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2 Regulatory Subsystems: Development of Attention Networks and Coping

2 Regulatory Subsystems: Development of Attention Networks and Coping

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8 Development of Coping during Early Childhood

Posner, 2012]. The alerting network is modulated by the brain’s norepinephrine system and

involves major nodes in frontal and parietal cortex. The alert state is critical to high level

performance. Phasic changes in alertness can be produced by the presentation of a signal

warning of an impending target. This leads to a rapid change from a resting state to one of

increased receptivity to the target. The orienting network interacts with sensory systems to

improve the priority of information relevant to task performance. The orienting network

exerts much of the control over other brain networks during infancy and early childhood

[Posner, Rothbart, Sheese, & Voelker, 2012; Rothbart, Sheese, Rueda, & Posner, 2011].

The executive network is involved in resolving competing actions in tasks where there is

conflict. The executive network includes the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula, areas of

the midprefrontal cortex, and the underlying striatum [Posner & Peterson, 1990; Peterson &

Posner, 2012]. Regulation occurs by enhancing activity in networks related to our goals and

inhibiting activity in conflicting networks. These controls operate through long connections

between the nodes of the executive network and cognitive and emotional areas of the frontal

and posterior brain. In this way, the executive network is important for voluntary control and

self-regulation [Bush, Luu, & Posner, 2000; Sheth, Mian, Patel et al., 2012]. (p. 2)

Dominance of the orienting network during infancy and toddlerhood. All

three of these attention networks are relevant to coping (Wilson and Gottman

1996). From birth, the alerting attention network is essential for making contact

with the outside world—it allows infants to maintain a state that is receptive to

incoming stimulation. The capacity to recruit and maintain an alert state can be

considered a crucial part of the developmental task of establishing homeostasis

during the first three months of life. During infancy and toddlerhood, the orienting

attention network becomes dominant. This network is crucial to coping because it

directs attention to high-priority internal and external events—interactions of

adaptive significance. Compared to the alerting network, it also it allows a relatively

high level of flexibility and discrimination in attending to environmental events.

During the first weeks and months of life, the orienting network develops more

rapidly than the executive attention network, showing gains in connectivity as part

of a hub for information processing in the infant brain that, as might be expected, is

closely related to sensory and motor brain areas, the natural targets of orienting

(Posner et al. 2014).

Research has documented regular age-graded changes in the orienting system.

As explained by Rothbart et al. (2011), “Although infants will habituate to repeated

presentations of a stimulus before 3–4 months, younger infants show little control

of orienting, and indeed appear to go through a period of ‘obligatory attention,’

when disengagement from a visual stimulus is difficult and the infant’s extended

orienting may lead to distress (Ruff and Rothbart 1996)” (p. 208). Starting at about

3–4 months of age, when infants gain some voluntary control over their own

orienting, this network has been shown to manage some of the earliest forms of

emotion regulation. This can be observed in self-soothing, when infants become

able to visually disengage from distressing stimuli (which reduces distress) or shift

attention toward alternative more pleasant stimuli (which reduces distress even

more). Parents take advantage of the orienting network as a means to soothe infants

starting at about 3 months of age, when they can use interesting objects or events to

8.2 Regulatory Subsystems …


distract infants and reduce their distress. For example, studies have shown that

presentation of novel objects reduces facial and vocal signs of distress when 3- to

6-month-old infants have been over-stimulated; these studies document the effectiveness of distraction by showing that infant distress resumes at the same level of

intensity if the distracting objects are experimentally removed within about one

minute’s time (Harman et al. 1997).

Older infants can be observed to use the orienting network themselves when they

are faced with distressing transactions (e.g., mechanical toys or masks), as they

increasingly look to their caregivers. As can be imagined, this proximity-seeking

coping action likely serves multiple functions: It disengages the visual system from

the worrying transaction which reduces distress; the sight of the trusted caregiver

provides both distraction and comfort, and can signal an appeal that brings aid. The

orienting network is also involved in regulating approach behaviors to novel or

interesting objects or people. This can be observed as a form of “caution,” in which

infants spend time “studying” an event visually before they physically start to

engage it via reaching or (later) via crawling.

