Cognitive development at adolescence predicted by early mother-child and caregiver-child interactions.

Our recent study of more than 1,300 families in the United States makes a compelling cognitive development case for investments to help mothers and other caregivers provide stimulating and responsive care of infants and toddlers.

We found that mothers’ stimulating and responsive care of children in the first three years predicts improved cognitive development – specifically, better maths and vocabulary skills – through childhood and into adolescence. Similar good practice from nonfamilial caregivers was also linked to better math performance, though not as strongly as interactions with mothers. The study, by us and Sara Schmitt, appears in the journal Developmental Psychology.

By stimulating and responsive care, we mean behaviors such as regularly talking to infants and toddlers in ways that are attuned to their interests. In our observational tests, which involved playing with toys, researchers looked for adult behaviors that engaged with the young children’s play, where the adults stayed sensitively involved, neither ignoring the child nor taking over the play.

Boosted cognitive development

It is perhaps less surprising that mothers’ conversations and interactions during the first three years are associated with children’s later vocabulary. But it is particularly interesting that this is also linked to another key indicator of cognitive development – improved mathematics performance later in life.

“By stimulating and responsive care, we mean talking and reacting to young children in ways that are sensitive to their interests.”

We found that the boost in cognitive development predicted by good adult caring in the first three years was most apparent when the children were four and a half years old, just before they began formal schooling. The impact then fell away a little, but the influence of good care delivered in infancy and toddlerhood subsequently stabilised and remained substantial and detectable throughout childhood until at least age 15. We are following the sample to see whether the cognitive development impacts are still detectable at age 26.

Deprivation particularly impacts on cognitive development

Our findings particularly highlight that it is critically important to identify and support deprived infants and toddlers who are not receiving stimulating and responsive care –either from their mother or from a caregiver. We found that such a “dual care gap” not only combined the losses one might expect in cognitive development, it amplified them. These children experienced roughly twice what we anticipated would be the combined impact.

Our findings confirm that mothers’ and caregivers’ stimulating and responsive care in the later preschool period, at four and a half years, predicted additional increases in cognitive development. This evidence helps justify current interventions to support better care for this older preschool age group. However, the benefits for cognitive development from stimulating-responsive care at four and a half years were less pronounced than the influence of stimulating-responsive caring practice during the first three years.

cognitive development

Photo: Giang Hồ Thị Hoàng. Creative Commons.

Implications for early childhood development policy

Our findings would therefore justify additional support for children under three, especially given the evidence from other studies that document wide variations in the caregiving that young children receive during the first three years. For example, other studies have found that about only about half of US children are receiving stimulating and responsive care from their caregivers.

“Our findings justify additional support for children under 3, given the wide variations in caregiving that young children receive during the first three years.”

This picture can be changed. Research by Professor Mary Dozier at the University of Delaware and others shows that interventions during the first three years are effective at improving both parental and caregiver practices.

Understanding fathers’ role in first three years

Our study used data from an archived data set covering a total of 1,364 families. It focussed on observations of mother-child interactions and carer-child interactions at six, 15, 24 and 36 months and again at 54 months (four and a half years). A father or father figure was present in two-thirds of this sample and were subject to the same observational tests as the mothers. This data set therefore provides a similar opportunity to ascertain how fathers’ stimulating and responsive care in the first three years might contribute to children’s cognitive development through childhood and beyond.  We would expect to find positive links, since other literature demonstrates that the quality of later father-child interactions also influences educational achievement.

Conclusions for early child cognitive development

This unusually large and lengthy study of child cognitive development suggests that policymakers and practitioners should take a long, hard look at how they provide resources to support children, parents, and caregivers during the first three years.

Our findings show that it is important to focus on this period, not to the detriment of four- and five-year-olds but in addition to the help already provided for them. Our research backs up findings from neuroscience that considerable damage can be done to cognitive development during the first three years that will be hard to make good later on, despite much effort.

Thus every effort must be made to avoid damage in the first place, with a real emphasis required to improve the situation of those children under three, who may find themselves in deprived, unstimulating, unresponsive conditions, where lack of skilled caregiving means that there is insufficient compensation for inadequate parenting. The amplified legacy of this neglect – through childhood, into adolescence and probably beyond – is all too obvious from our study. The case for interventions of proven efficacy is compelling; they should not be delayed.

Header photo: Donnie Ray Jones. Creative Commons. 

Policy Implications

This paper highlights the importance of children’s stimulating-responsive experiences with their mothers and caregivers in the first three years of life.  Education does not start at age 4!

References

 Duncan RJ, Schmitt SA & Vandell DL (2019), Additive and synergistic relations of early mother- and caregiver-child interactions for predicting later achievement, Developmental Psychology