1. Study suggests infants understand that more desirable rewards require more effort

    December 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Association for the Advancement of Science press release:

    Infants who observe someone putting more effort into attaining a goal attribute more value to it, a new study finds. Past work has shed light on ways in which infants come to realize the differences in the value of an object; for example, if a person consistently chooses one item over another, infants will attribute more value to the selected item. Yet, it remains to be determined whether infants can grasp concepts of reward and associated “cost.” Here, Shari Liu and colleagues presented ten-month-old infants with animations in which a character was faced with varying costs in order to achieve a goal; for example, in one scenario, the character had to jump over either a low wall or a much higher one to get its reward. If the cost of acquiring the reward was too much, the character would refuse to expend the effort to retrieve it. The researchers monitored as infants watched these test events, observing the lengths of their gazes. The researchers ran two additional and similar experiments in which the character had to climb a ramp or jump a gap to retrieve the reward, to ensure that it wasn’t just speed or height that mattered, to infants’ perception of cost, but indeed the effort exerted. Regardless of whether a character cleared higher barriers, climbed steeper ramps, or jumped wider gaps to reach one target over the other, infants gazed longer at the scenario in which the character went after the less desirable reward, which indicated they were surprised by the choice. They expected the character to prefer the goal it attained through costlier actions. Thus, it appears that infants are able to assign greater value to rewards that are more costly to attain.


  2. Study suggests babies understand when words are related

    December 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    The meaning behind infants’ screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

    Even though there aren’t many overt signals of language knowledge in babies, language is definitely developing furiously under the surface,” said Elika Bergelson, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

    Bergelson is the author of a surprising 2012 study showing that six- to nine-month-olds already have a basic understanding of words for food and body parts. In a new report, her team used eye-tracking software to show that babies also recognize that the meanings of some words, like car and stroller, are more alike than others, like car and juice.

    By analyzing home recordings, the team found that babies’ word knowledge correlated with the proportion of time they heard people talking about objects in their immediate surroundings.

    “Even in the very early stages of comprehension, babies seem to know something about how words relate to each other,” Bergelson said. “And already by six months, measurable aspects of their home environment predict how much of this early level of knowledge they have. There are clear follow-ups for potential intervention work with children who might be at-risk for language delays or deficits.”

    The study appears the week of Nov. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    To gauge word comprehension, Bergelson invited babies and their caregivers into a lab equipped with a computer screen and few other infant distractions. The babies were shown pairs of images that were related, like a foot and a hand, or unrelated, like a foot and a carton of milk. For each pair, the caregiver (who couldn’t see the screen) was prompted to name one of the images while an eye-tracking device followed the baby’s gaze.

    Bergelson found that babies spent more time looking at the image that was named when the two images were unrelated than when they were related.

    “They may not know the full-fledged adult meaning of a word, but they seem to recognize that there is something more similar about the meaning of these words than those words,” Bergelson said.

    Bergelson then wanted to investigate how babies’ performance in the lab might be linked to the speech they hear at home. To peek into the daily life of the infants, she sent each caregiver home with a colorful baby vest rigged with a small audio recorder and asked them to use the vest to record day-long audio of the infant. She also used tiny hats fitted with lipstick-sized video recorders to collect hour-long video of each baby interacting with his or her caregivers.

    Combing through the recordings, Bergelson and her team categorized and tabulated different aspects of speech the babies were exposed to, including the objects named, what kinds of phrases they occurred in, who said them, and whether or not objects named were present and attended to.

    “It turned out that the proportion of the time that parents talked about something when it was actually there to be seen and learned from correlated with the babies’ overall comprehension,” Bergelson said.

    For instance, Bergelson said, if a parent says, “here is my favorite pen,” while holding up a pen, the baby might learn something about pens based on what they can see. In contrast, if a parent says, “tomorrow we are going to see the lions at the zoo,” the baby might not have any immediate clues to help them understand what lion means.

    “This study is an exciting first step in identifying how early infants learn words, how their initial lexicon is organized, and how it is shaped or influenced by the language that they hear in the world that surrounds them,” said Sandra Waxman, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study.

    But, Waxman cautions, it is too early in the research to draw any conclusions about how caregivers should be speaking to their infants.

