27 July 2009

Making the Connection between Poor Early Behavioral Development and Later Life Criminality

"Aggressive behavior is typically associated with older children. Research suggests however, that it may actually peak in the second year of life and steadily decline after that. Most children learn to regulate physical aggression during the preschool years, but a significant number of boys and girls will continue to display this behavior as adolescents and adults” (Tremblay et al. 2005).

Between 2 ½ and 5 years of age, a child is laying the foundation for how they will deal with their own aggression and how well they learn to restrain themselves (Tremblay et al., 2005). Healthy early childhood behavioral development has been linked to many later life outcomes, including a propensity for violent and aggressive behavior during adolescence and the likelihood that youth will engage in criminal behavior. Put simply, a child who does not learn to manage aggression in early childhood is much more likely to act violently as an adolescent, commit crimes, and go to prison (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998; Nagin and Tremblay, April 2001).

Several studies have linked a child’s early life to their development of persistent aggressive tendencies. Boys with a high level of hyperactivity and a high level of opposition in kindergarten are nine times more likely to be aggressive and violent as adolescents than boys with low levels of hyperactivity and aggression. Having a teen-age mother or a mother with a low level of education are also significant predictors of a boys’ later life aggression and violence. Together, these two factors also increase the likelihood that a boy will be persistently violent through adolescence (Nagin and Tremblay, April 2001).

A 2005 study revealed that the children of younger mothers with low levels of education were more aggressive during the first 3 years of life. Having a mother who smoked during pregnancy, a mother who displayed anti-social behavior and having younger siblings were also linked to a child’s propensity to be more aggressive (Tremblay et al, 2005). Most recently, a study using data from the Fragile Families Project at Princeton revealed a strong correlation between having an incarcerated father and early and persistent aggressive behavior in boys. Paternal incarceration is much less likely to lead to the development of aggressive behavior in girls (Wildeman, July 2009).

These findings are particularly disturbing given the home and family environment in which many children in Shelby County grow up. Currently, 15% of children born in Shelby County have a mother who is in her teens and 28% of children are born to a mother without a high school diploma (Tennessee Department of Health, 2006). National level data indicate that 4% of children born each year in Shelby County will have a parent in state or federal prison at some point during their childhood, which is twice the current national rate of 2%. 22.4% of children in the U.S. with incarcerated parents are under the age of 5 (Glaze and Maruschak, August 2008). Since Shelby County current has the nation’s 3rd highest incarceration rate, it is likely that many more children will have a parent who spends some time behind bars (Sullivan, April 2008). More than a decade of research has connected these factors with the early onset of aggressive behavior in young children in Memphis, and suggests that this behavior will persist and will lead to successive generations of crime and incarceration for Memphis residents.

How can we intervene in the lives of at-risk children to help improve their socio-emotional and behavioral development? Since many of the risk factors associated with the development of high aggression are associated with a child’s early home life, services that help young and at-risk parents, such as nationally proven home visiting programs could help parents of vulnerable children teach their children how to deal with behavioral development prior to kindergarten entry.

Additionally, the U.S. Army has done much innovative work to integrate children’s mental health services into Part C, Early Intervention Services that are targeted to children from birth to age 3. They helped integrate mental health care into Early Intervention Services through training non-mental health care staff to recognize and understand social and emotional developmental issues that children experience (Grabert, July 2009).

Tennessee’s Department of Human Services (DHS) has also been working with the National Alliance of Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds to implement the Strengthening Families program through early care and education providers around the state (TN DHS, 2009). This program uses early care and education providers to give families access to 5 protective factors that help prevent child abuse and neglect. They include: parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need and children’s social and emotional development (Center for the Study of Social Policy, 2008). The implementation of this program will not only help prevent abuse and neglect, but will also enable parents to assist their children in healthy social, emotional and behavioral development.


Center for the Study of Social Policy (2008). “The Five Protective Factors,” Strengthening Families. Washington D.C.: Author. Accessed July 24, 2009

Grabert, John C. (July 2009). “Integrating Early Childhood Mental Health Into Early Intervention Services,” Zero to Three, 29, 6: 13-17.

Glaze, Lauren E. and Laura M. Maruschak (August 2008, revised Jan. 2009). Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children. Washington D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Accessed July 24, 2009. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

Kagan, Sharon Lynn, Evelyn Moore and Sue Bredekamp, Eds. (1995). Reconsidering Children’s Early Development and Learning: Toward Common Views and Vocabulary. Washington, D.C.: National Education Goals Panel.

Loeber R, Stouthamer-Loeber M (1998). “Development of juvenile aggression and violence: some common misconceptions and controversies,” American Psychology, no. 53: 242-259.

Nagin, Daniel, and Richard Tremblay. 2001. “Parental and Early Childhood Predictors of Persistent Physical Aggression in Boys from Kindergarten to High School.” Archives of General Psychiatry 58:389-394.

Sullivan, Bartholomew (April 11, 2008). “Shelby County has nation's third-highest jail incarceration rate, study finds,” The Commercial Appeal. Accessed July 23, 2009. <>

Tennessee Department of Health. Office of Policy, Planning and Assessment, Division of Health Statistics. Birth Statistical System, 2006. Nashville, Tennessee.

Tennessee Department of Human Services (2009). State Child Care Development Fund Plan: 2009-2010. Available from Gail Crawford with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Tremblay, Richard, Daniel Nagin, Jean Seguin, Mark Zoccolillo, Phillip Zelazo, Michel Boivin, Daniel Perusse, and Christa Japel (2005). The Early Development of Physical Aggression in Children. Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy. Accessed July 21, 2009 <>

Wildeman, Christopher (July 2009). "Paternal Incarceration and Children's Physically Aggressive Behaviors: Evidence from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study," Working Paper 2008-02-FF <> Accessed July 23, 2009.

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