Shift to the executive attention network. Compared to the orienting network,

the development of the executive attention network starts later, during the second

half of the first year of life (when it has first been observed to subserve error

detection), shows initial connections to action systems starting at about age 2, and

comes to replace the orienting network as the predominant regulatory system by age

3–4, although it shows a protracted developmental course that continues to adulthood (Posner et al. 2014; Rothbart et al. 2011). The executive attention network is a

hub for specific brain regions that seem to play functional roles in the deployment

of attention and in the processing and regulation of emotion, cognition, and


Recent research in developmental neuroscience has identified the brain regions

that underlie the functioning of executive attention. As explained by Calkins and Hill

(2007), studies have identified “areas of the prefrontal cortex as central to the

effortful regulation of behavior via the anterior attention system. This system is

guided by the anterior cingulate cortex [ACC], which includes two major subdivisions. One subdivision governs cognitive and attentional processes and has connections to the prefrontal cortex. A second subdivision governs emotional processes

and has connections with the limbic system and peripheral autonomic, visceromotor,

and endocrine systems… Recent research suggests these subdivisions have a

reciprocal relation… [T]he functional relation between these two areas of the cortex

provides a biological mechanism for the developmental integration of specific types

of regulatory processes in childhood” (pp. 231–232). As highlighted in Chap. 4, this

brain region has been of particular interest to coping researchers (Compas 2006),

because the cognitive, emotional, attentional, and motivational processes that converge on the ACC are always active during coping episodes and their integration

should allow more informed and flexible (i.e., adaptive) action regulation.

Exercise and the development of the executive attention network.

Researchers have been particularly interested in tracing the development of the

executive attention network, revealing how it eventually comes to coordinate the


8 Development of Coping during Early Childhood

other two attention networks some time during the preschool period. Evidence

suggests that the networks involved in executive attention are active in children

younger than age 2, but they are not yet fully connected to action systems and so do

not generally play a role in regulation. As explained by Rothbart et al. (2011),

In studies of neonates, the parietal areas, prominent in the orienting-attention network,

showed strong connectivity to lateral and medial frontal areas, areas that would later be

connected to executive attention. Even at the age of 2, the anterior cingulate, implicated in

executive attention, showed stronger connections to frontal areas and to lateral parietal

areas, but connectivity continues to increase during childhood. These findings suggest that

control structures related to executive attention and effortful control may be present in

infancy but do not exercise their full control over other networks until later. (p. 209)

The executive attention network shows a period of rapid growth in connectivity

centered around the preschool period, when performance on tasks requiring executive function improves rapidly; and another period of growth during the 5- to

7-year shift, when myelination of these connections leads to improvements in speed

(Posner et al. 2014). Attention researchers have suggested that parents may play a

role in these developments starting in infancy, when they use distraction as a

soothing technique or introduce their infants to interesting events and objects. These

parental behaviors may begin to exercise the nascent executive attention network by

facilitating infants’ practice in orienting to novel objects and events (which as

described previously seems to induce “caution” or an inhibition of action prior to

approach behavior), and so may be an essential precursor to the regular use of this

network (Rothbart et al. 2014).

Like other developments in the coping system, however, the new coping

strategies represented by executive attention do not replace the old strategy of

orienting, and the old strategy of orienting does not disappear. New strategies are

supplementary, and transform the system by taking their place at the top of the

coping hierarchy. As explained by Rothbart et al. (2011) for the attention system:

At later ages it is likely that control by orienting remains present but occupies a secondary

role. The executive network interacts with the limbic system to adjust responses to negative

and positive affect in accord with cultural norms (Rothbart & Sheese, 2007). However,

orienting can still be summoned by environmental change, and in some situations may even

replace executive control. Thus orienting and executive networks both appear to serve

regulatory functions, with orienting being dominant earlier and executive control later in

life. This may be one example of the general trend in development for more sensory or

external influences in the early years being replaced by more motivational and internal

influences later in childhood. (pp. 208–209)

Flexibility of attention regulation and coping. During coping episodes,

attention networks serve important functions. Executive attention enables the

intentional deployment of attention during stressful transactions. It supports

problem-focused coping episodes, by allowing young children to deliberately

attend to chosen and disregard rejected intentions and strategies; it supports

emotion-focused coping by allowing children to disengage and reengage attention

during distraction or to prevent rumination. At the same time, research on mindfulness suggests that the orienting network can also aid constructive coping

8.2 Regulatory Subsystems …


(Weinstein et al. 2009), because it can be used to focus attention on the here and

now, can provide a respite from the “chatter” of worry about the future, and can

bring ongoing positive states and experiences, such as joy and gratitude, into

conscious awareness, even in the midst of stress (Folkman and Moskowitz 2000).

