The importance of interactions for child development is not only postulated by learning and developmental theories (e.g. Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2000), but also internationally substantiated by results of various studies (e.g. Melhuish et al., 2008). In early childhood sensitive mother-child interactions are presumed to be especially beneficial to different domains of child development. Not only associations of sensitivity with socio-emotional development are well evidenced (Bigelow et al., 2010), sensitive interactions also seem to foster language and cognitive development (e.g. Nozadi et al., 2013).
Sensitivity is defined as a behaviour that reacts and refers to a child’s needs and interests in an appropriate manner (Ainsworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1974) and therefore includes at least three major components: (1) the mothers perception of a child’s signal, (2) the correct interpretation, and (3) a reaction to the child’s signal which is prompt and appropriate for the child’s needs and developmental status. While early definitions of sensitivity only focussed on reactions to children’s attachment needs, recent concepts (Kindler & Grossmann, 2004) not only focus on soothing behaviour but also on support of exploration.
But, like every interaction behaviour, sensitivity is closely related to characteristics of the mother, the child, and the context it takes places in (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2000). When investigating variables affecting sensitivity, all three dimensions should be considered.
Studies have focused on single aspects of these different dimensions: Concerning context and mother, possible distal stressors or resources influencing the maternal ability to perceive and react to child signals have been studied, such as low household income or the lack of a supporting partner (Gudmundson, 2012), or psychological strain and educational background (Hänggi et al., 2013). Concerning the child, conditions that influence the child’s ability to send clear signals and provide feedback on maternal behaviour should be studied. This active role of the child as a creator of his/her own learning environment has been postulated by different theories. But up to now, studies have mainly focused on general characteristics of the child, like his/her general temperament (Therriault, Tarabulsy, Lemelin, & Provost, 2011) and not on situation specific characteristics with a direct effect on the interaction situation itself by eliciting or preventing sensitive interactions.
Therefore, our study focuses not only on central indicators of all three dimensions simultaneously but also on situation specific child characteristics. We analyse household composition, income, psychological strain, educational background, and temperament as possible preconditions of sensitivity and additionally broach the issue of the active role of the child by not only including the general temperament of the child, but also his/her interaction behaviour.
Thus, our research explores the question (1) to what extent sensitive behaviour is visible in interactions with 7-month old infants and (2) how general context, maternal and child variables as well as situation specific child characteristics are associated with sensitivity.
Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
We use data from the first wave of the Birth Cohort of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS; Blossfeld, Roßbach, & von Maurice, 2011). The analysed sample covers N=2183 families with 7 month old children (M= 6.96, SD=.81; 51% boys) with German speaking mothers, for whom information of a parent interview and a videotaped interaction sequence were available.
The interaction sequence was administered as a semi-standardized play situation in which time (five minutes) and play material was prearranged, but mothers were free to interact with their child without specific guidelines. The video data was rated by trained coders using a rating system (Sommer & Mann, 2015), with which behaviour of the mother and the child was coded using 5-point Likert-scales (inter-rater-agreement=90%). As dependent variable we operationalized mothers’ sensitivity as an appropriate, stimulating reaction to child’s signals which is characterized by a positive manner and emotional involvement (Cronbach’s alpha=.80).
As independent variables we included situation specific as well as general child characteristics. Situation specific characteristics were rated with the above mentioned rating system and provide information about positive mood, sustained attention, and sociability during the play situation. General characteristics, like the child’s temperament, were derived from a very short form of the Infant Behaviour Questionnaire (IBQ-R; Gartstein & Rothbart, 2003), used in the parent interview. Additionally, we considered psychological strain (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.64), and educational background as maternal characteristics. As contextual characteristics we considered poverty (< 60% of the mean net equivalent income) as well as partner and siblings in the household.
To investigate how situation specific characteristics of the child as well as general child, maternal, and contextual characteristics are related to sensitivity we calculated bivariate correlations and multiple linear OLS-regressions.
Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings
The average sensitivity of the mother in the interaction situation ranges on a medium level (M = 3.18; SD = 0.74). As a first step we analysed the association of sensitivity with single predictors. It becomes visible that sensitivity is closely related to characteristics of the child in the interaction situation. Especially positive mood of the child (r = 0.25, p < 0.001) and sociability (r = 0.51, p < 0.001) are highly correlated with mother’s sensitivity. General characteristics of the child, as well as maternal and contextual characteristics seem to play a minor role for sensitivity: Temperament of the child, psychological strain of the mother, and the presence of a partner show no to low associations. Educational background (r = 0.19, p < 0.001) and being poor (r = -0.17, p < 0.001) are related to sensitivity on a medium level. In a second step, we consider characteristics of the child, the mother, and the context simultaneously: Again child characteristics in the interaction situation are important and they are the strongest predictor of maternal sensitivity that loses hardly its importance when including mother and context variables in the model.
The importance of child’s interaction behaviour for sensitivity seems to be reasonable, because on the one hand certain actions of the child (e.g. expressing positive mood) can elicit sensitive reactions, and additionally child signals can be perceived and interpreted more easily when certain behaviours of the child are given (e.g. sustained attention). This finding underlines the dyadic and reciprocal nature of sensitivity. On the other hand, the behaviour of the child might be a result of previously experienced sensitive interactions; therefore these results cannot be interpreted as unidirectional causality.
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Intent of Publication
We intend to publish parts of our analysis in a book chapter (H.Wadepohl, K. Mackowiak; K. Fröhlich-Gildhoff & D. Weltzien (Eds.): Interaktionsgestaltung in Familie und Kindertagesbetreuung [Interactions in Family and Child Care]. Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag)