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Maternal Behavior and Socioeconomic Status Predict Longitudinal Changes in Error-Related Negativity in Preschoolers

Self-regulation has been suggested as a “primary task” of childhood through which children become able to manage their emotions based on the demands of the situation they are in. Part of self-regulation includes self-monitoring, where individuals can monitor their own behaviors to ensure they are appropriate. Self-monitoring can be studied at the neural level using error-related negativity (ERN), “which appears as a negative deflection in electroencephalograph (EEG) recordings following error com-mission.” In children as young as 3 years old, ERNs may indicate early risk for anxiety and providing a target for identifying those susceptible to anxiety-related disorders later in life. Dr. Rebecca Brooker, a faculty member of Texas A&M University’s Psycho-logical and Brain Sciences Department, recently conducted a study to test parenting and socioeconomic status (SES) as factors that may relate to developmental changes in ERN. Dr. Brooker hypothesized that ERN would increase from age 3 to 4, and that high SES and parental sensitivity would predict typical ERN development.

To test her hypothesis, Dr. Brooker ran a longitudinal study including two instances of data collection between Spring 2014 and Winter 2017. Participants included 119 preschool children ages 3 to 4 as well as their parents. Participants’ initial visits were around their 3.5-year birthday and included EEG data col-lection and parents’ self-reports of income, education, and parenting behaviors. They returned again at age 4 and were given identical tasks.

SES was determined by parent education level and occupation, while parenting was assessed by a self-report asking the likelihood parents would respond in specific ways to instances of challenging behavior their children demonstrated. Parent sensitivity was measured as “the parent’s mean score on the expressive encouragement, emotion-focused, and problem focused reaction subscales” while insensitivity was measured by the “mean score on the distress reaction, punitive-minimizing, and wish granting reaction subscales.” The preschool participants completed “a modified go-no-go task” while EEG and eye movement data was collected. Their task included pushing a response button to “shoot the asteroids, but to be careful not to shoot other space-ships.” All participants were exposed to asteroids on roughly 80% of trials (go stimulus) and spaceships (no go stimulus) on 40% of trials.

Dr. Brooker’s hypothesis that high SES and parental sensitivity would predict normal ERN development was supported by maternal sensitivity, but not paternal. She found that “normative development of the ERN was observed only when both maternal sensitivity and SES were high.” The hypothesis that ERN would increase was not supported for everyone because increases in ERN appeared to be at least partially dependent on SES. Increases were true/seen when SES and parent sensitivity were high, but not when they were low.

This research is important in the advancement of the field of developmental psychology and its role in identifying critical periods of development in children involving self-regulation and self-monitoring. By identifying these critical periods, researchers can further develop interventions for anxiety or anxiety-related dis-orders.


For more information on this research, visit https://onlinelibrary-wiley-