Most important, of course, is the eventual development of their integrated functioning, for example, when executive attention becomes increasingly able to

intentionally deploy the orienting network.

From the perspective of stress and coping, this would suggest that coping episodes in which infants are faced with challenging but not overwhelming experiences could provide many opportunities to exercise attention skills. For example,

with the aid of caregivers, infants can use distraction (which involves the disengagement and reengagement of attention) to down-regulate distress by modifying

their exposure to novelty or other demands. These just manageable challenges

provide opportunities that intrinsically attract attention and engagement, but also

require infants to (increasingly intentionally) negotiate this readiness for approach

and contact with caution, urged by the fear and withdrawal systems. As long as the

emotion system is not overwhelmed, these early experiences of switching attention

to and from enticing yet mildly stressful transactions, and balancing competing

action tendencies, should strengthen the developing executive attention system.


Emergence of Voluntary Self-regulation and Coping

A great deal of research has focused on the development of self-regulation (or

conscious control or cognitive control) during the preschool period. This body of

work suggests that the emergence of deliberate goal-directed control of thought,

emotion, and action is the product of development in neurocognitive skills (executive functions or EF) that allow children to modulate attention in the service of a

goal—flexibly, over time, and selectively (Zelazo 2015). These skills increasingly

allow children to recognize and then to resolve conflicts in action regulation

(Diamond 2013; Zelazo et al. 2003). It is not as if goal conflicts did not exist prior

to this developmental period—of course they did, for example, when an infant

desires a new toy but does not want to put down the current toy, or a toddler wishes

to approach a stranger but his beard is a little too novel. However, prior to early

childhood, these motivational conflicts were resolved relatively automatically by

prioritizing prepotent or habitual response systems, which in the case of coping, are

guided by intrinsic attention–motivation–emotion action systems.

Growth in working memory and attentional capacities lead to improvements in

children’s awareness of their goals and intentions. This enables them to better

recognize and more fully represent conflicting goals, that is, two goals that provide

alternative mutually exclusive guides for action—such as two rules for behavior, a

bottom-up urge and a top-down goal, a habit and a current alternative intention, or a

personal desire and a request by the caregiver (Diamond 2013; Pennington and

Ozonoff 1996; Zelazo 2004). The cognitive and attentional skills of executive


8 Development of Coping during Early Childhood

functions allow young children to begin to mediate these conflicts internally, for

example, to create and hold representations of both goals in working memory; to

shift attention away from one goal and toward another, which inhibits prepotent

responses (inhibitory control) thus strengthening alternative non-dominant

responses; or to shift the guides for action regulation from one set of rules or

tasks to another (cognitive flexibility; Best and Miller 2010; Diamond 2013;

Peterson and Welsh 2014).

Development of EF. Although complex, the development of performance on EF

tasks has been relatively well documented and includes a generally linear pattern of

improvements, first in performance and then in speed, from age 3 until emerging

adulthood, with accelerations during the preschool and early adolescent years (Best

and Miller 2010; Zelazo et al. 2003). During early childhood, the sequence of skill

acquisition in the capacity to use rules to guide behavior builds on the previous

ability (apparent in infancy) to learn and act on simple stimulus–reward associations. At about the age of 3, children first become able to represent simple rules that

allow them to deal with changes in these contingencies (e.g., when stimuli no

longer lead to rewards, as in extinction; or when the outcomes of stimuli are

reversed). They become able to override previously acquired contingencies by

explicitly representing the new associations (using the orbitofrontal region) and

passing this information to the dorsolateral PFC to select a response based on this

new information (Bunge and Zelazo 2006).

As children get older, they are able to act first on conditional rules in which each

stimulus is associated with a different response (e.g., green means go and red means

stop) likely using the ventrolateral PFC; and then on more complex bivalent conditional rules, in which the meaning of a stimulus depends on the context where it

occurs, which relies on the functioning of the dorsolateral PFC to hold these rules in

mind while selecting actions. Finally, to create explicit representations of hierarchical rules, that is, rules that guide decisions for selecting among task sets—or

“ways of approaching the problem” (Bunge and Zelazo 2006, p. 120)—older

children rely on the rostrolateral PFC. Although more research is needed, evidence

suggests that this relatively robust developmental sequence in performance on EF

tasks seems to be in synchrony with the sequential development of these regions of

the PFC (Bunge and Zelazo 2006).

