Penn and CHOP Researchers Track Working Memory From Childhood Through Adolescence

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Media Contact:Evan Lerner | elerner@upenn.edu | 215-573-6604May 1, 2014

Working memory, the ability to hold information in your mind, think about it and use it to guide behavior, develops through childhood and adolescence and is key for successful performance at school and work. Previous research with young children has documented socioeconomic disparities in performance on tasks of working memory.

Now, a new longitudinal study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and West Chester University has found that differences in working memory that exist at age 10 persist through the end of adolescence. The study also found that parents’ education, one common measure of socioeconomic status, is related to children’s performance on tasks of working memory and that neighborhood characteristics, another common measure of socioeconomic status, are not.

The study was led by then graduate student Daniel Hackman and professor Martha Farah, both of the Department of Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. They collaborated with Laura Betancourt, Nancy Brodsky and Hallam Hurt of CHOP, Daniel Romer of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and Robert Gallop of West Chester University.

It was published in the journal Child Development.

"We wondered how the socioeconomic disparities seen in younger children's working memory would change with further development,” Farah said. “Some researchers believed that the ongoing effects of living in a more or less deprived household would widen the gap over time; others thought that the lower SES kids might eventually catch up with their more privileged counterparts.  Instead, we found that the disparities hold steady. Without improved conditions or helpful interventions, the gap persists right through adolescence."

“Understanding the development of disparities in working memory has implications for education,” said Hackman, now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. “Persistent disparities are a potential source of differences in academic achievement as students age and as the demands of both school work and the social environment increase.”

To look at the rate of change in working memory in relation to different measures of socioeconomic status, the researchers studied more than 300 10-13-year-olds from urban public and parochial schools for four years. The sample of children was racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. Each child completed a number of tasks of working memory across the four-year period. The researchers gathered information on how many years of education the parents of each child had completed, as well as information on neighborhood characteristics, looking, for example, at the degree to which people in a child’s neighborhood lived below the poverty line, were unemployed or received public assistance.

Neither the education of the parents nor living in a disadvantaged neighborhood was found to be associated with the rate of growth in working memory across the four-year period. Lower parental education was found to be tied to differences in working memory that emerged by age 10 and continued through adolescence. However, neighborhood characteristics were not related to working memory performance.

The study suggests that disparities seen in adolescence and adulthood start earlier in childhood and that school doesn’t close the gap in working memory for children ages 10 and older. Generally, children whose parents had fewer years of education don’t catch up or fall further behind by the end of adolescence, when working memory performance reaches mature levels.

That said, the findings of this study do not suggest that working memory is not malleable.

“Our findings highlight the potential value of programs that promote developing working memory as a way to prevent disparities in achievement,” Hackman said. “The fact that parents’ education predicts working memory suggests that parenting practices and home environments may be important for this aspect of cognitive development and as a fruitful area for intervention and prevention.”

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and National Institute of Mental Health.

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