    “Before anyone says ‘this is what parents need to be doing,’ we need further studies to tease apart how culture, context and the age of the infant can affect their learning,” Waxman said.

    “My take-home to parents always is, the more you can talk to your kid, the better,” Bergelson said. “Because they are listening and learning from what you say, even if it doesn’t appear to be so.”

     


  3. Study suggests intentional teaching makes the biggest impact on early childhood outcomes

    November 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute press release:

    A comprehensive review of research on several measures of the quality of early childhood education suggests that the instructional practices of preschool teachers have the largest impact on young children’s academic and social skills. The review helps untangle a complicated knot of factors that affect young children.

    “High quality preschool is one of the most effective means of preparing all children to succeed in school,” said Margaret Burchinal, senior research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “However, this review of research indicates the need to expand our definitions of quality.”

    Burchinal said her review of the science suggests the field should continue to measure the quality of relationships of preschool teachers and children, especially the sensitivity and warmth of the teachers. In addition, the review suggests factors such as the levels of education of program directors and teachers and the teacher-child ratio also influence outcomes.

    However, the areas with the strongest connection to beneficial results for young children involve what teachers teach and how they teach it.

    “The largest effects on child outcomes involve curricula,” Burchinal explained. “Some of the biggest impacts on literacy, math, and other skills involved curricula focused on those specific skills with accompanying coaching or training for teachers.”

    According to Burchinal, many of the most effective curricula incorporate planned, engaging activities for preschoolers, with a schedule of lessons and activities in a variety of learning settings. Effective learning opportunities often include some whole group instruction and more time in small groups, learning centers, and computer work.

    Burchinal also said the research shows that the teaching practice of “scaffolding” brings big benefits. “Scaffolding occurs when the adult caregiver talks with and models a learning activity for the child, making the activity fun through conversation that builds on and extends the child’s interest and knowledge about the world.”

    Some of the largest impacts on children’s outcomes have arisen from the strongest pre-kindergarten programs, Burchinal added. These programs show even larger impacts for dual-language learners and for children from low-income families.

    “These prekindergarten impacts are larger than impacts from traditionally-measured dimensions of quality,” Burchinal said. “This is further evidence that more focus on scaffolding and intentional teaching is needed.”

    Burchinal pointed to FPG’s Abecedarian Project as an example of a program that combined intentional teaching with warmth and sensitivity. The project used an intensive, language-driven approach that involved teacher scaffolding of activity-based learning to build children’s knowledge base and language skills. The center-based, birth-to-5 program for children from low-income homes famously contributed to better cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical health outcomes that have persisted for decades.

    Burchinal’s new review of research includes several studies based in the United States and other countries. “Measuring Early Care and Education” appears in “Child Development Perspectives,” which the Society for Research in Child Development publishes.

    “As we think about the components of high-quality early childhood education, our policies and practices can reflect what this research tells us,” she said. “Ideally, our new models of quality will encompass evidence-based curricula and intentional teaching within content areas, as well as professional development that focuses on the teaching practices that promote the skills young children need to succeed in school.”


  4. Study suggests bilingual preschoolers show stronger inhibitory control

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Oregon press release:

    For students in preschool, speaking two languages may be better than one, especially for developing inhibitory control — the ability to stop a hasty reflexive response and instead select a more adaptive response.

    That idea isn’t new, but a University of Oregon study took a longitudinal approach to examine the bilingual advantage hypothesis, which suggests that the demands associated with managing two languages confer cognitive advantages that extend beyond the language domain.

    The study appeared in the journal Developmental Science.

    Researchers looked at a national sample of 1,146 Head Start children who were assessed for their inhibitory control at age 4, and then followed over an 18-month period. The children were divided into three groups based on their language proficiency: Those who spoke only English; those who spoke both Spanish and English; and those who spoke only Spanish at the start of the study but were fluent in both English and Spanish at the follow up assessment.

    “At the beginning of the study, the group that entered as already bilingual scored higher on a test of inhibitory control compared to the other two groups,” said the study’s lead author Jimena Santillán, a UO doctoral student in psychology at the time of the study.

    Follow-up assessments came at six and 18 months. Inhibitory control was assessed using a common pencil-tapping task, in which the participant is instructed to tap a pencil on a desk twice when the experimenter taps once, and vice-versa, requiring the student to inhibit the impulse to imitate what the experimenter does and but do the opposite instead.

