Working Memory and Social Functioning in Children

Julia McQuade, Clinical PsychologyDr. Julia D. McQuade, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Amherst College, where she is also the director of the Peer Relationships Lab. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Vermont while working with Dr. Betsy Hoza on research examining the social adjustment of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and with Dr. Dianna Murray-Close examining risk factors for aggressive behavior in youth.

She published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, titled: ‘Working memory and social functioning in children’

Research Interests

I have previously worked on research examining the social adjustment of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and examining risk factors for aggressive behavior in youth. Through this work I developed an interest in the cognitive and environmental factors that place certain children at risk for peer problems. Examining these factors both in children with a diagnosis of ADHD (who often experience significant impairments in social functioning) and also in typically developing children is what my research focuses on.

I also study the understanding of how children’s self-perceptions of their social competence and their cognitive abilities, such as executive functioning, affect social information processing and behavior.

Background of the study

This study developed out a willingness to understand why certain children are socially skilled, likeable to peers, and engage in adaptive social behaviors. Researchers studying children with ADHD had begun to examine if deficits in executive functioning abilities helped explain why some children with ADHD demonstrate impairments in social functioning. Executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive abilities that allow us to engage in goal directed and future oriented thinking and behavior.

There has been increased discussion among psychologists about the potential importance of executive functioning skills for effective social reasoning and behavior. Despite increased interest in the role of executive functioning, few studies had examined which specific executive functioning skills were important to social functioning in typically developing children.

I designed this study to examine one aspect of executive functioning skills, known as working memory, which is the ability to hold and manipulate information actively in mind. Working memory skills may be necessary for children to be able to consider multiple pieces of social information, to think through their actions, and to reference past social knowledge. As a first step in understanding the importance of working memory, I conducted this study in a typically developing sample of children with the goal of understanding how this cognitive skill relates to various indices of social functioning in children.

Findings

This study found that 4th and 5th grade children with better central executive working memory skills (better ability to actively hold and manipulate visual and spatial information in mind) were rated by their teachers as more socially competent, less likely to be rejected by peers, less aggressive, and as having better conflict resolution skills.

The results also suggested that children with poorer working memory may experience peer rejection and be viewed as less socially competent specifically because they are more likely to be physically aggressive and to have difficulty engaging in conflict resolution with peers.

The study only measured children at one point in time, so the results cannot definitively tell us whether working memory deficits cause these impairments. Results do however suggest that there is a profile of social impairment that co-occurs with poor working memory skills in children.

Implications

These results have implications for identifying socially at-risk youth and for prevention and treatment of peer problems. Findings suggest that children with poorer working memory skills may be more likely to demonstrate impairments in social functioning. Thus when working memory deficits are identified in children through cognitive assessments, it is important for professionals to consider whether the child may also have social impairments that need to be addressed.

New research is exploring how we can improve working memory and other executive functioning skills in children. Eventually we may be able to help prevent peer problems in children through improvement of these skills. This research is still in its infancy though, and additional research is needed in order to help us understand specifically how we can best support children with poor working memory.

Further research

My current research builds on these findings and is examining a broader range of executive functioning skills and their relationship to social reasoning, behavior, and insight in children with and without ADHD. Longitudinal studies will also be needed in order for us to understand the extent to which impaired executive functioning skills lead to later peer-related problems. In addition, studies will need to examine how best to support children with executive functioning deficits so that they are able to be successful in their social relationships.

Advice from the field

People less familiar with psychology sometimes overlook the fact that knowledge in the field is based on empirical research. I would encourage students interested in a career in clinical psychology to get involved in research. Conducting research provides valuable skills in critical thinking and allows students a chance to see if research is something that interests them.

About the department

I’m currently the director of the Peer Relationships Lab at Amherst College which conducts research aimed at examining these factors. We are currently conducting studies directly in elementary and middle school classrooms as well as at the research lab.