Theses Doctoral

Self-regulation and Academic Learning in Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Individual Differences and Links to Executive Function, Effortful Control, Reward Sensitivity, School Engagement, and Adaptive Behavior

Chen, Yanru

Children’s self-regulation has shown to be related to the trajectories across various domains of adaptive functioning and school success. Delay in self-regulation development represents an area of major challenge for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (e.g., Jahromi, 2017), a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and interaction as well as restricted and repetitive behaviors (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Children with ASD are often reported academic difficulties and underachievement compared to their typically developing peers (e.g., Nation et al., 2006). It has been well-documented that typically developing children with greater self-regulation had better academic achievement (e.g., Blair & Razza, 2007). However, few studies have extended the examination of the association between self-regulation and academic learning to the populations with special needs, especially to those with ASD. Moreover, the majority of previous studies solely relied on standardized assessments to reflect children’s temporary learning outcomes rather than their dynamic learning process. Little is known about how children’s self-regulatory skills are related to the way they learn and how various child characteristics moderate this association. Therefore, the goal of this study was to examine how the self-regulatory capacities of children with ASD, including executive function and effortful control, were linked to their dynamic academic learning process and to investigate the moderating effects of various child characteristics on this association, including ASD-related symptoms severity, school engagement, reward sensitivity, and adaptive behavior, all of which represent areas of challenge for children with ASD. Additionally, children with ASD often receive many different types of reinforcement at school. Their ability to wait for delayed reinforcement and their responsiveness to different reinforcers seem crucial for how successful they could adapt to school lives. Thus, another goal of this study was to investigate children with ASD’s responses to delayed reinforcement as well as token and social reinforcers in the natural classroom environment and to identify strategies that can facilitate their tolerance to delayed reinforcement and responsiveness to different types of reinforcers.

Thirty-two preschoolers aged 36 to 68 months from two specialized applied behavior analysis schools in the greater New York City area participated in the study. Each participant had an Individualized Education Program with a classification of Preschooler with Disability and had a current diagnosis of autism confirmed with the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2; Lord et al., 2012). Children with ASD received direct measures on their executive function in a laboratory setting and assessments on their responses to delayed reinforcement as well as token and social reinforcers in the natural classroom environment. Parents filled out reports regarding children with ASD’s executive function, effortful control, and reward sensitivity. Teachers completed scales on these children’s school engagement and adaptive behavior. Regarding the participants’ academic learning, instead of using one-time standardized assessments, this study derived school data of multiple literacy and mathematics programs over a period of time to investigate the number of learning opportunities and additional one-to-one educational interventions a child required to achieve an academic objective in the learning process.

Findings in this study showed that children with ASD with better self-regulation engaged in school activities to a greater extent, demonstrated better adaptive behavior at school, and were reported to have stronger social communication skills. Children with ASD with better emotional control, attention, and inhibitory control achieved academic objectives in literacy faster, especially in the domains of word recognition and reading comprehension. Also, children with ASD with a better overall EF level learned math concepts and problem-solving skills faster in both trial-based and script-based mathematics curricula, and those with better working memory demonstrated a higher learning rate in the trial-based mathematics programs. Further analyses showed that the relationship between self-regulation and academic learning in children with ASD was influenced by their behavior school engagement and reward sensitivity. These results inform future interventions to focus on the school engagement behaviors and sensitivity to reward in children with ASD when developing their self-regulation and academic learning skills. Moreover, three socially-oriented strategies, including using language, gestures, and eye contact, were found to help children with ASD respond better to delayed reinforcement, above and beyond their self-regulation level. Also, these children responded better in a task that they already mastered under a situation in which tokens could be earned for exchanging preferred items or activities contingent on their performance rather than in a situation where only social attention was available.

Overall, self-regulation emerged as a potential protective factor for young children with ASD in their school success in terms of engagement and adaptive level as well as academic learning rates. Self-regulation development is recommended to be included as an essential component in future academic and social-emotional interventions for children with ASD. Meanwhile, developing the ability to use language, gestures, or eye contact to communicate needs and emotions may help children with ASD have a better response to delayed reinforcement in the natural classroom environment. Considering the majority of them demonstrated altered reward sensitivity characterized by nonsocial stimuli hypersensitivity and social rewards hyposensitivity, it is important to enhance their responsiveness and sensitivity to social reinforcers to promote their school adjustment and success.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Intellectual Disabilities-Autism
Thesis Advisors
Jahromi, Laudan B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 3, 2021