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Child Abuse and Performance Task Assessments of Executive Functions in Boys

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2002

Enrico Mezzacappa
Affiliation:
The Children's Hospital, Boston, U.S.A.
Dan Kindlon
Affiliation:
Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighbourhoods, Chicago, U.S.A.
Felton Earls
Affiliation:
Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighbourhoods, Chicago, and Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, U.S.A.
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Abstract

We examined executive functions using performance tasks in 126 boys aged 6 to 16 years, who attended public schools and therapeutic schools for children with emotional and behavioral problems. Children were further grouped based on the presence or absence of substantiated abuse histories. Based on their abuse histories and schools of origin, children were classified as Therapeutic, Abused (TA, N = 25), Therapeutic, Nonabused (TN, N = 52), and Public School (PS, N = 48). Controlling IQ and medication status, we compared children in the three groups on teacher ratings of behavior, on experimenter observations of behavior during testing, and on performance tasks challenging the capacities to inhibit an act in progress, and to passively avoid responses associated with adverse consequences. We examined mean group differences in symptoms, behaviors, and task performance, as well as differential age-dependent changes in these dimensions. Independent of abuse history, therapeutic school children demonstrated comparable levels of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, and comparable levels of redirections to task during testing sessions, that were significantly higher than those of the public school children. Both groups of therapeutic school children also showed comparable overall performance on the capacities to inhibit an act in progress, and to passively avoid responses associated with adverse consequences that were poorer than the performance of children from the public school. Children with histories of substantiated abuse showed diminished improvement with increasing age in the capacity to passively avoid responses associated with adverse consequences when compared not only to the public school children, but also to the children from the therapeutic schools without histories of abuse. Our findings complement reports of behavioral observations of abused children, and reports associating child abuse with altered cognitive development in other areas of competence. They suggest that child abuse may negatively influence the expected developmental progression of competence in certain executive functions. This in turn could have implications for the nature and the persistence of certain forms of psychopathology associated with abuse and poor self-control. Given the cross-sectional nature of our data, however, longitudinal developmental studies of the relations between child abuse and executive functions are needed to elucidate the influence of abuse on the growth and development of such organizing principles of behavioral self-regulation.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
© 2001 Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry

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