Rule-Governance, Correspondence Training, and Discrimination Learning: A Developmental Analysis of Covert Conduct Problems

Article excerpt


A developmental model of covert conduct problems is described. Three social processes increase risk for early covert conduct problems. First, parents and other social agents fail to reinforce children's compliance to explicit commands and instructions. Second, there is a failure to transfer rule -giving and rule -following from external verbal stimuli and contingencies to children's self-description of behavior-consequence relationships. Third, correspondence between children's words and future (promise keeping) or past (truth-telling) behavior is inadequately established. Early covert conduct problems may also result from the acquisition and rehearsal of non-normative, deviant rules in family and peer settings. As such, covert conduct problems reflect acquisition of non-normative rules as a result of active deviancy training and deficits in rule governance and word-behavior correspondence.

Key Words: Rule governed behavior, develop of conduct disorder, behavioral development and communication.


Research in developmental psychopathology has identified several malleable social processes that increment risk for child and adolescent conduct problems. Identification of these processes, in turn, has powerfully informed the construction of efficacious family- and school-based preventive and clinical interventions for those problems (Reid, Patterson, & Snyder, 2002). Despite such advances, theoretical and empirical efforts to fully describe these processes and to translate relevant findings into concrete intervention tactics are incomplete. The primary focus of developmental and intervention research with younger children has been on what is commonly termed "overt" conduct problems, such as physical and verbal aggression, disruptive behavior, and defiance. A relative blind spot in this research concerns the evolution of "covert" conduct problems (e.g., lying, stealing, cheating) in earlier childhood, and the manner in which these problems can be systematically addressed in preventive and clinical interventions prior to adolescence.

The goal of this paper is to formulate a model of the social processes that facilitate the development of covert conduct problems during childhood, applying the notions of rule governance, language-behavior correspondence, and discrimination learning. Given the diverse backgrounds of readers of this new journal, a brief background is first provided in order to adequately contextualize these goals.

Covert Conduct Problems

Covert conduct problems refer to a complex class of behaviors that: (a) attain desired materials and reinforcing activities that are normatively sanctioned, and (b) are performed under discriminable environmental or behavioral conditions to minimize experience of those sanctions by proactive or retroactive concealment of the attaining behaviors. This behavioral class includes two generic, sequentially and functionally related sets, as represented in Figure 1. The first set entails behaviors that directly access proscribed materials and activities. Prototypes of "attaining" behaviors (see center portion of Figure 1) are stealing and cheating, but also include vandalism, fire setting and precocious/pseudo-mature activities (proscribed because of age) such as alcohol/tobacco use and sexual behavior. The second set entails behaviors occurring in a chain either prior to or after performance of the attaining behaviors and whose function is to avoid or escape detection and social sanctions. Prototypes of these "surveillance avoidance" strategies are scanning the immediate environment for monitoring by social agents (see left portion of Figure 1), and lying (see right hand portion of Figure 1).


Previous developmental and intervention research has often not distinguished between covert and overt forms of conduct problems because they are highly inter-related, at least when measured concurrently. …


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