Behavioral Competence and Academic Functioning among Early Elementary Children with Disruptive
Kyongboon Kwon PhD, Susan M. Sheridan PhD, and Elizabeth A. Moorman PhD
Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools
University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Externalizing problems are related to a host of developmental risks in children (Schofield et al.,
2008), and prognostic of academic underachievement and underattainment (Bub et al., 2007;
Fergusson & Horwood, 1998; Hinshaw, 1992).
Significant emphasis has been placed on the negative effects of behavioral problems, which has
guided the development of numerous intervention programs to address these issues (see Farmer et
Our understanding of and interest in the role of behavioral competence in academic functioning
among children with externalizing problems appears to be relatively limited. This is a notable
gap, given growing evidence that the positive impact of competent behaviors on academic
functioning may outweigh the negative impact of externalizing problems (Caprara, 2000).
Children’s behavioral competence may also serve as a protective factor in the face of
disadvantages, such as parents’ limited education. Parental education has been found to be the
strongest predictor of children’s cognitive and academic development (Mercy & Steelman, 1982;
Suizzo & Stapleton, 2007), and parents’ limited educational attainment is associated
underachievement (Magnuson, 2007).
A shift of attention from the deficits of children with externalizing problems to the competencies
they possess may be fruitful. A focus on the early elementary years is further beneficial given the
importance of this developmental period for acquiring important skills to adapt to social and
learning environments (Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2009).
Behavioral competence, as defined in this study, includes behaviors that allow children to
function effectively at school, including prosocial skills, interpersonal skills, self-regulation,
social responsibility, study skills, and cooperation (Caprara, 2000; DiPerna et al., 2002; Howse et
al., 2003; McClelland et al., 2006; Wentzel, 1991).
Understanding the role of behavioral competence in children’s learning during this period may
play an important role in informing the direction of intervention efforts for children with
Purpose, Study Questions and Hypotheses
The purpose of this research was to investigate how behavioral competence is related to academic
functioning among a sample of early elementary school children who display externalizing problems.
Specific questions were:
1. Is behavioral competence uniquely related to children’s academic functioning?
Hypothesis: Behavioral competence will be negatively related to academic problems and
positively related to reading and math achievement after taking into account children’s
background characteristics and behavior problems.
2. Does behavioral competence buffer children’s achievement against the effects of risk, as
manifested in parents’ limited educational attainment?
Hypothesis: Children’s behavioral competence will moderate the relation between parents’
education and children’s achievement such that the adverse impact of parents’ limited
education on children’s achievement will be attenuated when children display heightened
levels of behavioral competence.
Participants were recruited from 21 schools in a moderately-sized Midwestern city and surrounding
communities. Participating children were selected via a multiple-gate screening procedure wherein
teachers identified children who displayed externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, non-compliance).
Participants’ characteristics are summarized in Table 1.
Behavior Assessment Scale for Children, Second Edition (BASC-2; Reynolds & Kamphaus,
2004) – Teacher Reports (T-scores of M = 50, SD = 10)
Externalizing problems composite: hyperactivity, aggression, and conduct problems
School problems composite: attention problems and learning problems
Adaptive skills composite: adaptability, social skills, study skills, leadership, and
Woodcock-Johnson III Test of Achievement (WJ–III; Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001;
M = 100; SD = 15)
Broad Reading: Letter-word identification, reading fluency, passage comprehension
Math Calculation: Calculation, math fluency
Outcome, Predictor, and Control Variables
Outcomes: Academic problems as measured by School Problems composite on the BASC-2,
reading achievement (Broad Reading) and math achievement (Math Calculation) as measured by
Predictors: Behavioral competence as measured by the Adaptive Skills composite of the BASC-
Control variables: Gender, age, ethnicity (White/non-Hispanic = 1; minority = 0), disability
status (diagnosed disability and/or special education placement = 1, other = 0), externalizing
problems, parents’ level of education (college and/or beyond = 1; less than college = 0)
Descriptive statistics and correlations of the central variables are provided in Table 2.
Is Behavioral Competence Related to Children’s Academic Functioning?
A series of hierarchical multiple regression analyses were conducted for each dimension of children’s
academic functioning. In the first step, child demographic variables (i.e., gender, age, ethnicity, and
disability status) were entered. In the second step, parental education was entered followed by children’s
externalizing problems in the third step. Finally, adaptive skills were entered in the last step. The results
are described below for each outcome and also presented in Table 3.
Does Behavioral Competence Buffer Against the Risk of Parents’ Limited Education on Children’s
Given that parental education was related to reading achievement only, the second research question was
addressed with regard to reading achievement. A hierarchical multiple regression analysis was
conducted. In the first step, child gender and parent education variables were entered. Child gender was
controlled for given its significant effect on reading achievement as described in the previous analysis. In
the second step, child adaptive skills were entered. Finally, the interaction between parent education and
adaptive skills was entered. In testing an interaction effect, the adaptive skills variable was centered
(Aiken & West, 1991) at 40 (At-Risk), which is the approximate average of the sample. The results are
presented in Table 4 and Figure 1.
Summary of Findings
This research is unique in that it examined the contribution of behavioral competence to children’s
academic functioning among a sample of children who display externalizing problems. The findings
support and strengthen the evidence of the powerful role of behavioral competence in children’s
Across three indices of children’s academic functioning (i.e., academic problems, reading and math
achievement) children’s behavioral competence was a significant predictor over and above a variety
of child background characteristics.
