Children's Parasympathetic Reactivity to Specific Emotions Moderates Response to Intervention for Early-Onset Aggression

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Following theories that individual differences in respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) denote differential sensitivity to environmental influences, this study examines whether differences in RSA reactivity to specific emotional challenges predict differential response to intervention. We present data from a randomized clinical trial of a targeted intervention for early onset aggression. In collaboration with a high-risk urban school district, 207 kindergarten children (73% African American, 66% male), identified by their teachers as having high levels of aggressive and disruptive behavior, were recruited. All children received a universal social-emotional curriculum. One hundred children were randomly assigned to an additional intervention consisting of weekly peer-based social skills training. Complete RSA data were available for 139 of the children. Teacher-reported externalizing symptoms and emotion regulation in 1st grade (post intervention) were examined controlling for baseline levels. First-grade peer nominations of aggressive behavior, controlling for baseline nominations, were also examined as outcomes. No effect of resting RSA was found. However, greater reactivity to anger was associated with higher externalizing symptoms and lower emotion regulation skills in 1st grade relative to low reactive children. Lower reactivity to fear was associated with greater improvement over time, an effect that was enhanced in the targeted intervention condition. Results suggest that measures of affective reactivity may provide insight into children's capacity to benefit from different types of interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)291-304
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 4 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology


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