    Over the follow-up period, both the bilingual group and the monolingual-to-bilingual transition group showed more rapid inhibitory control development than the group of English-only speakers.

    “Inhibitory control and executive function are important skills for academic success and positive health outcomes and well-being later in life,” said study co-author, Atika Khurana, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services and scientist at the UO’s Prevention Science Institute.

    “The development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years,” she said. “Children with strong inhibitory control are better able to pay attention, follow instructions and take turns. This study shows one way in which environmental influences can impact the development of inhibitory control during younger years.”

    Students in this study came from low socioeconomic status families, as is typical of Head start samples. Such children are in a group known to be at-risk for poorer outcomes related to executive function skills. This population allowed the researchers to compare students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds but who had different language experiences.

    Researchers also were able to control for other variables that could be associated with inhibitory control development, such as a child’s age and parenting practices. The study’s design allowed researchers to focus on the effects of bilingual experience on inhibitory-control development during preschool years.

    Previous studies have examined the effects of bilingualism on inhibitory control, but have done so with a focus on one point in time or development and have focused on smaller samples from mostly middle class backgrounds, said Santillán, who now is a senior research manager at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

    “Many studies have addressed the bilingual advantage hypothesis,” she said. “However, the findings have been inconsistent. Part of the reason is the difficulty of randomly assigning participants to be bilingual or monolingual, which would be the ideal research design.”

    The longitudinal approach allowed researchers to see how inhibitory control changed over time for children who were developing bilingualism during the same time period, as well as for those who were already bilingual with those who remained monolingual.

    “This allowed us to get closer to capturing the dynamic nature of the development of bilingualism and inhibitory control, both of which change over time, and rule out other potential explanations for the differences observed between groups,” she said.

    It was important, she said, to focus on a sample of children who tend to be at risk for not developing inhibitory abilities at the same rate as their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds because of the motivation to find factors that could help buffer such children from these negative outcomes.

    “We were able to obtain evidence that bilingualism can be a protective factor that helps children develop these cognitive abilities,” Santillán said. “Provided that more research studies support our results, the findings we’ve obtained could have implications for policies related to bilingual education and could help encourage families to raise their children as bilingual.”


  5. Study suggests babies can use context to look for things

    November 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    Just six months into the world, babies already have the capacity to learn, remember and use contextual cues in a scene to guide their search for objects of interest, such as faces, a new Brown University study shows.

    “It was pretty surprising to find that 6-month-olds were capable of this memory-guided attention,” said lead author Kristen Tummeltshammer, a postdoctoral scholar at Brown. “We didn’t expect them to be so successful so young.”

    In the experiment described in Developmental Science, babies showed steady improvement in finding faces in repeated scenes, but didn’t get any quicker or more accurate in finding faces in new scenes. Senior author Dima Amso, an associate professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, said the finding that infants can recognize and exploit patterns of context provides important new insights into typical and possibly atypical brain development.

    “What that means is that they are efficient in using the structure in their environment to maximize attentional resources on the one hand and to reduce uncertainty and distraction on the other,” Amso said. “A critical question in our lab has been whether infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, especially autism spectrum disorders, have differences in the way that they process visual information, and whether this would impact future learning and attention. These data lay the developmental groundwork for asking whether there are differences in using previously learned visual information to guide future learning and attention across various neurodevelopmental populations.”

    Find the face

    To make the findings, Tummeltshammer and Amso invited 46 healthy, full-term infants, either 6 or 10 months old, to their lab to play a little game of finding faces. Seated on a parent’s lap, the babies simply had to watch a screen as they were presented with a series of arrangements of four colored shapes. In each arrangement, the shapes would turn around with one revealing a face. An eye-tracking system would measure where the baby looked.

    Eventually the babies would always look at the face, especially because after two seconds, the face would become animate and say words like “peekaboo.” In all, each baby saw 48 arrangements over eight minutes, with little breaks to watch clips of Elmo from “Sesame Street.” That, Tummeltshammer said, was to help keep them (and maybe their parents) engaged and happy.

