Do Helpful Mothers Help? Effects of Maternal Scaffolding and Infant Engagement on Cognitive Performance

Kaili Clackson, Sam Wass, Stanimira Georgieva, Laura Brightman, Rebecca Nutbrown, Harriet Almond, Julia Bieluczyk, Giulia Carro, Brier Rigby Dames, Victoria Leong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (SciVal)


Infants are highly social and much early learning takes place in a social context during interactions with caregivers. Previous research shows that social scaffolding – responsive parenting and joint attention – can confer benefits for infants’ long-term development and learning. However, little previous research has examined whether dynamic (moment-to-moment) adaptations in adults’ social scaffolding are able to produce immediate effects on infants’ performance. Here we ask whether infants’ success on an object search task is more strongly influenced by maternal behavior, including dynamic changes in response behavior, or by fluctuations in infants’ own engagement levels. Thirty-five mother-infant dyads (infants aged 10.8 months, on average) participated in an object search task that was delivered in a naturalistic manner by the child’s mother. Measures of maternal responsiveness (teaching duration; sensitivity) and infant engagement (engagement score; visual attention) were assessed. Mothers varied their task delivery trial by trial, but neither measure of maternal responsiveness significantly predicted infants’ success in performing the search task. Rather, infants’ own level of engagement was the sole significant predictor of accuracy. These results indicate that while parental scaffolding is offered spontaneously (and is undoubtedly crucial for development), in this context children’s endogenous engagement proved to be a more powerful determinant of task success. Future work should explore this interplay between parental and child-internal factors in other learning and social contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2661
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding. This research was funded by an ESRC Transforming Social Sciences collaboration grant to VL and SW (ES/N006461/1), a Nanyang Technological University start-up grant to VL (M4081585.SS0), and by a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship and an ESRC FRL Fellowship (ES/N017560/1) to SW.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2019 Clackson, Wass, Georgieva, Brightman, Nutbrown, Almond, Bieluczyk, Carro, Rigby Dames and Leong.


  • engagement
  • maternal responsiveness
  • object search
  • scaffolding (teaching technique)
  • social interaction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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