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Behavioral inhibition (BI), characterized by negative reactivity and withdrawal in response to novel stimuli in infancy (Degnan & Fox, 2007), is fairly stable through childhood and adulthood (Fox et al, 2005) and high BI is associated with social reticence, wariness, and withdrawal in childhood, as well as social anxiety throughout the lifespan (Degnan et al., 2008; Kagan et al., 1999). Further, continuity of infant reactivity and toddler BI show sensitivity to environmental factors, including early child care (Fox et al., 2001; Phillips et al., 2011). In fact, among children exposed to low levels of positive caregiving quality in preschool, children who showed high BI in toddlerhood were more likely to display social reticence in middle childhood, though children who showed low BI in toddlerhood were not impacted (Huz, 2018). Further, positive caregiving quality was directly related to greater social competence. The current study builds on this work by assessing whether specific observed components of child care quality at age four, as well as caregiver reported relationship with the child, drive the previously found moderation effect on the relations between toddlerhood BI and social reticence in middle childhood.
291 infants previously identified as high in positive reactivity, high in negative reactivity, or of average reactivity were enrolled in a longitudinal study of temperament (Hane et al., 2008). BI was assessed by observations of approach and avoidance behavior during laboratory tasks at age 2. Quality of the caregiving environment at age 4 was assessed by classroom observations of caregiver behavior and classroom climate. The student-teacher relationship was also assessed at age 4 by caregiver report. At age 7, social reticence was measured by observations of social behavior during interactive tasks with an unfamiliar peer.
Controlling for gender, maternal extraversion, and nurturance, path analysis revealed significant interaction effects of toddlerhood BI and observed caregiver sensitivity, detachment, and positive regard for the child at age 4 in relation to social reticence at age 7, all ps<.05. Specifically, when sensitivity and positive regard for the child were high and detachment was low, the relations between BI and social reticence were not statistically significant, p>.05. At low values of sensitivity and positive regard for the child and at high values of detachment, BI was associated with greater social reticence, b=.32, p=.001; b=.25, p=.011; b=.75, p<.001, respectively. Conversely, the interactions of toddlerhood BI with the student-caregiver relationship or positive emotional climate were not associated with social reticence.
Findings provide further evidence that children who react negatively to novelty are sensitive to the caregiving environment in preschool, particularly when observed caregiver behavior is of low quality (i.e., insensitive, detached). However, neither observed classroom climate nor caregivers’ reports of their relationship with the child show these effects. Therefore, promoting high quality caregiving may disrupt the relatively stable trajectory of toddler BI to later social reticence, allowing for healthy social adjustment and lowering the risk of social anxiety in later childhood, adolescence, or adulthood for highly inhibited children.