How Early Is Too Early? Identification of Elevated, Persistent Problem Behavior in Childhood

Megan Bears Augustyn, Thomas Loughran, Pilar Larroulet Philippi, Terence P. Thornberry, Kimberly L. Henry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

We inquire how early in childhood children most at risk for problematic patterns of internalizing and externalizing behaviors can be accurately classified. Yearly measures of anxiety/depressive symptoms and aggressive behaviors (ages 6–13; n = 334), respectively, are used to identify behavioral trajectories. We then assess the degree to which limited spans of yearly information allow for the correct classification into the elevated, persistent pattern of the problem behavior, identified theoretically and empirically as high-risk and most in need of intervention. The true positive rate (sensitivity) is below 70% for anxiety/depressive symptoms and aggressive behaviors using behavioral information through ages 6 and 7. Conversely, by age 9, over 90% of the high-risk individuals are correctly classified (i.e., sensitivity) for anxiety/depressive symptoms, but this threshold is not met until age 12 for aggressive behaviors. Notably, the false positive rate of classification for both high-risk problem behaviors is consistently low using each limited age span of data (< 5%). These results suggest that correct classification into highest risk groups of childhood problem behavior is limited using behavioral information observed at early ages. Prevention programming targeting those who will display persistent, elevated levels of problem behavior should be cognizant of the degree of misclassification and how this varies with the accumulation of behavioral information. Continuous assessment of problem behaviors is needed throughout childhood in order to continually identify high-risk individuals most in need of intervention as behavior patterns are sufficiently realized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)445-455
Number of pages11
JournalPrevention Science
Volume21
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - May 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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