Children who have experienced maltreatment and subsequent placement in foster care are at increased risk of problem behavior. Increased knowledge of the development of problem behavior in this population, particularly during toddlerhood, can greatly inform preventive intervention efforts. This study examined variability in problem behavior among toddlers entering new foster care placements and identified related child and parenting characteristics.
Ninety-one toddlers in foster care (mean = 2.26 years) and their caregivers completed an initial assessment and were reassessed 6 months later. A child's general cognitive ability was assessed via performance on a standardized developmental measure, and child problem behavior, parenting stress, frequency of family routines, and harsh discipline were assessed via caregiver report.
Upon entering a new foster care placement and 6 months after placement, respectively, 38% and 25% of the toddlers were within the borderline clinical or clinical range in terms of problem behavior when assessed using the Child Behavior Checklist. There was not a significant difference in problem behavior over this 6-month period, suggesting that problem behavior was quite stable among the toddlers as a group. However, general cognitive ability was a significant predictor of individual differences in change in problem behavior, with toddlers with lower general cognitive ability displaying increased problem behavior over this period.
An increased number of toddlers in foster care displayed clinically significant levels of problem behavior, further demonstrating that these children are an extremely high-risk group. The association between general cognitive ability and change in problem behavior highlights the importance of early developmental screenings, which may help identify children at greatest risk of problem behavior and most in need of preventive intervention efforts.