Preschoolers who show low levels of empathy and don't feel guilty about misbehaving are more likely to display behavioral issues by the time they reach first grade, a new study finds.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan. Researchers wanted to identify and understand the different types of early child problems, which tend to improve over time. However, in the event that they don't, it may be a red flag for parents. Such children might be more aggressive and violent as teens and adults.

"Little analysis had been done among preschoolers, who undergo rapid physical and psychological development, making this a difficult time for parents to manage behaviors and an important time to help children improve their behavior," said Rebecca Waller, a U-M psychology research fellow and the study's lead author, in a press statement. "Adults who are aggressive or violent have often shown early-starting behavior problems as young children. Thus, a focus on understanding the emergence and development of behavior problems before they become severe is important for creating new treatments that could help prevent children following a lifetime of violence or crime."

For the study, researchers analyzed data of more than 240 children and their parents. Parents were requested to report data when their children were 3 years old and again when they were 6 years old. This they did by filling in questionnaires about their child's behavior while the children completed six tasks that were videotaped and coded by researchers.

From the data, researchers were able to identify three types of behavioral issues at the age of three. These included oppositional behaviors, ADHD and callous and unemotional behaviors. Children who showed oppositional behavior were often angry, frustrated and had difficulty controlling their emotions. Those that showed ADHD had difficulty maintaining their focus and attention during tasks. Parents reported that those children that showed the third type of behavioral problems also showed less empathy, guilt and moral regulation. What surprised the researchers was the fact that those that showed higher levels of such behavior were also more likely to have continued problems as rated by their teachers.

"A key thing for parents and educators to take from this work is that many children during the preschool years show normative levels of behavior problems and aggression, but there may be different types of behavior problems that may need different interventions if the behavior is not declining as children get towards school age," said study co-author Luke Hyde, U-M assistant professor of psychology.

"The good news is that we know from other work that early interventions are very successful and helpful with early child behavior problems," Hyde said. "If parents or teachers are concerned about a child's behavior, they should seek out a mental health provider such as a clinical psychologist, who is trained in a treatment called Parent Management Training. This treatment is very effective and can help a child learn better behavior, particularly early in childhood."

Findings of the study were published online in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The project was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.