    The trick of the experiment is that while half the time the shape arrangements were randomly scrambled and the face could be revealed anywhere, the other half of the time the same arrangements were repeated, meaning a baby could learn from that context to predict where to look for the face. In this way, the babies beheld faces both in novel and repeated contexts. If babies could notice the repeated context pattern, remember it and put it to use, they should be quicker and more accurate in finding the face when it came up in that kind of scene again.

    By several measures reported in the study, the babies demonstrated that capacity clearly. For example, as they saw more scenes, babies consistently reduced the amount of time it took to find the face in repeated-context scenes, but not in new-context scenes. Also they became better at ignoring non-face shapes in repeated-context scenes as they went along, but didn’t show that same improvement in new-context scenes.

    Babies even learned to anticipate where the faces would be on the screen based on their experiences in the experiment.

    Tummeltshammer said there was little difference between the 6-month-olds and the 10-month-olds, suggesting that the skill is already developed at the younger age.

    In new research, Tummeltshammer said, she and Amso plan to experiment with more realistic scenes. After all, babies rarely need to look for faces among cleanly defined abstract shapes. A more real-world challenge for a baby, for instance, might be finding a parent’s familiar and comforting face across a holiday dinner table.

    But even from this simpler experimental setting, the ability is clearly established.

    “We think of babies as being quite reactive in how they spread their attention,” Tummeltshammer said. “This helps us recognize that they are actually quite proactive. They are able to use recent memory and to extract what’s common in an environment as a shortcut to be able to locate things quickly.”

    A James S. McDonnell Scholar Award and the National Institutes of Health (1-F32-MH108278-01) funded the research.


  6. Study suggests teens don’t just think about themselves

    by Ashley

    From the University of Leiden press release:

    Parents often see that when their sweet, socially-minded children become adolescents they change into selfish ‘hotel guests’ who think only of themselves. But adolescents become increasingly better at weighing up one another’s interests. This discovery has been made by development psychologist Rosa Meuwese. PhD defence 31 October.

    ‘Adolescents don’t have a great reputation in terms of their social behaviour,’ Meuwese says. ‘You often hear parents say that their sweet, socially-minded children turn into selfish, lazy hotel guests who only think of me, myself & I. But out of sight of their parents, adolescents learn a lot about social behaviour from their peers.’ That may not be much of a consolation for their parents, but if they have a better understanding of the purpose of these social experiences in the development of the adolescent brain, it can help them to trust in the social journey of discovery that their adolescent children are undergoing.

    Carefully weighing up

    Meuwese looked at how the social brain of adolescents develops in their relations with their peers. She used four different methods to study the development of prosocial — socially desirable — behaviour in adolescents: she studied their behaviour, brain structure, brain function and the quality of their friendships. She had around a thousand school pupils in the Leiden area play a betting game on the computer. The participants could choose: one euro for yourself and one euro for someone else, or a distribution that was in some cases more social and in others less social. The experiment showed that young people’s choices are governed less by a set norm but that they weigh up the situation increasingly carefully. ‘Unlike what many parents see in their children, adolescents do consider the interests of others,’ Meuwese concludes.

    Winning for your friend

    Another thirty pupils played a betting game while being monitored in an MRI scanner. The participants could choose heads or tails and win or lose for themselves and a friend. ‘We first asked all the children who in their class they liked, and who they didn’t like. We also asked them who their best friend was.’ Meuwese expected to see more brain activity in the reward area of the brains of children who were popular with their classmates when they win money for a friend. ‘That appears to be a sign of being prosocial.’ Instead, she found a different connection: children who were not liked by so many of their classmates and who were sensitive to reward, showed greater activity in the reward centre when they won for themselves. ‘That’s a logical outcome, but we hadn’t expected it to be so strong.’

    Social brain development

    During their social development, adolescents become better at weighing up their own interests against those of someone else. Their social skills don’t decline, but are rather refined through interaction with their peers. Meuwese saw in adolescents with a lot of friends, or very good friends — she refers to that as a high friendship quality — that the social brain develops more rapidly. The social brain develops with increasing age. ‘But a favourable social environment, such as a good friendship, may have a positive effect.’ Meuwese believes that children and young people should receive much more training in social skills. ‘It would be useful to teach psychology at secondary school. It would give adolescents a better insight into the impact of their decisions on other people, which would have a positive effect on their friendships and consequently on their social development.’


