Relational aggression in preschoolers: can theory of mind development explain such complex forms of social manipulation?

Cara Swit, Anne McMaugh

    Research output: Contribution to journalConference paperpeer-review

    Abstract

    The role of cognitive processes in explanations of aggressive behaviour have challenged the perception of the typical child bully as lacking in social skills (Nicolaides, Toda, & Smith, 2002), while others have suggested that sophisticated theory of mind may be required to engage in subtle acts of aggression (Sutton, Smith, & Swettenham, 1999a). However, the role of theory of mind in explaining aggressive behaviours is equivocal in that some studies report a significant association between theory of mind and hostile behaviours (Björkqvist, Österman, & Kaukiainen, 2000), while others report a significant association between theory of mind and prosocial behaviours (Watson, Nixon, Wilson, & Capage, 1999). In this study, the relationship between theory of mind development and preschool-aged childrenʼs engagement in relational aggression and prosocial behaviours was examined in an Australian sample. Sixty 3- to 5- year old children (35 boys, 25 girls) participated in five theory-of-mind tasks designed to assess their understanding of desires, beliefs, knowledge access, false belief, and real-apparent emotion (Wellman & Liu, 2004). The Preschool Social Behaviour Scale – Teacher Form (Crick, Casas, & Mosher, 1997) was used by teachers to rate childrenʼs engagement in relational aggression and prosocial behaviours. Results indicated that teachers identified high levels of relationally aggressive behaviours in 20 percent of the sample (n = 12). preschool aged children. Teachers reported significantly more relational aggression in the oldest age group of children (aged > 4.5 years). However, this study did not find a positive correlation between relational aggression and theory of mind development, and no significant differences were found for gender or between younger and older childrenʼs theory of mind performance (p>0.05). Relational aggression was related to lower scores of prosocial behaviours (p<0.05). Results are discussed in terms of conceptual and methodological considerations in the use of theory of mind as an explanation of relational aggression and practical implications for Australian early childhood settings and schools are considered.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-18
    Number of pages18
    JournalAARE 2011 Conference Proceedings
    Publication statusPublished - 2011
    EventAustralian Association for Research in Education Conference - Hobart, Tasmania
    Duration: 27 Nov 20111 Dec 2011

    Keywords

    • relational aggression
    • theory of mind
    • preschoolers
    • prosocial behaviour

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