Dynamical Systems Modeling of Early Childhood Self-Regulation

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Abstract

Self-regulation can be conceptualized in terms of dynamic tension between highly probable reactions (prepotent responses) and use of strategies that can modulate those reactions (executive processes). This study investigated the value of a dynamical systems approach to the study of early childhood self-regulation. Specifically, ordinary differential equations (ODEs) were used to model the interactive influences of 115 36-month-olds’ executive processes (strategy use) and prepotent responses to waiting to open a gift (desire for the gift and frustration about waiting to open it). Using a pair of coupled second-order ODEs in a nonlinear mixed effects framework, the study tested predictions for specific within- and between-child patterns of prepotent response-executive process coupling. Dynamic modeling results articulated the limits of 36-month olds’ strategic efforts. They engaged executive processes when their prepotent responding levels were high, which delayed the resurgence of prepotent responses, but ultimately did not damp prepotent responding over the course of the wait. There was, however, preliminary evidence that the effectiveness of 36-month-olds’ self-regulation depended upon child characteristics. Externalizing behavior problems were associated with more regulatory interference. Temperamental negative affectivity was marginally associated with more regulatory inefficiency. Compared with conventional methods of studying self-regulation, dynamic modeling yielded complementary and unique findings, suggesting its potential.

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