A new analysis of data from a cognitive science laboratory at Virginia Tech adds more fuel to the idea that children’s ability to listen and follow directions in school is connected to the way caregivers responded to them as infants. Using data on babies’ brain development as well as their mothers’ interactions with them at five months old, the lab has found that maternal warmth is connected to a child’s “executive functioning” five years later.

The research comes on the heels of an article in Child Development last year that showed that a toddler’s “executive functioning” – the ability of the brain to focus on tasks, prioritize, and regulate emotions – was correlated with how mothers interacted with them at 12 and 15 months. That research, led by Anne Bernier of the University of Montreal, is part of a growing pile of studies connecting the dots between children’s early experiences and their ability during their school years to keep impulsive behavior in check, follow directions and stick with a task to its completion.

The new data analysis was led by Jess Versele, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech. Vesele works in the Cognition Affect and Psysiology (CAP) Lab , which studies how children’s brains develop from infancy through adolescence and adulthood. Children come into the lab as young as 5 months old, and researchers track their development periodically until they are old enough for kindergarten, after which their parents continue to submit information on their progress via questionnaires and surveys.

Martha Ann Bell, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, is the lab’s founding director.

Intrigued by last year’s Child Development article, Versele decided to analyze data that had already been collected by the CAP lab to determine if similar findings might show up across a larger range of ages – from five months to five years old.

Versele and her co-researchers discovered that more than 10 percent of variations in executive functioning, or EF, among a sample of 48 kindergartners was connected to how sensitively their mothers responded to them during a brief play period in the lab when they were five months old. At 10 months old, maternal sensitivity accounted for more than 25 percent of the variation in children’s later behavior.

The lab’s data on maternal warmth came from videotaped observations of mothers interacting with their babies after being told to play with them “as you would at home.” The play exercises were designed to comfort babies before the researchers outfitted them with specialized caps that measure electrical activity in the brain.

Information on the children’s later behavior came from parents who filled out a questionnaire when their children were five years old, typically when they entered kindergarten. The questionnaire – called the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, or BRIEF – asks parents to rate on a numerical scale how often they find their child to be impulsive, to talk or play too loudly, and to need help in staying on task, among other things.

“Mothers who are highly warm, who tend to smile a lot and who have a warm tone of voice on average, are more likely to have children who have higher executive functioning skills in kindergarten,” Versele said.

The Virginia Tech data also contributes, though doesn’t yet provide airtight evidence, to support the theory that babies need positive emotional bonds with their caregivers to develop strong connections among the neurons of the brain. Among the sample Versele studied, the children with higher executive functioning were the same children who, at 10 months of age, had higher growth in one of the frontal lobes of the brain.  The frontal lobe, most neuroscientists say, is the site of the brain’s administrative activity – where the mind does its planning and reasoning.

But what seemed most remarkable, Versele said, is that the ability to predict a child’s behavior at age 5 could come from data on the behavior of the mother during that first year of the child’s life – regardless of the data on attributes of the child.

“There is a lot of research that shows that things that parents do, things that teachers do, can make a big difference,” Versele said.  “We are the first to look at data in infancy and use that to predict EF 5 years later.”

Some might wonder if another variable was at work: Could it be that the mothers who exuded warmth were also mothers with high levels of education, and if so could the data be reflective of mothers passing on some kind of cognitive advantage to their offspring that shows up in a child’s later self-control?

The Virginia Tech researchers had the same question but found that even when a mother’s maternal education was taken into account, the relationship between warm responsiveness and later brain functioning remained.

Versele cautions that there are aspects of the data that are still to be examined and that her findings, presented at a poster session in March at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, are preliminary.  She and her colleagues – including CAP lab director Bell as well as Christy D. Wolfe of Bellarmine University, Katherine Morasch at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and Morgan Hubble of Virginia Teach — are now conducting a more thorough analysis for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

The next steps for Versele, as well as researchers around the country who specialize in the development of executive function, are to tease out what exactly is causing what. Are children learning how to control themselves and persist in tasks because they are watching their parents, who in addition to being warm and nurturing are quite possibly also patient and focused, model those activities for them? Is there something about those early interactions that is building specific connections between neurons in the brain that are necessary to behave in those positive ways? Could both mechanisms be at work? Or could there be another variable yet to be discovered?

In the meantime, the research on executive function should adds urgency for policymakers to the development of programs that ensure children get a good start from birth on up through childhood. The new federal home-visiting program, Early Head Start and Promise Neighborhoods programs modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone all focus on helping parents to interact positively with their children starting from the day they are born.  The home-visiting program is now underway with $1.5 billion to be disbursed to states over five years to expand existing programs with evidence that they are making a difference in child outcomes. The Early Head Start program survived a threat of cuts during this year’s budget negotiations but its sustainability is in question if the U.S. House of Representatives goes ahead with its proposal to make deep cuts to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Promise Neighborhoods program was seeded with $10 million for planning grants in fiscal year 2010 and is receiving an additional $30 million this year, about one-seventh of the $210 million the Obama Administration had requested.

In short, the budget austerity predicted for the coming years could put a damper on any attempts to expand government efforts to promote more positive parenting.

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Source: New America Foundation (blog) – http://bit.ly/jnp6iL