Macquarie University
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Social cognition and relational aggression: an investigation of the cognitive bases of preschoolers' aggressive behaviour

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posted on 2022-03-28, 03:08 authored by Cara S. Swit
Young children’s social cognitive understanding of aggression and reasons for engaging in aggressive behaviour are often overlooked in aggression research. It is often assumed that preschool age children do not have the cognitive capacity to explain or justify their behaviour and there remains a paucity of appropriate measures of young children’s social cognitive understanding of aggression. The aim of this study was to address preschool age children’s use of relational aggression and the social cognitive processes that may underlie these behaviours through the development of a ‘preschooler-friendly’ measure with a view to understanding the reasons why children engage in aggression, as well as children’s normative beliefs about, and behavioural responses to, relational and physical provocation. The study also assessed teacher and parent normative beliefs about, and intervention responses for different types of aggression to determine the relationship between children’s cognitive processing and ecological factors. This study aimed to extend research by examining the socio-psychological factors of relationally and physically aggressive children in an Australian sample. A representative sample of preschool age children (N = 68) participated in this study, yielding two subgroups compromising highly relationally aggressive (n = 9) and typically developing (n = 7) children. The identification of two subgroups allowed for differences in relationally aggressive and typically developing children’s social cognitive processing to be examined. This study found that relational aggression was viewed as more acceptable by teachers and parents compared to physical aggression and these normative beliefs were accompanied by more passive intervention strategies in response to relational aggression. Relational and physical aggression predicted both functionally adaptive and maladaptive socio-psychological factors in this sample of preschool age children. The newly developed measure was able to identify differences in the social cognitive explanations and responses to provocation of relationally aggressive and typically developing children. Highly relationally aggressive children were more likely to recommend prosocial problem solving responses and have higher quality social interactions with peers and adults, whereas typically developing children recommended typical aggressive responses to provocation. The significance of these results for understanding the development of aggression and implications for early school based interventions are discussed.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. Study of aggression -- Chapter 3. Relational aggression in young children -- Chapter 4. Factors that influe4nce relational aggression -- Chapter 5. Methodological approach -- Chapter 6. Study One. Teacher and parent beliefs about aggression -- Chapter 7. Study Two. Preschool children’s use of aggression and socio-psychological wellbeing factors -- Chapter 8. Study Three. Understanding the intentionality and function of young children’s aggressive behaviour -- Chapter 9. Study Four. Children’s normative beliefs and behavioural responses to aggression -- Chapter 10. Discussion and implications.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 208-240

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, School of Education

Department, Centre or School

School of Education

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Anne McMaugh

Additional Supervisor 1

Wayne Warburton


Copyright Cara S. Swit 2016. Copyright disclaimer:




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