How a parent helps a child with a puzzle predicts the child’s executive function – the ability to manage time and pay attention

Photo: Shana. Creative Commons.

A study of 117 three- to four-year-olds in England finds that certain aspects of parenting—specifically, how parents relate to their children in ways that cause less stress, and how parents support their children with complex tasks and respond to children’s successes and difficulties—influence children’s executive function independently. Given these findings, the researchers recommend that home-based pre-school programmes to support parents focus on separate and distinct parenting functions.

There has been an explosion of interest in and research on executive function in children, which is a foundation for social understanding, academic performance and behaviour. Executive function relates to high-level processes around managing time and paying attention, including the ability to override habits and impulses in pursuit of a task, to use working memory, and to switch effectively between tasks. It involves the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which keeps developing well into adolescence.

It is well known that parenting influences executive function in children, but this study took a closer look at how such influence works.

The researchers measured parent-child interactions during five minutes of structured play (making a puzzle) and five minutes of unstructured play, then did so again 13 months later. The sessions were filmed and scored for how the parent related to the child—for example, how much warmth and positivity or how much criticism and control they displayed. The researchers also observed how the parents responded to their children’s progress with the puzzle, varying (or not) the degree of support offered as the child succeeded or had difficulties. (This is called “parental scaffolding”.)

The children were also given cognitive tests to measure their executive function, after which they were rewarded with a sticker. The parents were also given cognitive tests, done online, and a questionnaire about the home learning environment. The parents received a cash reward.

The researchers found a number of correlations between parenting and the development of executive function over the period between the tests.

Children were more likely to have higher executive function if their parents were not critical or controlling, and if they provided constructive support during the puzzle game. A positive home learning environment was also linked to higher executive function.

These correlations do not necessarily imply causation. For example, a parent’s might lead to both critical/controlling behaviour and lower executive function in a child.

Counter to expectations, the children were likely to have lower executive function if their parents spoke with them more during their time together. The researchers offer two possible explanations: that providing constructive support does not necessarily involve words (it could involve moving pieces of the puzzle around silently), and that perhaps parents respond to a child with lower executive function with more talking, to such an extent they may even inhibit the child from finding his or her own way through a task.

The researchers found that high executive function in parents does not correlate with faster development of executive function in their children—suggesting that having high executive function and being able actively to nurture it in one’s child are two different abilities.

 

Hughes C & Devine RT (2017), For Better or for Worse? Positive and Negative Parental Influences on Young Children’s Executive Function, Child Development