive function, specific types of aggression and other contributing factors, such as how easily someone becomes angry.
In this new study, researchers at the University of Potsdam in Germany investigated the relationship between childhood executive function and different types of aggression, to see if deficits in executive function could predict aggressive behavior in later years.
The research team assessed German primary school children aged between 6 and 11 years old at three time points: the start of the study, around 1 year later and around 3 years later. The children completed behavioral tasks to reveal different aspects of their executive function, including memory, planning abilities and self-restraint.
The researchers also asked the children’s teachers to record their tendency for different types of aggression. These included physical aggression, relational aggression (where a child might socially exclude someone or threaten to end a friendship), reactive aggression (where a child reacts aggressively to provocation) and proactive aggression (where a child is aggressive in “cold blood” without being provoked). Finally, the children’s parents completed a survey detailing how easily the children tended to get angry.
“We found that deficits in executive function affected later physical and relational aggression,” said Helena Rohlf, the lead author on the study. “The more deficits children showed at the start of the study, the higher their aggression one and three years later.”
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