Demographic and Familial Predictors of Early Executive Function Development: Contributions of a person-centered perspective

Open Access
Rhoades, Brittany L.
Graduate Program:
Human Development and Family Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 07, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Mark T Greenberg, Dissertation Advisor
  • Mark T Greenberg, Committee Chair
  • Stephanie Trea Lanza, Committee Member
  • Douglas Michael Teti, Committee Member
  • Linda Marie Collins, Committee Member
  • Meg Leavy Small, Committee Member
  • Karen Linn Bierman, Committee Member
  • risk assessment
  • early childhood
  • person-oriented
  • person-cenetered
  • executive function
The development of self-regulation skills during early childhood lays the foundation for healthy development and future well-being. Recently, executive function (EF) skills, a set of inter-related abilities used in coordinated, goal-directed behavior, have been highlighted as integral components of young children’s growing competence. However, very little is known about the role children’s early context and experiences within the family play in the emergence of EF skills. The goal of the present study was to examine how demographic and familial risks at 2 and 6 months related to EF competence at 36 months in a large, diverse sample of primarily low-income, non-urban families from Pennsylvania and North Carolina. This study used an innovative person-centered methodological approach, latent class analysis (LCA), to model profiles of infants’ home environment in order to: 1) better understand how various combinations of ecological risks predicted future EF skills, and 2) more accurately identify sub-groups of young children who were most at-risk for EF deficits. Given the diversity within our sample, we also explored how these associations varied across ethnic groups. Results showed that the following six ecological risk profiles best captured the diverse experiences of these families: 1) Married, Low Risk, 2) Married, Stressed & Depressed, 3) Poor & Married, 4) Poor & Unmarried, 5) Poor & Single, and 6) Poor, Single, Multi-Problem. Membership in the early risk profiles was meaningfully associated with EF skills at 36 months. Specifically, profiles characterized by poor, unmarried mothers were at the highest risk for future EF problems. Mediation analyses revealed that much of the influence of early demographic and familial risks on later EF skills may be transmitted through low parental sensitivity and responsiveness to their children during infancy and children’s emerging language skills during toddlerhood. However, important differences across ethnic groups were found for some mediators, including maternal negative intrusiveness and children’s language skills. iv The findings suggest that the early home environment may prove to be an especially fruitful context for the promotion of future EF skills. Additionally, positive parenting behaviors, including positive engagement and responsivity, should be emphasized and targeted to families that are poor and having an unmarried caregiver. If replicated, the results hold much promise for informing the more accurate and efficient use of scarce intervention resources in the future.