To investigate whether nutrition plays a role in inhibitory control and executive functioning early in life, we collected data on behavior using different tasks (see previous blog). To perform these tasks, we choose to visit the children at home with the aim 1) to burden the families less, and 2) to test the children in their home environments where they are probably more at ease. Testing 3-year-old children is very fun a

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nd can also be challenging at the same time. I will share some anecdotes and experiences of my data collection as inspiration for others testing young children.

Attention
Some tasks had lengthy instructions and required the child to perform several practice trials, resulting in the child losing his/her attention. The sequence of the tasks was constructed in such a way that the child’s attention was maintained as long as possible. For example, the tasks that required more attention, focus and instructions were performed first.

Sometimes children said to be not in the mood to play anymore, or that they didn’t know what to do despite passing the practice trials. Repeating the rules is not possible, because it means that some children will receive more instructions than other children. I solved this problem by telling the child that he/she would be rewarded if he/she finished the task. Rewards could be a fun game they can play next, or some snacks that the parents agreed to giving.

Parents
Parents sometimes tended to help their child. To prevent this, it is very important to instruct the parents not to help their child. Another way to prevent the parent from helping is to keep them busy by having them fill in a questionnaire, or to turn to the child and say things like: “are you a bit nervous because Mum is looking?” Sentences as these work very well, as you are not telling the parent directly what to do, but they understand the hint immediately.

Siblings
Toddlers often have siblings; sometimes younger siblings and sometimes older siblings. If possible, parents are asked to arrange the situation this way that the siblings are not at home and/or are asleep. When not possible, an assistant accompanying the experimenter can take care of the siblings, for example by taking the sibling outside and play soccer in the neighborhood. Everything for science!

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For my research, I measured impulsive behaviour in 3-year-old children. Briefly, impulsivity is the opposite of inhibitory control. There are several forms of inhibitory control, and although there is no official categorisation of different forms of inhibitory control in young children, Anderson & Reidy (2012) defined five categories. The categories are:

  • Delay of gratification: the ability to resist direct temptation in order to receive a bigger reward after the delay.
  • Impulse control: the ability to inhibit an instinctive response.
  • Verbal inhibition: the ability to inhibit verbal responses.
  • Motoric inhibition: the ability to learn response sets that conflict with an established behaviour.
  • Go/No go: the ability to perform certain behaviour after being shown a certain stimuli but to inhibit that behaviour after being shown a different stimuli.

The Marshmallow test is a famous example of an inhibitory control task (more specifically: delay of gratification). For this task, a marshmallow is placed in front of the child. The child is told that if s/he refrains from eating the marshmallow while the examiner is gone, s/he will receive two marshmallows when the examiner returns. Another example of an inhibitory control task (more specifically: Go/No go) is the Bear/Dragon task. For this test, the child has to obey the commands (e.g. ‘hands on your head’) of the bear hand puppet, but must inhibit obeying the commands of the dragon hand puppet.

When comparing the Marshmallow task with the Bear/Dragon task, similarities and differences can be found. They are similar in the way that both tests require the child to inhibit their impulses. However, the Marshmallow task requires minimal working memory demand, while the Bear/Dragon task requires complex greater working memory demand (Petersen, Hoyniak, McQuillan, Bates, & Staples, 2016). The Bear/Dragon task is thus a complex inhibitory control task, because children are instructed to not only inhibit a prepotent response, but also to respond in a certain way to a salient, conflicting response option.

In my research, I used both behavioural tasks and parental report (both mothers and fathers) to assess inhibitory control. However, results from the behavioural tests and the parental questionnaires correlate poorly with each other; a finding which is also often reported in other studies. While behavioural tests show objective observations of the child’s behaviour, these observations are mostly only carried out at one specific time point (e.g. during a home visit). As such, the child’s performance might be prone to noise, such as that the child slept poorly the past night. Reports of behaviour, on the other hand, reflect the behaviour of the child during daily life. However, these reports can be prone to social desirable answering and parental perceptions of their child’s behaviour. By measuring inhibitory control with both behavioural tasks and parental reports, we obtain the most robust view of the child’s behaviour.

Overall, measuring inhibitory control behaviour in 3-year-olds can be challenging, but also a lot of fun! (Stay tuned for a blog on interesting anecdotes during my data collection.)

REFERENCES:

Anderson, P. J., & Reidy, N. (2012). Assessing Executive Function in Preschoolers. Neuropsychology Review, 22(4), 345–360. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11065-012-9220-3

Petersen, I. T., Hoyniak, C. P., McQuillan, M. E., Bates, J. E., & Staples, A. D. (2016). Measuring the development of inhibitory control: The challenge of heterotypic continuity. Developmental Review: DR, 40, 25–71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.02.001

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