New study investigates executive function predictors in infants aged 14 months

Can a baby’s attention span during its first few months serve as an indicator of his or her future abilities? A recent paper published in Child Development, co-authored by NEL’s Andrew Ribner, seeks to understand the relationship between behavioral abilities in early infancy and the emergence of executive function skills. Executive functions are cognitive abilities that help us regulate our emotions and behaviors and delay gratification — abilities which are essential for academic and personal success.

This research follows in the footsteps of similar studies, which have demonstrated that infant looking-time can be a significant indicator of later-life performance. Looking-time, a measure of infant visual attention, is a quality that varies significantly between individuals, and has been shown to predict intelligence into adulthood. Longer looking times signal slower processing speeds and as such, are related to intelligence. Looking time is often measured through procedures in which researchers hold up an attractive toy in front of an infant, measuring the time until the participant looks away from the object for at least 3 seconds. Traditionally, this procedure is repeated a number of times.

In this new study, led by Rory Devine of the University of Birmingham in the UK, the researchers hypothesized that looking time could also be used as a predictor of executive function ability later in life. They measured infant looking-times at 4 months old, and then returned 10 months later to assess the development of the infant’s executive function skills. At each visit, researchers used the established procedures for measuring executive function in infants. These measures include four tasks: one which assesses the infant’s ability to self-regulate by instructing them to not grab for attractive objects, two which measure their working memory by requiring infants to locate hidden toys in various scenarios and over multiple time-frames, and a fourth exercise that assesses the infant’s rule-following ability by asking them to repeat a set of tasks demonstrated by the examiner.

In regards to looking time, the researchers’ findings support those of former studies, demonstrating that infants with longer looking times performed worse in many measures of executive function than infants with shorter looking times. However, their results did not reveal consistent correlations between the measures of executive function and those of looking time. These results suggest that the measures may not effectively assess executive function in the desired age group due to inconsistency in demand between tasks, and/or variation in child development. A third possible conclusion from these results is that executive function skills, as we have come to understand them, are either established in later developmental stages, or that the components of executive function remain disparate skills until later in childhood.

Further studies are needed to gain a more complete understanding of executive function abilities in infants and toddlers. This new paper in Child Development, however, represents a major step forward in the measurement of these important abilities in very young children.

For more information about this study and its findings, check out the full paper.  

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