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Emotional support stimulates cognitive flexibility

The ability to respond flexibly is important for children’s functioning. For example, cognitive flexibility has been related to math and reading performance and social understanding. In this post I will discuss the findings of a study about the role of maternal support for the development of cognitive flexibility. What can parents do to stimulate and support cognitive flexibility in children?

 Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch across tasks, rules, operations and perspectives based on changes in goals and demands. For example, cognitive flexibility includes:

  • Changing strategies when a strategy is no longer effective
  • Switching from one activity to another

 Emotional and cognitive support

This study examined if maternal emotional and cognitive support during a problem solving task improves children’s cognitive flexibility.

  • Emotional support refers to the ability to respond to children’s needs and emotions in a positive manner.
  • Cognitive support includes appropriate information about tasks, for example by explaining or demonstrating tasks.

 Design of the study

A total of 278 children and their mothers participated in the study at multiple time points: at preschool, kindergarten and first grade. At each time point, mothers and children were asked to play a board game which required planning and problem solving. In addition, children performed a task to measure their cognitive flexibility.

 The role of emotional and cognitive support

The study found that:

  • Greater maternal emotional support was related to better cognitive flexibility in children from preschool to kindergarten and from kindergarten to first grade. These effects were small.
  • Mothers’ cognitive support was not related to children’s later cognitive flexibility.
  • Children’s cognitive flexibility did not lead to changes in maternal support over time.

Scientific Parenting Tips Tips

Give your child emotional support. Using emotional support during problem solving tasks may contribute to the development of cognitive flexibility across early childhood.

More Information Scientific Parenting Tips More information

Zeytinoglu, S., Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (2018). Maternal emotional support but not cognitive support during problem-solving predicts increases in cognitive flexibility in early childhood. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 0165025418757706

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