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Pre-K Behavior Issues May Have Genetic Link, Study Asserts

Youngsters who do well academically in preschool or day-care classrooms but still exhibit behavioral problems may have inherited negative traits triggered by school scenarios which are stressful for them, a new study suggests.

An analysis of 233 families in 10 states who adopted children found that those whose birth parents had difficulty with self-regulating behavior and emotional negativity also were likely to struggle with hyperactivity, inattention, aggression, or oppositional behavior when placed in school settings, wrote Shannon Lipscomb, the lead researcher on the study at Oregon State University in Cascades. The report is published online in the International Journal of Behavioral Development.

All of the adoptive parents had adopted the children before three months of age.

They were asked to rate the behavior of their children four times from the age of 9 months until their sixth year, the report states. All of the 233 children had some behaviorial  difficulties, which is normal and expected, Lipscomb said, even for children who grow up with their birth parents.

Moreover, the adoptive parents also considered their reactions to their children's negative behavior so as to control for a parenting effect that could negatively impact a child's behavior.

"Birth parents filled out a questionnaire about their own temperament," Lipscomb said. "We focused on two aspects of their temperament: lack of self-control and high-negative emotionality. The only link between birth parents and the children (controlling for prenatal risks and adoption openness) is genetics."

Finally, researchers looked to see if a child's negative behavior increased in duration over the course of the study, Lipscomb said. While small behavioral issues such as boundry testing is normal, greater levels are problematic especially as young children transition into kindergarden and beyond, she added.

"Above and beyond, good parenting had the biggest impact on kids," she said. "But that doesn't get rid of the effects of genetics."  

While Lipscomb—a former preschool teacher—warned against labeling children, she said the research "helps teachers in lots of ways." The information "lets them know that children are not [lashing out] to get back at teachers ... and helps teachers be more empathetic and figure out solutions," she said.

Children with such inherited traits often do best when they have deep relationships with teachers, Lipscomb said. They also perform well in more intimate settings and with warnings as to when transitions will occur, she added.

There is no magical student-to-teacher ratio for these students, Lipscomb said. The best strategy is for parents to work closely with teachers to acknowledge any issues in the classroom and find strategies that help with behavior, she said.

About half of all 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in preschools or day-care centers, Lipscomb wrote.

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