  7. Study suggests babies are able to estimate how likely one event is compared to another

    November 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    Our whole life we have to make decisions and weigh up probabilities of different events. By learning to estimate which event is more likely to happen, we become better at analysing risks and benefits to guide our actions. But when do we start to gain a sense of stochasticity? Are babies even able to determine likelihood?

    Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig and the University of Uppsala, Sweden, have now discovered that even six-month-old babies can estimate probabilities. The babies already succeed in determining which colour makes up the majority of the balls and therefore which one is more likely to be drawn. “Six months seems to be the minimum age at which infants start to deal with probability information. One previous study showed that babies at just four months old were not able to perform this task and therefore seemed to not yet be sensitive to this information,” says Ezgi Kayhan, neuroscientist at MPI CBS and leader of the underlying study. “We suppose that from early on in life, our brains represent statistics of the environment. Within the first six months of life, babies are able to extract information about which events follow on from each other, or how likely one event is compared to another.”

    The neuroscientists investigated these relations by presenting animated film clips to 75 babies aged six, twelve and 18 months. These short movies featured a machine filled with balls, most were blue, some yellow, which in a second sequence ejected lots of the mainly available blue balls into one basket, and into another container mainly yellow balls. In this context it was 625 times less likely that the machine chose yellow balls instead of blue. Therefore, the basket being filled with mainly yellow balls was a very unlikely event.

    While the babies watched the movies the scientists observed them using the so-called eyetracking method to see which of the two baskets they looked at for longer — the likely or the unlikely option. “We noticed that the infants stared longer at the unlikely option independently from the tested age group to which they belonged — presumably because they were surprised that it was just made up of the rare yellow balls and that it was therefore a very improbable event,” explains the Turkish-born scientist. To make sure that the babies were not just more attracted by the colour yellow in some of the trials, the researchers also used green and red balls.

    “In fact, several studies have already investigated whether infants can assess probabilities, but we’ve been the first to research whether the difficulty level of the likelihood information makes a difference,” Kayhan states. Accordingly, Kayhan and her team wanted to test the limits of these estimations: Are babies still sensitive to this information when the likely and unlikely sample are difficult to distinguish?

    Indeed, the babies’ looking preferences changed depending on the ratio of blue and yellow balls. When it was only nine times more likely that the machine would pick the blue ball instead of a yellow one, the babies preferred to look at the likely blue-dominated sample for longer. “This outcome was especially surprising. One explanation could be that with decreasing ratio between the two colours, the complexity of the information increased and therefore infants preferred to focus their attention on the subset that looked more familiar. From previous studies it is known that babies prefer to look at familiar objects if they still need to encode information. In the difficult case, the information was more complex, thus the processing load was heavier within this time period,” Kayhan adds. Regardless of a possible explanation the study made clear that the infants’ ability to estimate probabilities strongly depends on how difficult it is to differentiate between the likely and the unlikely sample.


  8. Study suggests children spontaneously practice skills to prepare for the future

    October 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    Deliberate practice is essential for improving a wide range of skills important for everyday life, from tying shoelaces to reading and writing. Yet despite its importance for developing basic skills, academic success, and expertise, we know little about the development of deliberate practice. A new study from Australia found that children spontaneously practice skills to prepare for the future starting at the age of 6. The study, from researchers at the University of Queensland, is published in the journal Child Development.

    “Our study contributes to our understanding of how young children start to regulate their own learning to achieve their long-term goals, as well as the development of the cognitive processes that allow people to acquire a range of general skills and highly specialized expertise throughout life,” explains Melissa Brinums, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland who led the study. “It is one of only a small number of studies documenting age-related differences in children’s future-oriented behavior beyond the preschool period.”

    To learn more about young children’s understanding of practice and the age at which they start to practice without being prompted, researchers tested 120 children ages 4 to 7 years. Most were from European-Australian, middle- to upper-middle-class families — and the authors caution that more study is needed to examine the influence of social factors (including socioeconomic status) and individual differences on children’s understanding of and engagement in deliberate practice.

