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Michigan State University

Human Development & Family Studies

Insight into Infants’ Internal Worlds Lab 517884-0521

Comparison of Quantitative Methods for Measuring Effects of Parental Sensitivity and Cognitive Stimulation on Toddler’s Vocabulary A.M. Mastergeorge1,2, C. Vallaton3, K. Decker3, K.M. Masyn4, C. Ayoub5, D.Thompson2, C.S3, E. Sanseski2, A.Zientek3, M.Scott3 University of Arizona1, University of California, Davis, M.I.N.D. Institute2, Michigan State University3, Harvard Graduate School of Education4, Harvard Medical School5


Introduction There are many different ways that individual and dyadic behaviors have been quantified and used as either outcomes or predictors in the study of child development (e.g. Coleman et al, 2003; Crnic et al., 2005; Dawson et al., 2003). Rating systems give one score (from a continuous scale) on each dimension which summarizes the total observation, while micro-analytic coding systems categorize each relevant behavior during the interaction. Both methods have unique methodological advantages, and each may be best suited to answering different kinds of analytic questions. This study examines the types of developmental processes that may be elucidated through summative ratings and micro-analytic coding systems. Further, this approach compares two different methods of quantifying observed parent-child interactions in order to test the effects of two different qualities of interaction style on children’s language development: parental cognitive stimulation (intentional teaching) and parental sensitivity.

Question 1 was answered using the rating scales in which the two dimensions were

rated independently and on the same 7-point scale, allowing use in growth models to simultaneously predict children’s outcomes and to compare their effects to each other.

Question 2 was answered using a micro-analytic coding system. Using this system,

each behavior is coded with a mutually exclusive and exhaustive set of codes, and codes that carry the precise meaning from one wave of the analysis to the next wave. ANOVA was used to determine whether the frequency of sensitive and stimulating behaviors changed over time. Figure 2 Change in specific maternal behaviors between child ages at 14, 24, and 36 months of age.

Changes in mothers’ sensitivity between 14 and 23 months predicted children’s productive vocabulary at 24 months, controlling for child vocabulary and maternal sensitivity at 14 months (b=2.276, p<.05).


Research Questions

When parents attend to their child’s own interests and follow children’s cues, their expressive and receptive vocabularies are greater (e.g. Baldwin & Moses, 1994; Pungello et al, 2009). Further, maternal sensitivity has also been documented as increasingly important to children’s developing language and communication skills. Others (e.g., Raviv, Kessenich & Morrison, 2004) found that cognitive stimulation was even more important to children’s language than maternal sensitivity at 36 months.

(1) Do the effects of parental cognitive stimulation and sensitivity on young children’s language development time? (2) Do parents change their strategies to meet children’s changing needs? (Is there a trade-off in parents’ use of stimulating vs. sensitive strategies between infancy and toddlerhood?)

Methods Data were collected from one site of the national Early Head Start Research and Evaluation study (N=146 families). Mothers and children were videotaped during a 10-minute interaction when children were 14, 24, and 36 months of age. Parents’ interaction qualities—including sensitivity and stimulation—were rated on a scale of 1 to 7. Parents’ interaction qualities – including sensitivity and stimulation – were rated on a scale of 1 to 7. These same observations were coded using a micro-analytic system that categorized—moment-by-moment—each maternal behavior toward the child. Children’s expressed vocabulary was measured by transcribing child language during parent-child interactions.

Panel A. Stable Effect of Maternal Sensitivity on Child Vocabulary Over Time

Panel B. Growing Effect of Maternal Cognitive Stimulation on Child Vocabulary Over Time

Figure 1: Effects of sensitivity and cognitive stimulation on children’s productive vocabulary from 14 to 36 months.

Sensitivity and cognitive stimulation had simultaneous positive effects on child vocabulary. However, the effect of cognitive stimulation increased over time, whereas the effect of sensitivity stayed constant (see Figure 1 above). No change was observed in the average levels of the rating scale scores. However, using the micro-analytic coding system, the percent of mothers’ behaviors coded as sensitive did change (F=5.339, p<.01). Figure 2 depicts the change of individual behaviors between the three waves.

Both sensitivity and cognitive stimulation are linked to children’s language development, and are often the focus of early intervention—including Early Head Start. The comparison of the analytic methods used in this study allow us to understand the variation in the effects of these two parent-child interaction qualities and their relative contributions to young children’s language development. Understanding the relative effects of sensitivity and cognitive stimulation across developmental time points may have important implications for early intervention contexts and strategies.

Acknowledgements The authors acknowledge funding from the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families. The authors wish to thank the members of the Early Head Start Consortium. Research was supported by a grant from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Grant 90YR0008 and a grant from NICHD, Grant 1F32 HD050040-01.