Parents’ Responsiveness Influences Children’s Development

Parents’ Responsiveness Influences Children’s Development

Healthnotes Newswire (June 16, 2005)—Children with developmental disabilities (DD) and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) may benefit from interventions that encourage the development of “pivotal behaviors,” reports the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (2005;26:77–85). Pivotal behaviors, such as social play, initiation, problem-solving, trust, cooperation, and persistence, are considered the cornerstones upon which early developmental learning is based. These behaviors seem to be influenced by parental, and in particular, maternal responsiveness.

Children with DD may have delays in cognitive (thinking) and/or communication development. It may be difficult for children with these delays to verbalize what they are thinking (expressive language disorder) or understand what is being said to them (receptive language disorder). Tasks such as reading and writing can also be challenging for these children.

Autism, which is classified as a PDD, is characterized by inflexible behavior patterns (for example, preoccupation with one area of interest) and by impairment in social interactions. Children with autism may be detached from their caregivers, may be unable to reciprocate affection and other emotions, and may have compromised verbal communication as well. Autistic children who are able to speak may have a hard time carrying on a conversation.

Relationship-focused interventions encourage parental responsiveness during child–parent interactions. Previous studies have shown that the level of maternal responsiveness can affect the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The new study compared the effects of a relationship-focused intervention on two groups of children: 30 children with DD (average age 23 months) and 20 children with PDD (average age 32 months).

During weekly one-hour parent–child sessions with early intervention specialists, the parents were taught how to use a technique called “responsive teaching.” The goal of this intervention is to help children learn the developmental processes that form the basis for effective communication and social interactions. The responsive teaching strategy is based on the following: (1) reciprocity: interacting with the child in a balanced, give-and-take manner; (2) contingency: being aware of and responding quickly to the child’s cues, and translating the child’s actions and feelings into words; (3) shared control: giving frequent opportunities for the child to make choices; (4) affect: using animated, playful behaviors to encourage interactions, and responding to the child with warmth and acceptance; and (5) interactive match: using requests and interactions that match the developmental abilities and temperament of the child.

The intervention took place over a period of one year, during which the participants received an average of 33 sessions. Parents spent an additional 15 hours each week implementing the interventions at home. The children and parents were evaluated before and after the intervention period.

After the intervention, significant improvements were noted in the mothers’ affect and responsiveness to their children. The responsive teaching strategy also appeared to be very effective at promoting the children’s development. Language development and social competence improved markedly in children with DD and PDD. The children showed significant improvements in pivotal behaviors such as persistence, cooperation, attention, and interest. Overall, greater developmental improvements were seen in the children with PDD than in the children with DD. The differences between the groups appeared to be related to the degree of parental responsiveness, however, and not to the different disorders.

The results of this study suggest that a responsive style of maternal interaction helps influence pivotal behavior development in children with DD and PDD. Early interventions that focus on learning these developmental behaviors may be more effective than teaching the specific skills necessary for carrying out everyday activities and interactions.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that early intervention be available for all children in need. For more information about the programs available in your area, visit

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.

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