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Social and Cognitive Development and the Family


Head of Group:

Professor Claire Hughes

Research Associates:

Dr Rory Devine

Research Assistants:

Dr Wendy Browne

Dominic Kelly

Dr Anja Lindberg

Dr Naomi White

Current PhD Students:

Amanda Aldercotte

Nikhil Darshane

Sarah Foley

Jennifer Landt

Former PhD Students:

Dr Rosie Ensor

Dr Nao Fujita

Dr Martha Hart

Dr Alex Marks

Dr Adelle Pushparatnam

Dr Gabriela Roman

Dr Naomi White

Dr Keri Wong

The New Fathers and Mothers Study (New FAMS) and the Baby Talk Study


The New FAMS is a large international study of first-time expectant fathers and mothers investigating the transition into parenthood and early family influences on infant development, such as self-control and social interaction. The study is led by Professor Claire Hughes, in collaboration with Professor Clancy Blair in New York and Professor Judi Mesman in the Netherlands. The study is funded by the ESRC in the UK, the NSF in the USA and the NWO in the Netherlands. Across the three sites, there are a total of roughly 450 participating couples (230 in the UK and 110 from the other two sites). In the first phase of the study, at around the third trimester, each expectant parent completes a face-to-face interview and an online questionnaire about their relationship, well-being and expectations of parenthood. In addition, expectant parents provide saliva samples for the measurement of the hormone cortisol in order to investigate both expectant parents’ physiological response to stresses associated with the final stages of pregnancy. In the second phase of the study, couples are followed-up when their baby reaches 4 months of age. Home visits include observations of fathers and mothers interacting with their baby during play and ecological measures of infant attention, concentration and social interaction. At this phase, parents also complete an online questionnaire about their relationship and well-being and a short face-to-face interview about their baby’s behaviour and their experiences of being a parent. For the third and then final phases of the study, when the babies are 14 and 24 months old, respectively, fathers and mothers are again observed at home interacting with their baby during structured and unstructured play and everyday activities. Parents will be asked to complete questionnaires about their relationship and well-being and their baby’s behaviour.

Together with Dr Elian Fink, Professor Hughes received a ‘Seed for Science’ grant from the Wellcome Trust to extend the New FAMS by adding the latest technological innovations to the 4-month home visits. Using a small ‘talk pedometer’ which is enclosed within a vest worn by the baby, parental baby talk will be recorded in order to explore the different interactions babies receive in a typical day. In addition to asking couples from the New FAMS to take part, this study extension aims to recruit couples whose infants have spent time on a neonatal intensive care unit with the intention of assessing whether and how this stay affects early family relationships.

The 'Toddlers Up' Project

In this study (funded by an initial grant from the Health Foundation and three subsequent grants from the ESRC), we have been collecting detailed observations and assessments of a socially diverse group of children recruited at age 2, who have now been followed for almost 10 years. Originally, this study was designed as a prequel to an earlier study of ‘hard to manage’ pre-schoolers that Claire Hughes had conducted in London (together with Judy Dunn) at the Institute of Psychiatry. In this prior study, the ‘hard to manage’ group presented a myriad of problems - in their cognitive skills, in their interactions with peers and in their relationships at home. One goal for the Toddlers Up study was therefore to address the problem of ‘chicken and egg’ by recruiting children at an earlier age, and examining early predictive relationships between children’s family interactions and their performance on tests of theory of mind and executive function. A second goal was to assess whether performance on these tasks could predict how well children get along with peers at school. More recently, we have been combining these two questions to examine family and cognitive predictors of adjustment in pre-teens.

So far, the Toddlers Up study has led to the publication of 17 journal articles, several chapters and a book titled Social Understanding, Social Lives (Hughes, 2011), which won the 2013 British Psychological Society Book Prize - Academic Monograph.

Social Understanding, Social Lives

Publications from the Toddlers Up study - organised by general topic:

Family influences on children’s cognitive and social development

Ensor, R., & Hughes, C. (2008). Content or connectedness? Mother-child talk and early social understanding, Child Development, 79, 201-216.

Ensor, R., & Hughes, C. (2010). With a Little Help from My Friends: Maternal Social Support, via Parenting, Promotes Willingness to Share in Preschoolers Born to Young Mothers. Infant and Child Development. 19, 127–141.

Ensor, R., Marks, A., & Hughes, C. (2010). Trajectories of antisocial behaviour towards siblings predict antisocial behaviour towards peers. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 51, 1208-1216.

Ensor, R., Roman, G., & Hughes, C., (2012) Mothers’ Depressive Symptoms and Low Mother-Toddler Mutuality Both Predict Children’s Maladjustment. Infant and Child Development, 21, 52-66.

Ensor, R., Devine, R.T. & Hughes, C. (in press). Does early exposure to maternal mental state talk predict theory of mind at ages 6 and 10?. To appear in Child Development.

Hughes, C. & Ensor, R. (2007). Positive and Protective: Positive and Protective: Effects of Early Theory of Mind on Preschool Problem Behaviours. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 4, 1025-1032.

Hughes, C. & Ensor, R. (2009). How do families help or hinder the emergence of early executive function. New directions for Child and Adolescent Development. Special Issue on Social Interaction and the Development of Executive Function, 123, 35-50.

Hughes, C., Roman, G., Hart, M.J & Ensor, R. (2013). Does Maternal Depression Predict Young Children’s Executive Function? A 4-year Longitudinal Study. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 169-177.

Hughes, C., Ensor, R.,& White, N. (in press). How Does Talk about Thoughts, Desires, and Feelings Foster Children's Socio-Cognitive Development? Mediators, Moderators and Implications for Intervention. To appear in K. Lagattuta (Ed.), Children and emotion. New insights into developmental affective science (pp. 95-105). Basel: Karger.