“Hot” executive functions. It is not easy to use top-down reflective systems to

override bottom-up habitual and reactive systems (even for older children and

adults), and this task is made much more difficult when the bottom-up reactive

systems are “hot,” meaning that they are emotionally and motivationally charged.

“Hot executive functions” refer to the top-down neurocognitive skills used to

regulate attentional and behavioral processes in situations where significant emotions are elicited or important goals are at stake. Unlike in “cool” or affectively

neutral situations, hot EF involves the activation of motivational and emotional

neural networks related to reward and punishment—networks that subserve

appetitive approach and avoidance behavior.

In the decade or so since this research started in earnest, studies have examined a

range of tasks in which valued material or social outcomes are at stake, such as

8.3 Emergence of Voluntary Self-regulation and Coping


decision-making in reward-loss contexts with strong motivational significance

(tasks involving, for example, gambling, points, or presents), and tasks that involve

delay and prohibitions in the face of attractive, desired, appetitive stimuli, such as in

the classic delay of gratification paradigm (Mischel et al. 1989). Interestingly,

children’s performances on multiple tasks ostensibly tapping hot EF do not always

converge, nor are they always distinguishable from their performances on “cool”

EF tasks, thus making it difficult to identify the exact set(s) of conditions that

activate hot EF. And, although developmental trends for performance on hot EF

tasks have not been investigated as systematically as those for cool tasks, in general,

studies indicate that it seems to lag behind the development of cool EF and show a

more protracted developmental course (Peterson and Welsh 2014; Zelazo and

Carlson 2012).

Hot and cool EF and coping. Almost by definition, coping involves both hot

and cool EF. Because coping takes place under stressful conditions, that is, when

something of value is at stake, hot EF should be utilized to coordinate responses to

challenge, threat, or loss. At the same time, however, because coping involves both

emotion-focused and problem-focused strategies, it also seems likely that cool EF

skills would frequently be utilized. Even though researchers are currently trying to

determine whether hot and cool EF can be dissociated (Peterson and Welsh 2014),

from the perspective of coping, it would be particularly important to study how hot

and cool EF operate together and how they can be integrated (Gray 2004) under

stressful conditions.

In principle, EF of both kinds would be crucial for lifting action regulation

during coping off of relatively automatic attention–motivation–emotion systems

guided by local conditions and implicit rules derived from previous experiences. If

these old modes of regulation can be integrated with emerging cognitive and representational skills, this can insert some “space” between previous experience and

current action in order to increasingly allow regulation to be handled by deliberate

and voluntary systems. When that shift is accomplished, coping becomes less

reactive, that is, less a product of local conditions and implicit motives, and more

flexible, that is, more open to top-down influences from both social partners and

internal sources.

Based on current research with EF, it seems clear that this shift is not accomplished in an all-or-none fashion—that is, children slowly become able to maintain

access to their cognitive and attentional skills under conditions of higher and higher

levels of stress and emotion (Peterson and Welsh 2014). The development of these

skills is “use-dependent,” in that in order to attain more robust self-regulation,

children need to practice exercising their volitional capacities, with the support of

caregivers, at successively higher levels of motivation and emotion. Moreover,

language seems to play a key role in all of these developments, as indicated by

studies showing that suppressing language impairs performance on EF tasks

(Zelazo 2015). Episodes of coping would be one site where such cognitive,

attentional, and linguistic skills could be practiced and consolidated (Kopp 2009).



8 Development of Coping during Early Childhood

Integration of Appraisal and Regulation: Development

of Understanding and Control

Many researchers argue that emerging executive skills are enabled by the development of sturdier and more complex representations of the rules of behavior, or

more generally, of the child’s goals in relation to contextual conditions (Munakata

et al. 2012). As representations of goals shift from a focus on concrete objects to

categories to abstract goals, it becomes easier for children to hold more information

in working memory, supporting the active maintenance of goals. This produces

goals that are more robust in the face of distraction (alternative competing goals) and

delay (weakening of goals over time). As development progresses, increasingly

abstract and robust representations provide top-down support for goal-relevant

appraisals that can compete with the bottom-up action readiness of prepotent habits.

