Early Career Outstanding Paper Award

What's mom got to do with it? Contributions of maternal execution function and caregiving to the development of executive function across early childhood

This paper provides the first concurrent analysis of the relative contributions of maternal executive functions and caregiving to early childhood executive functions.

By Kimberly Cuevas

Despite the importance of executive functions (EFs; e.g., working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility) in both clinical and educational contexts, the etiology of individual differences in early childhood EF remains poorly understood. In an article published in Developmental Science , the early career award paper for Div. 7 provides the first concurrent analysis of the relative contributions of maternal EF and caregiving to early childhood EF . Current theory postulates that bio-social mechanisms—both genetic and co-occurring socialization experience—support optimal regulatory development (Rueda, Posner, & Rothbart, 2004). Previous child EF research has focused on either positive caregiving or severely adverse environments (see review by Hughes, 2011). My colleagues and I were in interested in whether negative caregiving behaviors, within a typical environment, would be associated with child EF. Although maternal EF is associated with a variety of caregiving behaviors (Deater-Deckard, Wang, Chen, & Bell, 2012), it is unknown whether maternal EF and caregiving measure synonymous bio-social contributors to child EF. To help elucidate the mechanism of maternal–child EF associations, we examined whether maternal caregiving mediated the association between maternal EF and early childhood EF.

A group of children and their mothers ( N = 62) completed age-appropriate interaction (10, 24, 36 months) and EF tasks (child: 24, 36, and 48 months). Because both verbal ability and socioeconomic status are associated with EF, we controlled for maternal education (a correlate of socioeconomic status and verbal intelligence) and child verbal ability in our regression analyses. At 24 months, EF was associated with maternal EF ( r = .22), but not negative caregiving behaviors ( r = -.06). Regression analyses revealed that by 36 months of age, maternal EF and negative caregiving behaviors accounted for unique variance in child EF, above and beyond maternal education and child verbal ability. Maternal EF and negative caregiving accounted for approximately the same amount of variance in 36-month EF (even when controlling for EF stability). However, negative caregiving accounted for more unique variance in 48-month EF than maternal EF (controlling for EF stability enhanced this pattern with unique contributions of negative caregiving only). Taken together with the 24-month null findings, these findings suggest that the effects of negative caregiving behaviors are increasingly manifested in early childhood EF.

Mediation models revealed that the links between maternal EF and child EF at 36 and 48 months of age were at least partially explained by associated variations in caregiving behaviors. Maternal EF also had statistical indirect effects on changes in child EF (i.e., 24 to 36 months; 36 to 48 months) through maternal caregiving. Thus, although maternal EF and negative caregiving are related, they provide unique information about the development of child EF. Importantly, these associations were present in the context of "typical" parenting behaviors as compared to severe adverse environments. Our findings reveal that regardless of maternal EF and education, an environment that is low in negative caregiving behaviors will help promote optimal EF development.


Cuevas, K., Deater-Deckard, K., Kim-Spoon, J., Watson, A. J., Morasch, K. C., & Bell, M. A. (2014). What's mom got to do with it? Contributions of maternal executive function and caregiving to the development of executive function across early childhood. Developmental Science, 17, 224-238. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/desc.12073

Deater-Deckard, K.,Wang, Z., Chen, N., & Bell, M.A. (2012). Maternal executive function, harsh parenting, and child conduct problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53 , 1084–1091. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02582.x

Hughes, C. (2011). Changes and challenges in 20 years of research into the development of executive functions. Infant and Child Development, 20 , 251–271. doi: 10.1002/icd.736

Rueda, M.R., Posner, M.I., & Rothbart, M.K. (2004). Attentional control and self-regulation. In R.F. Baumeister & K.D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 283–300). New York: Guilford Press.