    In the study, children in one room were shown three games involving motor skills and told they would be tested on one of them (a target game) later, winning stickers based on their performance. Children were then brought to a different room with replicas of the games they had seen in the first room and told they had five minutes to play before returning to the first room for the test. The researchers anticipated that children who understood that practice could help their future performance would spend more time playing the target game than the other two games. After playing, children were asked which game they played the longest and why, what they could do to improve on the games, and if they could explain what practice is.

    Most 6- and 7-year-olds explained what practice is and knew that it helped improve their skills, and most played the target game longer than the other games and said they did so to practice for the test. Most 5-year-olds showed an understanding of practice and spent slightly longer playing the target game; however, when asked why they had chosen to play that game, the 5-year-olds said they did so for reasons other than practice. Most 4-year-olds did not understand the concept of practice and did not spend more time playing the target game.

    Overall, these findings reveal clear improvements in children’s deliberate practice from ages 4 to 7. These increases in understanding of and engagement in deliberate practice may be due to age-related improvements in cognitive capacities such as episodic foresight, metacognition, and executive functions, the researchers suggest. Episodic foresight, the capacity to envision the future, allows children to foresee the future utility of a skill. Metacognition, the capacity to reflect on and monitor mental states, and executive functions, the cognitive processes that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, play important roles in allowing children to monitor and control their own learning.

    “By providing insight into children’s understanding of practice and the age at which they start to practice for the future with and without prompting, our study may help caregivers and teachers structure age-appropriate learning activities for children,” notes Kana Imuta, a psychology researcher at the University of Queensland, who coauthored the study. “For example, out findings suggest that it may be beneficial to start having conversations with children as young as 6 about their future goals, and encourage them to think about and work toward those goals. A focus on the future may help kids understand why practicing is so important.”


  9. Study suggests warmth, not lavish praise, helps children develop self-esteem

    October 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Amsterdam press release:

    How do children construct views of themselves and their place in the world? Children’s social relationships turn out to be critical. For example, children develop higher self-esteem when their parents treat them warmly. But they develop lower self-esteem when their parents lavish them with inflated praise. These and other findings are included in a special section edited by Eddie Brummelman (University of Amsterdam) and Sander Thomaes (Utrecht University) and soon-to-be published in the journal Child Development. In a series of articles, now available online in ‘early view’,’ the researchers share the results of research on the origins of the self-concept in children.

    Who am I and what is my place in the world? Children are born without an answer to these pressing questions. As they grow up, though, they start to formulate answers seemingly effortlessly. Within a few years, they recognise themselves in the mirror, refer to themselves by their own name, evaluate themselves through the eyes of others and understand their standing in a social group.

    Research by Christina Starmans from the University of Toronto shows that even toddlers have an idea of what it means to have a ‘self’. Young children see the self as something that is unique to a person, separate from the body, stable over time, and located within the head, behind the eyes. Research by Andrei Cimpian (New York University) and his colleagues shows that even toddlers have the cognitive ability to form self-worth (i.e., how satisfied they are with themselves as individuals).

    Social relationships

    Over time, pronounced individual differences arise in children’s self-concept. Some children like themselves, whereas others feel negatively about themselves. Some children see themselves as superior and deserving special treatment, whereas others consider themselves to be on an equal plane with others. Some children believe they can grow and build their abilities, whereas others believe their abilities are fixed and unchangeable. Where do these individual differences come from? What leads children to see themselves the way they do? ‘Surprisingly little is known about the origins of children’s self-concept’, says Brummelman. ‘It is important that we shed more light on this important subject. With this collection of articles, our aim is to showcase emerging research on this subject.’

    ‘What these articles reveal is that children form their self-concept, at least in part, based on their social relationships‘, Brummelman continues. For example, research by Michelle Harris (University of California) and her team shows that children develop higher self-esteem when they receive warmth from their parents. Warm parents show an interest in their children’s activities and share joy with them, which makes children feel noticed and valued. Brummelman’s own research shows that children may develop lower self-esteem and sometimes even narcissism when their parents give them lots of extremely positive, inflated praise, such as ‘Wow, you did incredibly well! Such inflated praise may give children a sense of grandiosity but at the same time also make them worry about falling short of the standards set for them.