This supports the dominance of increasingly flexible goal-appropriate behaviors

over habitual ones in response to signals from the environment—the hallmark of

emerging executive functions (Munakata et al. 2012). Later in development (after

the 5- to 7-year shift described in the next chapter), these representations should also

allow cognitive control to become less externally driven and more self-directed; and

even later (possibly during adolescence) they should allow cognitive control to

become less reactive and more proactive and anticipatory (Munakata et al. 2012).

Role of reflection. In their efforts to conceptualize the developmental progression of EF, Zelazo and colleagues argue for the centrality of an active process that

contributes to the creation of more complex representations of hierarchical goal

structures, namely, reflection. Reflection entails the iterative reprocessing (IR) of

information, so that information gained from experience is fed back into the processing system, where it is combined with additional relevant information to create

an increasingly complex cognitive construal of experience, including goals, actions,

and contexts. As explained by Zelazo (2015),

The IR model characterizes deliberate self-regulation as the product of a dynamic interaction between more bottom-up (reactive) influences and more top-down (reflective)

influences. Top-down influences on self-regulation are made possible by EF skills…

According to the model, these EF skills correspond to various forms of goal-directed

modulation of attention and, consequently, overt behavior, and they in turn are made

possible by reflection – the reflective reprocessing of information via neural circuits that

coordinate hierarchically arranged regions of PFC (Bunge & Zelazo, 2006). Reflection

allows for the ad hoc construction of more complex representations, as measured by the

hierarchical complexity of the rule systems that can be formulated and maintained in

working memory (p. 4).

According to this model, reflection, or the reflective reprocessing of information prior to

responding, provides a foundation for the control of attention—flexibly, over time, and

selectively (i.e., cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control). This

goal-directed modulation of attention is typically verbally mediated and involves the formulation and maintenance in working memory of explicit action-oriented rules. The

development of EF is made possible, in part, by increases in the efficiency of reflective

reprocessing which allow for increases in the hierarchical complexity of the rules that can

be used to characterize problems and select context-appropriate rules for responding. (p. 1)

8.4 Integration of Appraisal and Regulation …


As the top-down influences of representative and reflective processes are

strengthened, this allows them to begin to work more effectively with the bottom-up

action tendencies suggested by reactive influences (Munakata et al. 2012; Zelazo


Coping episodes as opportunities to practice reflection. Reflection, like EF, is

a neurocognitive skill that needs practice to develop. According to the IR model,

detection of uncertainty can naturally trigger processes of reflection. As explained

by Zelazo (2015),

Information may be processed with relatively little reflection (i.e., few iterations of

reprocessing), relying more on OFC than lateral PFC, as when a simple evaluation may be

sufficient for the current situation. Detection of uncertainty can trigger reflection, however,

in which case previously processed information from the limbic regions is additionally and

concurrently processed by cortical regions. Reflection, or reprocessing, allows for more

aspects of a situation to be noticed and integrated into a single construal (or interpretation),

yielding a richer, more nuanced evaluation of the situation and a better appreciation of the

options at one’s disposal (Cunningham & Zelazo, 2007). With more reprocessing of

information, more details are perceived and integrated into one’s representation of one’s

experience. (p. 6).

By extension, opportunities to practice reflection may also be provided by other

events that interrupt the ongoing flow of action, such as those involved in stress and

coping, like challenge, threat, or loss.


Development of Voluntary Action Regulation

and the Emergence of Intrapersonal Coping

Appraisal, regulation, and reflection (or reappraisal) during stressful transactions

typically require the integration of (often conflicting) information about not only

emotional and mental states, but also about motivations and context-specific rules

for action. As a result, coping researchers will benefit from the ongoing efforts of

researchers in related fields who are trying to specify how these processes work

together. For example, some researchers have suggested that all these areas could

be brought together under the umbrella concepts of “understanding” and “control”

of cognition and emotion (e.g., Blankson et al. 2011, 2013), in which “emotion

understanding” would integrate work on emotion understanding, affective theory of

mind, and representations underlying hot EF; “emotion control” would integrate

work on emotion regulation and hot EF; “cognitive understanding” would integrate

work on cognitive theory of mind and representations underlying cool EF; and

“cognitive control” would encompass work on cool EF.

The emergence of the capacity for deliberate regulation of action (attention,

behavior, and emotion) creates a major shift in the coping system—from

interpersonal to intrapersonal or individual coping. At previous ages, “coping

packages” (with their appraisals differentiated by causes and emotions, and their

action repertoires for reaching goals and soothing distress) were cooperatively

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