Researchers have known that paying attention to behavior — including executive function — in young children can offer important clues to learning capability, as well as interventions that parents or clinicians may want to employ.
As Ellen Galinsky, chief science officer at the Bezos Family Foundation and executive director of Mind in the Making, has noted about executive functions: “they enable us to control ourselves, to reflect deeply, and to consider things from multiple points of view. As such, they involve paying attention, remembering what we need to remember to pursue our goals, thinking flexibly and not going on automatic, exercising inhibition.”
“Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive functioning, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary. This edition of the InBrief series explains how these lifelong skills develop, what can disrupt their development, and how supporting them pays off in school and life. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and having the right support and experiences through middle childhood, adolescence, and into early adult life is essential for the successful development of these capacities.”
Now a new study published in Pediatrics examines “profiles of infant regulatory behaviors and associated family characteristics in a community sample of 12-month-old infants and mental health difficulties at 5 and 11 years of age.”
The study is titled “Infant Regulation and Child Mental Health Concerns: A Longitudinal Study.” To study the issue, “items relating to demographic characteristics, maternal distress, and infant regulation were completed by 1759 mothers when their infants were 8 to 12 months old. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire was completed by mothers at child ages 5 (n = 1002) and 11 (n = 871) years.”
The results were telling: “Analyses revealed 5 profiles ranging from the most settled infants (36.8%) to those with mainly sleep problems (25.4%), isolated mild-to-moderate tantrums (21.3%), complex regulatory difficulties (13.2%), and complex and severe regulatory difficulties (3.4%). Compared with those in the settled profile, children in the moderately unsettled profile were more likely to score in the clinical range for total difficulties at 11 years of age, and children in the severely unsettled profile were more likely to score in the clinical range at 5 and 11 years of age.
The conclusions: “Infants with multiple moderate-to-severe regulatory problems experience substantially heightened odds of clinically significant mental health concerns during childhood, and these symptoms appear to worsen over time. Clinicians must inquire about the extent, complexity, and severity of infant regulatory problems to identify those in the most urgent need of intervention and support.”