    Encouragement

    Previous research has shown the importance of having a growth mindset – the belief that you can develop your skills through effort and education. Children with a growth mindset are eager to take on challenges, persist when the going gets tough, and see failure as opportunities for growth. In a theoretical article, Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck (Stanford University) describe how parents can foster a growth mindset by praising children for effort instead of ability (for example, ‘You worked so hard!’) and by teaching children that failure isn’t harmful but actually benefits learning and growth. Parents can encourage children to ask themselves: why did I get such a low grade, and what can I do differently in future?

    All 10 articles in the special section study various dimensions of children’s self-concept, including self-esteem, self-compassion, mindsets and self-perceived ability. ‘What these articles show is that children construct their self-concept based on the social relationships they have, the feedback they receive, the social comparisons they make, and the cultural values they endorse. This underlines the deeply social nature of children’s self-concept’, says Brummelman.


  10. Study suggests babies can learn that hard work pays off

    October 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

    A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different tasks before succeeding tried harder at their own difficult task, compared to babies who saw an adult succeed effortlessly.

    The study suggests that infants can learn the value of effort after seeing just a couple of examples of adults trying hard, although the researchers have not studied how long the effect lasts. Although the study took place in a laboratory setting, the findings may offer some guidance for parents who hope to instill the value of effort in their children, the researchers say.

    “There’s some pressure on parents to make everything look easy and not get frustrated in front of their children,” says Laura Schulz, a professor of cognitive science at MIT. “There’s nothing you can learn from a laboratory study that directly applies to parenting, but this does at least suggest that it may not be a bad thing to show your children that you are working hard to achieve your goals.”

    Schulz is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Sept. 21 online edition of Science. Julia Leonard, an MIT graduate student, is the first author of the paper, and MIT undergraduate Yuna Lee is also an author.

    Putting in the effort

    Many recent studies have explored the value of hard work. Some have found that children’s persistence, or “grit,” can predict success above and beyond what IQ predicts. Other studies have found that children’s beliefs regarding effort also matter: Those who think putting in effort leads to better outcomes do better in school than those who believe success depends on a fixed level of intelligence.

    Leonard and Schulz were interested in studying how children might learn, at a very early age, how to decide when to try hard and when it’s not worth the effort. Schulz’ previous work has shown that babies can learn causal relationships from just a few examples.

    “We were wondering if they can do similar fast learning from a little bit of data about when effort is really worth it,” Leonard says.

    To do that, they designed an experiment in which 15-month-old babies first watched an adult perform two tasks: removing a toy frog from a container and removing a key chain from a carabiner. Half of the babies saw the adult quickly succeed at the task three times within 30 seconds, while the other half saw her struggle for 30 seconds before succeeding.

    The experimenter then showed the baby a musical toy. This toy had a button that looked like it should turn the toy on but actually did not work; there was also a concealed, functional button on the bottom. Out of the baby’s sight, the researcher turned the toy on, to demonstrate that it played music, then turned it off and gave it to the baby.

    Each baby was given two minutes to play with the toy, and the researchers recorded how many times the babies tried to press the button that seemed like it should turn the toy on. They found that babies who had seen the experimenter struggle before succeeding pressed the button nearly twice as many times overall as those who saw the adult easily succeed. They also pressed it nearly twice as many times before first asking for help or tossing the toy.

    “There wasn’t any difference in how long they played with the toy or in how many times they tossed it to their parent,” Leonard says. “The real difference was in the number of times they pressed the button before they asked for help and in total.”

    The researchers also found that direct interactions with the babies made a difference. When the experimenter said the infants’ names, made eye contact with them, and talked directly to them, the babies tried harder than when the experimenter did not directly engage with the babies.

    “What we found, consistent with many other studies, is that using those pedagogical cues is an amplifier. The effect doesn’t vanish, but it becomes much weaker without those cues,” Schulz says.

    A limited resource

    A key takeaway from the study is that people appear to be able to learn, from an early age, how to make decisions regarding effort allocation, the researchers say.

    “We’re a somewhat puritanical culture, especially here in Boston. We value effort and hard work,” Schulz says. “But really the point of the study is you don’t actually want to put in a lot of effort across the board. Effort is a limited resource. Where do you deploy it, and where do you not?”

    The researchers hope to investigate how long this effect might last after the initial experiment. Another possible avenue of research is whether the effect would be as strong with different kinds of tasks — for example, if it was less clear to the babies what the adult was trying to achieve, or if the babies were given toys that were meant for older children.