Sensitive Caregiving Promotes Social and Academic Success


Emerging research concludes that sensitive caregiving in the first three years of life can predict an individual's future social competence and academic success.

Rick Nauert, PhD, writing for Psych Central, says a new study has confirmed that early maternal sensitivity has long-lasting links to a child's social and mental abilities. The study, by researchers from University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was released in the journal Child Development.

"The study indicates that the quality of children's early caregiving experiences has an enduring and ongoing role in promoting successful social and academic development into the years of maturity," notes Lee Raby, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, who led the study.

The term "sensitive caregiving" refers to how parents respond to their children's signals. Optimally, that would include reacting appropriately and promptly, being positively involved during interactions with the child, and providing a secure base as he, or she, explores the environment. The research included 243 individuals who had been born into poverty, came from various racial/ethnic backgrounds, and were followed from birth to the age of 32. The data used was part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaption. Observations of interaction between mothers and their children, teacher reports of how children functioned with their peer groups, and standardized test results were collected at intervals. During the subjects' 20s and early 30s, they completed interviews concerning their romantic relationships and their educational achievements.

Participants who experienced more sensitive caregiving in their early lives functioned at a higher rate socially and in school during the first three decades of life. Also, a subject's caregiving experiences predicted her academic functioning even after factoring in early socioeconomic standing, gender, and ethnicity.

"Altogether, the study suggests that children's experiences with parents during the first few years of life have a unique role in promoting social and academic functioning — not merely during the first two decades of life, but also during adulthood," according to Raby.

Since success in relationships and academics is the foundation for a healthy society, it is important that parents are offered programs and initiatives to equip them with skills that will enable them to interact with their children in a sensitive way during the children's first years. The result will be long-term benefits for individuals, families, and society, in general.

Another study published in the journal Child DevelopmentInfant Attachment Security and Early Childhood Behavioral Inhibition Interact to Predict Adolescent Social Anxiety Symptoms, discovered that a child's early experiences can predict whether or not they could develop social anxiety disorder as teenagers. This applies, however, only to children who were especially sensitive and distrustful as babies.

Maanvi Singh of NPR reports that researchers from the University of Maryland watched the interaction between 165 babies and their parents. The observation had to do with how the babies reacted when they were separated from parents, Some got upset, but recovered when they were reunited with their parents. Others had a difficult time trusting their parents after a short separation, and were not able to be calmed after being reunited. The extra-sensitive babies were more likely to be anxious when socializing and attending parties as teens.

"For some, therapy or medication may help," Jay Belsky, professor of human development at the University of California, Davis says. "And it's interesting, because there's now other evidence suggesting that the very kids who succumb under bad conditions are the ones who really flourish under good ones."

The meaning is that human development is complex. Early life experiences can affect us all to some extent, and some people are more sensitive than others.

Even though the question of whether or not a caregiver's interaction with a child has an impact on the child's life was being discussed before Sigmund Freud's study of the psychology of the parent-child relationship in the 1800s, there had not been research on the potential association in adulthood.

"There were two unanswered questions: The first is, ‘Does the quality of care that one receives in early life affect childhood, but does it also have long-term predictive effects for functioning into adulthood?'" Raby told "The second question is, ‘Do the predictive effects of early caregiving experiences decrease in time as children grow older and are faced with new challenges and experiences?'"

Raby's study was an expansion of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, published previously, according to Melinda Carstensen, reporting for Fox News. One of the most surprising outcomes of the study to its authors, was the fact that sensitive caregiving was more highly associated with academic performance than with social skills. Because the theory behind this area of research would predict the opposite, some questions are left to be answered. Another outcome of the research that authors are planning to observe is how the subjects, now in their 30s, will interact with their own children. An additional question the researchers are asking is whether less than optimal parenting, and the stress that is created as a result, may have long-term effects on children's physical health.

Art Chimes of Voice of America says Dr. Raby understands that sensitive caregiving, as a term, is somewhat hard to define. Raby says that when a youngster wants to tackle something new, and the parent knows that this something new is just beyond the child's ability, sensitivity is the degree to which the parent did not step in and do the task for the child, but did remain positively engaged.

The parent "was supportive of them, was affirming them, was praising them for the things they were doing well. And when they weren't solving the problem accurately, were kind of warmly and sensitively redirecting them toward the solutions," Raby said in a telephone interview.

Most of the mothers in the study were unmarried, were teenagers, and were poor. The message, says Raby, is that even disadvantaged parents are able to give their children a good start in life.

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