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Centre for Family Research


Social and Cognitive Development and the Family

We investigate children’s relationships within and outside the family in relation to their developing socio-cognitive skills. In particular, we are interested in social influences and consequences of early individual differences in ‘theory of mind’ (the awareness of one’s own and others’ thoughts, feelings, etc.) and in executive functions (the higher order processes that underpin flexible, goal-directed behaviour).

If you would like to take part in our study looking at the impact of COVID-19 on families around the world, then please follow this link.


Team members, past & present

Head of Group:

Professor Claire Hughes

Current PhD Students:

DrJean HengHelen Dolling & Mishika Mehrotra.

Visiting Lecturer

Dr Robbie Duschinsky

Former team members: 

Dr Amanda Aldercotte, Emma Aldred, Sasha Carrington, Sana Chughtai, Dr Hana D'Souza, Dr Nikhil Darshane, Dr Caoimhe Dempsey, Dr Rory Devine,Dr Keya Elie, Dr Rosie Ensor, Izzy Erlewyn-Lajeunesse, Kathryn Farrell, Dr Elian Fink, Dr Sarah Foley, Dr Sam Friedman, Alba Galindo-Gonzalez, Dr Nao Fujita, Mina Gedikoglu, Louise Gray, Dr Martha Hart, Beth Ketteringham, Dr Jennifer Landt, Dr Alex Marks, Dr Gabby McHarg, Dr Adelle Pushparatnam, Dr Gabriela Roman, Amber Snary, Shira Webb, Dr Naomi White, Dr Keri Wong, Dr Chengyi Xu.


Research Projects

The 'Ready Or Not' project: School Readiness - Connecting Viewpoints on Child and Family Wellbeing  and Identifying Commonalities Across Diverse Groups

Now more than ever, it is important to understand the links between academic success and children’s socio-emotional wellbeing. The Ready or Not, Here We Come! study is led my Professor Claire Hughes, in collaberation with Dr Rory Devine (University of Birmingham), Dr Hana D'Souza (Cardiff University) and Dr Elian Fink (University of Sussex). The study is funded by the ESRC. Our overarching aim is to elucidate the conceptual and developmental links between school-readiness, well-being and children's close relationships, with a view to enhancing support for children at risk of struggling in the early school years. We hope that this work will highlight children’s social relationships within Early Years education policies. Full details of what the study involves for both parents and teachers can be found on the following pages of this website.


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.

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Centre for Family Research, the NewFAMS team made two short videos.  The first of these was designed to capture the voices of parents (including some from the NewFAMS), talking about their ‘journeys to parenthood’: where did it start, and what would they advise others to pack for this all-important journey? To find out, click here.

The second video describes a key focus of the NewFAMS study, the development of self-control.  Why does it matter and how can we assess very early individual differences in children’s self-control? To find out, click here.

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.

Relevant team publications

Branger M.C.E., Emmen R.A.G., Woudstra M.-L.J., Alink L.R.A., Mesman J., & NewFAMS team. (2019). Context Matters: Maternal and Paternal Sensitivity to Infants in Four Settings. Journal of Family Psychology.

Devine, R.T., Ribner, A., & Hughes, C. (2019). Measuring and Predicting Individual Differences in Self-Control at 14 Months: A Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 90(4).

Fink, E., Browne, W.V., Kirk, I., & Hughes, C. (2019). Couple relationship quality and the infant home language environment: Gender-specific findings. Journal of Family Psychology.

Foley, S., Branger, M. C. E., Alink, L. R. A., Lindberg, A., & Hughes, C. (2019). Thinking About You Baby: Expectant Parents’ Narratives Suggest Prenatal Spillover for Fathers. Journal of Family Psychology.

Foley, S., & Hughes, C. (2018). Great expectations? Do mothers’ and fathers’ prenatal thoughts and feelings about the infant predict parent-infant interaction quality? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Review

Hughes, C., & Devine, R. T., Foley, S., Ribner, A., Mesman, J. & Blair, C. (2020). Couples Becoming Parents: Trajectories for Psychological Distress and Buffering Effects of Social Support. Journal of Affective Disorders.

Hughes, C., Devine, R.T., Mesman, J. & Blair, C. (2019). Parental Wellbeing, Couple Relationship Quality and Children’s Behavior Problems in the First Two Years of Life. Development and Psychopathology, 1-10.