White, N., Ensor, R., Marks, A., Jacobs, L. & Hughes, C. (2013). “It’s Mine!” Does Sharing With Siblings at Age 3 Predict Sharing With Siblings, Friends and Unfamiliar Peers at Age 6?. To appear in Early Education and Development.

Developmental changes in children’s socio-cognitive skills and social consequences

Ensor, R., Spencer, D., & Hughes, C. (2011). 'You feel sad?' Emotion Understanding Mediates Predictors of Prosocial Behaviour: Findings from 2-to 4-years. Social Development. 20, pp. 93-110.

Ensor, R., Hart, M., Jacobs, L., Hughes, C. (2011). Gender differences in children's problem behaviours in competitive play with friends British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29, pp. 176-187.

Hughes, C. & Ensor, R. (2007). Executive Function and Theory of Mind: Predictive Relations from Ages 2- to 4-years. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1447-1459.

Hughes, C. & Ensor, R (2008) Does Executive Function Matter for Preschoolers’ Problem Behaviors? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Hughes, C., Ensor, R., Wilson, A., & Graham, A. (2010). Tracking Executive Function Across the Transition to School: A Latent Variable Approach. Developmental Neuropsychology, 35, 20-36.

Hughes, C., Marks, A., Ensor, R. & Lecce, S. (2010). A Longitudinal Study of Conflict and Inner State Talk in Children’s Conversations with Mothers and with Younger Siblings. Social Development, 19, 822-837.

Hughes, C., & Ensor, R. (2011). Individual Differences in Growth in Executive Function Across the Transition to School Predict Externalizing and Internalizing Behaviors and Children's Self-Perceived Academic Success at Age 6. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (special issue on Executive Functions).108, 663-676

Hughes, C. Marks, A., & Ensor, R. (2011). Individual differences in false-belief understanding are stable from ages 3 to 6 and predict children's mental state talk with friends. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 108, 96-112.

The 'In Mind' Project

This is a new international project that Prof. Claire Hughes and Dr Rory Devine are conducting in collaboration with Dr Zhenlin Wang and other researchers at the Institute of Education, Hong Kong. It is funded by the ESRC, the Hong Kong Research Council and the University of Cambridge Isaac Newton Trust. The main aim of the study is to find out whether the delay that previous studies have reported in Hong Kong pre-schoolers’ understanding of mind (e.g. Liu et al. 2008) is also evident among school-aged children, or in pre-schoolers given non-verbal tasks. A related aim is to examine how within-group variation in performance on tests of theory of mind and executive function is related to variation in parent-child interactions, recorded during lab-based play sessions in each country. The UK team for the In Mind project includes Prof. Claire Hughes, Dr Rory Devine and Ms Annabel Amodia-Bidakowska.

Relevant team publications:
Devine, R.T., & Hughes, C. (under review): Theory of Mind and Executive Function: A Meta-analysis.

Hughes, C., Devine, R.T., Ensor, R., Koyasu, M., Mizokawa, A. & Lecce, S. (under review) Lost in Translation? Comparing British, Japanese and Italian Children’s Theory-of-Mind Performance.

Lecce, S., & Hughes, C. (2010). ‘The Italian job?’: Comparing theory of mind performance in British and Italian children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28, 747-766.

The 'Ready Steady Go' Project: Developing the BESSI

This project was commissioned in January 2012 by Frank Field MP and has been funded by the Westminster Foundation and, more recently, the Foundation Years Trust (Director, Zoe Munby). The main aim was to develop a simple but reliable questionnaire for teachers to assess how well children are making the transition to school. This questionnaire, the Brief Early Skills & Support Index (or BESSI) has been developed and validated for reception and nursery children. Most of this research has been based in the Wirral and our current work aims to determine whether the BESSI is appropriate for use in more ethnically diverse areas.

An additional aim of this project is to develop a similar parent-rated instrument for younger children - the Index of Toddler Life Chances (I-TLC) - that could be incorporated into the age 2 integrated review.

Past and present members of the Ready Steady Go team include Prof. Claire Hughes, Dr Rory Devine, Dr Irenee Daly, Dr Naomi White, Ms Sarah Foley & Mr Dominic Kelly.

Using the BESSI

We are very happy for teachers, researchers and other professionals working with nursery- and reception-aged children to use the BESSI, but would appreciate hearing about this work. Copies of the BESSI can be downloaded using the links below along with a coding manual, which provides information about using and scoring the questionnaire. If you have any questions about the BESSI please contact Prof. Claire Hughes.

Relevant team publications: 

Hughes, C. (2015). The transition to school. The Psychologist, 28, 714-717.

Hughes, C., Daly, I., Foley, S., White, N. and Devine, R. T. (2015). Measuring the foundations of school readiness: Introducing a new questionnaire for teachers – The Brief Early Skills and Support Index (BESSI). British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 332-356.

Resources for the BESSI:

Copy of the BESSI questionnaire (Reception version)

Copy of the BESSI questionnaire (Nursery version)

BESSI coding manual

The 'Pets and Positive Relationships' Project

This project is dovetailed with the Toddlers Up project and is funded by the Isaac Newton Trust. There have been many claims made for the benefits of pets (or, more properly, ‘companion animals’) for children’s social development, but few of these claims have been properly tested. By integrating this project with the Toddlers Up study we have been able to avoid the problem of selection effects (in that the sample have been taking part in the Toddlers Up project much longer than our interest in the animals in their homes). By asking questions about pets as part of the Life History Interview, we hope to get a rich and accurate picture of the importance of pets for this sample. By gathering information from mothers, study children and siblings, we are also able to examine whether different family members have different views on the role of pets within the family. The team for this project includes Prof Claire Hughes, Ms Sarah Foley and Dr Sandra McCune of the Waltham Trust.