0 - 12 Months

What executive function predicts about babies

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“We can measure how [babies] pay attention by how long they look at things, and in the second half of the first year we can give baby simple problem-solving tasks, and those seem to be predictive of later executive function.”

Dr. Melissa Clearfield, professor of psychology, Whitman College

Executive function is a hot topic in brain research. Impulse control is one of a suite of skills associated with executive function. 

Jessica Rolph is accompanied by an expert in this field, Dr. Melissa Clearfield, a professor of psychology at Whitman College. In this episode, Melissa shares her research on executive function in babies, along with some grounding advice for parents on connecting with their babies. That connection, she explains, is the foundation for the relationships that your baby will have later on in life.

Key Takeaways

[1:46] Melissa defines executive function and its link to success later in life.

[3:08] Signs of executive function in the baby’s first year of life.

[4:21] Melissa shares interventions that can boost executive function.

[6:25] The importance of parents giving baby their undivided attention.

[8:17] Electronic toys and babies.

[9:40] Simple toys promote learning, exploration and cognitive development.

[10:06] When is it beneficial to offer your child multiple levels of stimulation?

[12:13] How to model good executive function for children.

[13:50] The attachment style that you have with your infant sets the stage for that child’s attachment style later in life in their romantic partnership.

[14:50] Play for Success.

Mentioned in this episode:

Learn more about Dr. Melissa Clearfield


What is executive function?

Jessica: Melissa, so what is executive function, how do you define it for us parents?

Melissa: Executive function is all that higher level stuff that we do, the decision-making, paying attention shifting our focus from one thing to another, solving problems, all of that is considered executive function.

Jessica: And I’ve heard that executive function is like there’s this key link between having high executive functioning skills, and success later in life is that real, is that true?

Melissa: The data suggests that there is a good link and it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. People who can pay attention, who can focus on one thing, who can creatively solve problems, who can figure out the sequence, to solve a problem. Those are all skills that make sense that they would lead to success in life.

Research on executive function and babies

Jessica: So how early does this show up? You are a researcher of babies and so… Can you see executive functioning showing up in babies?

Melissa: We can see early components of executive function. Even in babies, so babies, even in their first few months of life can pay attention, we can measure how they pay attention by how long they look at things and in the second half of the first year we can give baby simple problem-solving tasks, and those seem to be predictive of later executive function.

Jessica: And so what have you discovered in your research findings in for executive functioning in babies, in that first year of life? Can you summarize some of the things that you’ve discovered?

Effects of poverty

Melissa: Sure, so my research focuses on the effects of poverty on babies and so what I’ve been doing is repeating classic executive function tasks with babies but comparing low income or babies from low-income households and babies from high-income household. And what I have found is on basically everything that I have measured babies from low-income households do not perform as well as babies from high income households. So I even by six months of age, babies from low-income households, focus their attention, look less long at toys. If you present them with a single toy they won’t look as long at it if you present them with 6 toys all at the same time, they won’t pay as much attention and those differences just get magnified over time. So we measure the same babies at six months, nine months, and 12 months, and they just keep growing further and further apart.

Jessica: Wow, wow, what is the intervention, how are we… What do you tell parents how can we change this?

Uninterrupted focus time

Melissa: Well, that’s what I’ve been working on lately. Actually, the last few years, is trying to design an intervention to help boost executive function. Something really simple that parents can do. That in fact, a lot of especially stay-at-home parents do. So the intervention that I’ve been kind of testing these days involves practicing attention and teaching, so what I ask parents to do is to turn off the TV and put down their phones and focus with their baby on a toy that I provide them and it’s just a really simple, rattle not one where you press a button and Mozart comes out just a really simple rattle where baby’s own movements will make sound happen.

Melissa: And I tell parents, or ask parents to show their baby how to explore this toy show them how to bang it on the table to make a noise or slide it around or turn it around in their hand, like rotating it, or transfer it from hand to hand. I actually demonstrate this. And then give the toy to your baby and focus on your baby for 10 minutes, a day, every day for two weeks.

Melissa: That’s all it is, it’s really simple. But our early pilot study found that babies who did this with their parents, where their parents were actually teaching them how to explore the rattle, they showed increased attention over time. Even a month after the parents stopped.

Jessica: Wow, That is fascinating. It actually so much resonates with the Montessori philosophy. Do you feel the same? That you do a toy introduction to the child? You oftentimes aren’t verbalizing because you want to show with your hands and give your attention to the object. Show how the rattle will make a noise show them every aspects of the material, and then you give it to your baby and let them explore it. Is this resonating is this something that you’re familiar with?

Melissa: Yes, it is absolutely resonating. That is exactly the theory behind the intervention.

Melissa: Part of what’s important, I think, in this intervention is the parents’ focusing their attention on the baby. I think these days, especially, I think it’s really hard to get parents to put down their phones and just focus on their baby. And we’ve had families who have said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this. I can’t give you 10 minutes a day.” And I worry for those babies who can’t get 10 minutes of un-distracted time, with a parent.

Effects of multitasking

Jessica: Are you seeing with the onset of hand-held devices for parents, smartphones, do you feel like this is really shifted in the last… Do you think there’s a correlation between the fact that we have devices so readily available, both for ourselves and for our children, and this executive functioning decline?