Behavioral competence appeared to have relatively stronger effects over externalizing problems on
academic functioning. Externalizing problems were related to teacher ratings of academic problems
only but were not related to reading and math achievement. Moreover, after behavioral competence
was taken into account, externalizing problems were not related to teacher ratings of academic
Children’s behavioral competence buffered the effects of limited parental education on children’s
reading achievement. Among children of parents with less than a college education, children’s
reading achievement was higher when displaying average levels of behavioral competence as
opposed to displaying At-Risk behavioral competence.
Because the current research is based on a cross-sectional research design, causal effects between
behavioral competence and academic functioning are not clear.
The sample was relatively homogeneous ethnically. Approximately 75% of children were White as
were the participating teachers (100%). Also, the sample is characterized by disproportionately more
male children than female children. Thus, generalizability of the findings may be limited.
Implications and Future Directions
When designing an intervention to promote academic functioning for children with behavioral
concerns, it appears important to consider children’s behavioral strengths in addition to their
Whereas the traditional assessment protocols have focused on problems and deficits, the findings
appear to support the usefulness of strength-based assessment when working with children with
Research supported by IES Grants #R305F050284 and #R305B080010 (Postdoctoral training), awarded
to Susan M. Sheridan, PhD., Todd A. Glover, PhD, and James Bovaird, PhD. Poster presented at the 5th
annual Institute of Education Sciences Research Conference, Washington, DC., June 2010.
Table 1. Participants’ Demographic Characteristics
Child Parent Teacher
(N = 207) (N = 207) (N = 82)
Gender Age Gender
Female: 25% M = 34.73 (SD = 7.83) Female: 97%
Male: 75% Male: 3%
Grade Ethnicity Ethnicity
Kindergarten: 26% White/non-Hispanic: 87% White/non-Hispanic: 100%
Grade 1: 35% African American: 4%
Grade 2: 26% Other: 9%
Grade 3: 13%
Ethnicity Education Years in current position
White/non-Hispanic: 75% Less than high school: 5% M = 9.38 (SD = 10)
African-American: 9% High school/some college: 50%
Other: 16% College: 37%
Advanced graduate degree: 8%
Descriptive Statistics for and Correlations Between Central Variables
Child Child Parent Externalizing Adaptive Academic Reading Math
gendera Child age ethnicityb Disabilityc educationd problemse skillse problemse achievementf achievementf
M or % 74.39 % 6.52 75.13 % 43.48% 44.79% 68.03 41.36 60.28 100.38 103.70
SD -- 1.11 -- -- -- 10.92 6.49 8.14 16.06 14.01
Range 0, 1 5-9 0, 1 0, 1 0, 1 42 – 98 29 – 62 40 – 81 54 – 148 62 – 148
Externalizing .04 -.06 -.12 .13 -.12
Adaptive skills -.15 .05 .03 -.20* .19* -.39**
Academic .23** .00 .13 .16 -.01 .34** -.54**
Reading -.16 -.07 -.07 -.09 .13 .02 .28** -.44**
Math -.06 -.21* .04 -.29** .18* -.01 .27** -.28** .52**
*p < .05; ** p < .01.
Note. a Male = 1. b White/non-Hispanic = 1. c Diagnosed disability and/or special education placement = 1. d College and beyond = 1.
BASC-2 composite. f WJ-III subtests.
Hierarchical Multiple Regression Predicting Child Functioning from Behavioral Competence, Controlling for Background Characteristics
Academic Problemse Reading Achievementf Math Achievementf
Step 1 Step 2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 1 Step 2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 1 Step 2 Step 3 Step 4
β β β β β β β β β β β β
Gendera .20* .21** .20* .11 -.14 -.16* -.16* -.12 .03 .02 .01 ..04
Age -.04 -.04 -.01 .03 -.01 -.01 -.01 .01 -.20** -.19** -.19** -.17*
Ethnicity .11 .12 .15 .13 -.01 -.02 -.02 -.02 .05 .04 .05 .05
Disability status .12 .11 .08 .04 -.09 -.07 -.07 -.03 -.29** -.28** -.28** -.24**
Parent educationd -.08 -.05 .04 .17* .17* .12 .11 .11 .08
Externalizing problemse .29** .13 .02 .11 .05 .12
Adaptive skills -.50** .28** .21*
*p < .05; ** p < .01.
Note. a Male = 1. b European American = 1. c Diagnosed disability and/or special education placement = 1. d College and beyond = 1.
BASC-2 composite. f WJ-III subtests.
Interaction Between Parent Level of Education and Child Behavior Competence in Predicting Child
Independent variables Step 1 Step 2 Step 3
B B B
Gendera -.6.66* -4.86 -4.62
Parent educationb 5.44* 3.70 5.06*
Adaptive skillsc .62** 1.10**
Parent education x Adaptive skills -.94*
* p < .05. ** p < .01.
Note. a Male = 1. b College and beyond = 1. c BASC-2 composite. d WJ-III subtests.
105 At-risk adaptive skills
100 Average adaptive skills
Figure 1. Children’s reading achievement as a function of parents’ education and children’s adaptive
skills. Children’s at-risk adaptive skills were centered at 40 and average adaptive skills were centered at
50. Parents’ low education was defined as having less than a college degree; high was defined as having a
college degree or greater.