Distinct Aspects of the Early Environment Contribute to Associative Memory, Cued Attention, and Memory-Guided Attention: Implications for Academic Achievement

Maya L. Rosen, Harvard University
Andrew N. Meltzoff, University of Washington
Margaret A. Sheridan, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Katie A. McLaughlin, Harvard University

Archived as published.


Childhood socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with numerous aspects of cognitive development and disparities in academic achievement. The specific environmental factors that contribute to these disparities remain poorly understood. We used observational methods to characterize three aspects of the early environment that may contribute to SES-related differences in cognitive development: violence exposure, cognitive stimulation, and quality of the physical environment. We evaluated the associations of these environmental characteristics with associative memory, cued attention, and memory-guided attention in a sample of 101 children aged 60–75 months. We further investigated whether these specific cognitive abilities mediated the association between SES and academic achievement 18 months later. Violence exposure was specifically associated with poor associative memory, but not cued attention or memory-guided attention. Cognitive stimulation and higher quality physical environment were positively associated with cued attention accuracy, but not after adjusting for all other environmental variables. The quality of the physical environment was associated with memory-guided attention accuracy. Of the cognitive abilities examined, only memory-guided attention contributed to SES-related differences in academic achievement. These findings suggest specificity in how particular aspects of early environmental experience scaffold different types of attention and memory subserved by distinct neural circuits and shed light on a novel cognitive-developmental mechanism underlying SES-related disparities in academic achievement.