Hughes, C., Devine, R.T., Mesman, J. & Blair, C. (2020). Understanding the Terrible Twos: A longitudinal investigation of the impact of early executive function and parent-child interactions. Developmental Science.

Hughes, C., Foley, S., Devine, R.T., Boddington, L., Holmes, E., & the New FAMS team. (2019). Worrying in the Wings: Negative Emotional Birth Memories in Mothers and Fathers Show Similar Associations with Perinatal Mood Disturbance and Delivery Mode. Archives of Women's Mental Health.

Hughes, C. H., Lindberg, A., & Devine, R. (2018). Autonomy Support in Toddlerhood: Similarities and Contrasts between Mothers and Fathers. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(7), 915-925.

Li W., Woudstra M.-L.J., Branger M.C.E., Wang L., Alink L.R.A., Mesman J., Emmen R.A.G., and the NewFAMS team. The effect of the still-face paradigm on infant behavior: A cross-cultural comparison between mothers and fathers. Infancy Vol.24 Issue 6 (pp.893-910).

McHarg, G., Fink, E., & Hughes, C. (2019). Crying babies, empathic toddlers, responsive mothers and fathers: Exploring parent-toddler interactions in an empathy paradigm. J Exp Child Psychol 179:23-37.

McHarg, G., Ribner, A., Devine, R. T., Hughes, C., the New FAMS Team. (2020). Infant screen exposure links to toddlers’ inhibition, but not other EF constructs: A propensity score study. Infancy.

Ribner, A., McHarg, G., The NewFAMS Study Team (2019). Why won’t she sleep? Screen exposure and sleep patterns in young infants. Infant Behavior and Development, Vol. 57.

Evidence for Better Lives Study (EBLS)

As part of an ESRC Centre bid that is under review, Claire is stepping up to lead the Evidence for Better Lives Study, having played a core role in the Foundation stage, described in this link.


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, Anna-Louise Van Der Merwe). 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 Liverpool City Region.  The team are currently working on a study, launched by the Liverpool City Region Child Poverty Action and Life Chances Commission to track 9,000 children across four time-points across a 24-month period.

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

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.

Hughes, C., White, N., Foley, S. & Devine., R.T. (2017). Family Support and Gains in School Readiness: Longitudinal Findings. Accepted for publication in British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Resources for the BESSI[HC1] 

BESSI questionnaire (Reception version)

BESSI questionnaire (Nursery version)

BESSI coding manual

BESSI class scoring spreadsheet (Online version)

Please note that the BESSI resources are all:

Copyright © 2015-2016

University of Cambridge

All Rights Reserved


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.

This study has led to a set of groundbreaking findings regarding parental ‘mind-mindedness’ (the ability to view children as independent agents with their own thoughts and feelings).  Specifically, this study showed parallel UK-Hong Kong contrasts (favouring the UK) in (a) young children’s understanding of false belief and (b) parental mind-mindedness, with the difference in parental mind-mindedness explaining the contrast in children’s false belief understanding. These findings are striking in that they suggest that mind-mindedness may have a culturally universal importance for children’s early socio-cognitive development.  To find out more, click here to watch a video.

Relevant team publications 

Devine, R.T., Bignardi, G. & Hughes, C. (2016). Executive function mediates the relations between parental behaviours and children’s early academic ability. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1902

Hughes, C. & Devine, R.T. (2017).  For better, for worse: Positive and Negative Parental Influences on Preschoolers’ Executive Functions.  Child Development. Early Online View, DOI: 08:26:38.770206

Hughes, C., Devine, R.T. & Wang, Z. (2017). Does parental mind-mindedness account for cross-cultural differences in preschoolers' theory of mind? To appear in Child Development. Watch a video about this study here.

Devine, R.T. & Hughes, C. (2017). Family correlates of false belief understanding in early childhood: A meta-analysis. Child Development, Early Online View, DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12682.

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 '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, Dr Sarah Foley and Dr Sandra McCune of the Waltham Trust.

Relevant team publications:

Cassels, M.T., White, N., Gee, N., Hughes, C. (2017). One of the family? Measuring early adolescents' relationships with pets and siblings Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49, pp. 12-20.