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Kocek, TB 2015, 'The influence of executive function on externalising and internalising behaviours in middle childhood', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright TB Kocek 2015


This thesis investigated the development of social competence in children, as tied to specific cognitive processes involved in executive function (EF). Executive processes, most commonly defined as higher order cognitions which guide goal-directed behaviour, enable the development of appropriate social skills through their influence on planning, problem solving, self-monitoring and mental flexibility. However, deficits in executive functioning - such as poor self-regulation skills and maladaptive social information processing (SIP) biases, can interfere with the development of positive social, cognitive, and emotional behaviour.

The aim of the investigation was to determine whether the behavioural problems of children in middle childhood (8-12 years), as identified by teachers and parents, can be explained, in part, by deficits in aspects of executive functioning, specifically SIP and selfregulation. To this end behaviour was examined as either internalising or externalising as a means of classifying profiles of cognitive strengths and weaknesses in order to identify the connection between EF and behaviour. The assessment approach and interpretation of findings were considered in the context of a biopsychosocial model. The investigation also generated the first test-retest reliability findings for several of the measures used, and tested claims of reliability for others previously used with children.

Analyses revealed that there were a number of similarities between children reported as either high on internalising or externalising behaviour with both behavioural dimensions struggling with aspects of EF, including emotional control. There were also a number of differences between the behavioural dimensions; wherein children who engaged in internalising problem behaviours were more likely to be reported as having difficulties with cognitive shifting, children who engaged in externalising problem behaviours were more likely to be reported as having difficulties with inhibition. Data from SIP highlighted that children classified as high in internalising behaviour were more likely to endorse prosocial decisions in social situations while children high in externalising behaviour were more likely to endorse aggressive goals in the same scenarios. These findings supported the thesis’ predictions concerning the influence of executive functions on the behaviour of children.

In conclusion, different cognitive profiles appeared across the internalisingexternalising behavioural dimensions which were based on parent report and child test performance, as well as on mood questionnaires. This was in accordance with key thesis hypotheses, and suggests that if interventions are uniquely tailored by using SIP and EF models to understand possible impairments and relative strengths, the interventions may have greater benefit for the child in terms of improved social, cognitive, emotional, and academic outcomes. While beyond the scope of the current work this is an area that also requires further research.

Additional information

Please see additional file - Thesis corrections to p. 8 and p. 287