Melissa: I haven’t seen the data on that, I will say, I don’t think it would surprise me. Everybody thinks that they can multi-task, But neuroscience tells us that nobody’s brain can actually multitask. All we can do is switch back and forth very quickly but every time we switch back and forth, we lose focus, of course. And so it would make a lot of sense to me, but I don’t know those data myself. I do think that, or I wonder, if the focus on parents using devices, how that has influenced things like attachment and bonding.

Jessica: Yeah, so fascinating. And so concerning. Most every parent has been guilty of being distracted by our phones is just like you pick it up to do one thing and then there’s 10 other things happening and you lose yourself and I just think it’s so helpful to hear this reminder of just taking dedicated time to be there, present, looking in your baby’s eyes — sharing your attention on a rattle or something. Very simple.

Model for effective executive functioning

Jessica: When you’re having that moment, with your child where you’re focusing on the object, tell me about giving your child multiple levels of stimulation, so talking and narrating what you’re seeing and what you’re touching, narrating for them. At what point does language input, benefit a child and is there a time when you should actually not be giving them multiple forms of stimulation? This is something I always struggle with as a parent. I always want to explain everything and I know that giving your child lots of words is so healthy. Just also… But I’m wondering if there’s a distraction element or there’s too many inputs is actually happening at once. Like you’re talking to them, you’re also shaking the rattle, you’re also physically moving, you’re showing them something. What is the kind of the perfect modeling of this executive functioning moment with your child, this focused moment look like?

Melissa: I think the perfect model includes eye contact with your baby both focusing on this toy and also the narration is fine. You asked how early should you be doing this? You should be doing this when you’re still pregnant. There’s this classic study that I love. I’m actually teaching it in my class tomorrow.

Melissa: It’s a classic study where the researchers asked pregnant women to read stories to their fetuses in the last trimester… the stories were very specific like the cadence was very specific to the story, they were certain Dr. Seuss stories, and then after the babies were born, they measured babies preference for that story, even when it was read by a different voice and they found that even at a week old, these newborns preferred the story that they had heard in the womb, even when it was read by somebody else. So these babies were listening, they were absorbing the cadence of the story even before they were born, and they remembered it. There’s nothing more important than your time, than your attention. That is what babies are craving. 

Jessica: Yeah, and I think that we also hear whether we like it or not, our kids are learning from us, they’re learning from our behaviors as parents. And so, can you just tell us a little bit more about what it looks like to model that good executive function for our children?

Read to your child

Melissa: So I think some of the best things that you can do to model that for your children is to read to your child, even as infants. Because that’s both of you focused on something that’s not flashing or talking to you. And the best way to foster strong attention is to simply practice, and so that is a fantastic modeling bit for your children, is to read to them, to let them see you sitting and quietly reading a book, to talk to them.

Opportunities to explore

Melissa: And then for the other elements of executive function things like problem solving, and means ends behavior, you need to give your child opportunities to try opportunities to explore where you can then teach them and show them what to do and then make sure that you’re giving them more and more challenging, more and more challenging problems to solve so that you are keeping up with your child. Because they learn so quickly, their abilities change so quickly, that something that’s challenging now, probably not going to be challenging in a week or two.

Jessica: I love that, they’re just so amazing how they learn, and grow so much every minute and you get to see it every day in your work. That’s so fun. Okay, so I feel like this is so grounding, it’s actually what feels good is a parent, it feels good to be connected to your child, it feels good to take a break from all of the distractions that come up in our lives 

Melissa: That connection that you have with your child, that attachment relationship… the attachment style that you have with your infant actually sets the stage for that child’s attachment style later in life in their romantic partnerships, there’s a really strong correlation between that attachment to a parent, and then later attachment to a romantic partner, so the more loving and stable and secure attachment that you can foster with your child, the better you are setting up your child for a lifetime of strong, stable, loving relationships. I know it’s also really terrifying as a parent.

Jessica: Melissa I just love what you said that can really make a difference: Just 10 minutes of focused attention on something as simple as a rattle or a ball, or some kind of toy can make a difference.

Melissa: It can, and the intervention that I’ve been testing that’s called Play for success. We only had parents do that for two weeks, so 10 minutes a day for two weeks and it made a difference even a month after they stopped.

Jessica: Wow, that is incredible, I love that. So we can do this, we can totally do this. I feel so inspired as a parent of a for as a parent of a 4-year-old and 7-year-old and nine-year-old, I feel re-committed to putting my phone down and being with my child in the present moment.

Melissa: Excellent that’s just going to benefit your kids in the long run.

Jessica: So thank you, thank you for that inspiration.

Episode Takeaways

I learned so much from that conversation. Let’s review how we can foster executive function skills in our children: 

Defining executive function

Executive function is the higher level workings of our brain. Things like focus and decision-making, and the ability to shift our attention from one thing to another. Research has shown a key link between having high executive functioning skills and success later in life. 

Practice focused and uninterrupted time

You can practice attention with your baby by putting down your phone, turning off any background noise (like music or TV) and focusing with your baby on one very simple toy for a short time. Here is how it works, show your baby how to explore the toy and then give the toy to your baby, and watch as they explore it. Let your child’s attention drive the interaction. Early research shows that focusing together for 10 minutes a day can build executive functioning skills. 

It’s never too late to start

It’s never too late (or too early!) to start building these skills. Until the mid 20s, our brains are constantly cycling through periods of building and pruning connections.

You can find more information on executive function on Lovevery’s blog, “Here With You.”


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Posted in: 0 - 12 Months, Object Permanence, Memory Development, Real World Play, Free Play, Child Development

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