1. Study suggests children can quickly learn routes

    January 22, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Liverpool press release:

    New research from the University of Liverpool suggests that children as young as eight can learn a route after only a single experience of it.

    Wayfinding is the ability to learn and recall a route through an environment. Theories of wayfinding suggest that for adult and children to learn a route successfully, they must have repeated experience of it.

    Researchers from the University’s School of Psychology, led by Dr Jamie Lingwood, conducted an experiment to investigate whether children could learn a route after only a single experience of the route.

    Virtual mazes

    A total of 80 participants from the United Kingdom in four groups of 20 8-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and adults were shown a route through a 12-turn maze in a virtual environment. At each junction, there was a unique object that could be used as a landmark.

    Participants were “walked” along the route just once (without any verbal prompts) and then were asked to retrace the route from the start without any help.

    Nearly three quarters of the 12-year-olds, half of the 10-year-olds, and a third of the 8-year-olds retraced the route without any errors the first time they travelled it on their own.

    The research has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

    Implications

    Dr Lingwood, said: “The findings of our study suggest that many young children can learn routes, even with as many as 12 turns, very quickly and without the need for repeated experience.

    “Our research has implications for previous theories of wayfinding that emphasize the need for extensive experience.”


  2. Study suggests intervention offered in school readiness program boosts children’s self-regulation skills

    December 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Oregon State University press release:

    Adding a daily 20 to 30 minute self-regulation intervention to a kindergarten readiness program significantly boosted children’s self-regulation and early academic skills, an Oregon State University researcher has found.

    Self-regulation skills — the skills that help children pay attention, follow directions, stay on task and persist through difficulty — are critical to a child’s success in kindergarten and beyond. The intervention, co-developed and tested by OSU’s Megan McClelland, a nationally-recognized expert in child development, uses music and games to help preschoolers learn and practice self-regulation skills.

    The intervention was added to a three-week summer school readiness program at a large school district on the East Coast for children entering kindergarten that had no prior preschool experience. The school district asked McClelland and her colleagues to evaluate their use of the intervention. It was the first opportunity for researchers to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in a “real-world” setting, where teachers, rather than researchers, led the students through self-regulation games.

    The researchers found that use of these games daily for three weeks improved the children’s self-regulation skills. They also found that the children’s broader school readiness skills, including early math and literacy skills, improved as a result of the intervention and the children saw greater-than-expected growth in the months following the program.

    “It was a test to see if the results of this intervention look similar in a less-controlled environment, and it appears that they do,” said McClelland, the Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “It helps demonstrate the feasibility and scalability of this kind of program.”

    The findings add to McClelland’s growing body of research demonstrating the value of teaching self-regulation skills to children entering kindergarten, particularly those who are at higher risk of struggling academically in school and opens the door for the intervention to be used more widely by teachers and schools.

    The evaluation of the school district program was published recently in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Co-authors are Robert J. Duncan and Sara A. Schmitt of Purdue University and Maura Burke of Fairfax County Public Schools. Duncan and Schmitt both earned their doctorates at OSU.

    The school district added the self-regulation intervention at some schools participating in a summer “Bridge to Kindergarten” in 2013. It was also offered in 2014 and 2015. Researchers evaluated data from about 150 children from each year.

    “The school district wanted an explicit focus on self-regulation in this program designed to get children ready for kindergarten,” McClelland said.

    Teachers were trained to lead the children through the intervention, which uses movement and music-based games that increase in complexity over time and encourage the practice of self-regulation skills. The games require few materials and the children can help make the props as part of their lessons.

    One game is “Red Light, Purple Light,” which is similar to “Red Light, Green Light.” The instructor acts as a stoplight and holds up construction-paper circles to represent stop and go. Children follow color cues, such as purple is stop and orange is go, and then switch to the opposite, where purple is go and orange is stop.

    Other games include “Freeze,” where the children are encouraged to do the opposite of the teacher’s instructions; and “Sleeping,” where the children pretend to sleep and then wake up as something different and must remain in that character.

    Additional rules are added later to increase the complexity of the game. The game requires children to listen and remember instructions, pay attention to the adult leading the game and resist natural inclinations to stop or go.

    “The findings from this evaluation support our previous randomized controlled studies of this program, which is a promising sign that the intervention will also be effective in practical applications,” McClelland said. “If we can make the program more accessible to schools and teachers, and still ensure quality, it becomes more feasible to share it more widely.”


  3. Study suggests infant brain responses predict reading speed in secondary school

    December 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Jyväskylä press release:

    A study conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research (CIBR) has found that the brain responses of infants with an inherited risk for dyslexia, a specific reading disability, predict their future reading speed in secondary school.

    The longitudinal study looked at the electrical brain responses of six-month-old infants to speech and the correlation between the brain responses and their pre-literacy skills in pre-school-age, as well as their literacy in the eighth grade at 14 years of age.

    The study discovered that the brain response of the infants with an inherited dyslexia risk differed from the brain responses of the control infants and predicted their reading speed in secondary school. The larger brain responses were related to a more fluent naming speed of familiar objects, better phonological skills, and faster reading.

    “The predictive effect of the infant’s brain response to the reading speed in secondary school is mediated by the pre-school-age naming speed of familiar objects, suggesting that if search of the words from the mental lexicon is hindered before school age, reading is still tangled in secondary school,” states researcher PhD Kaisa Lohvansuu.

    Atypical brain activation to speech in infants with inherited risk for dyslexia impedes the development of effective connections to the mental lexicon, and thus slows the naming and reading performances. Efficient/effortless search from the mental lexicon is therefore necessary in both fluent reading and naming.

    Developmental dyslexia, a specific reading disability, is the most common of the learning disabilities. It has a strong genetic basis: children of dyslexic parents are at great risk of encountering reading and/or writing difficulties at school.

    As speech stimuli, the current study used pseudo-words, i.e. words without meaning. The pseudo-words contained either a short or a long consonant (a double consonant). Phonemic length is a semantically distinguishing feature in the Finnish language, and differentiating it correctly would therefore be essential. However, the correct reading and writing of these contrasts have previously been found to be particularly difficult for Finnish dyslexics.

    The research was carried out as part of the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Dyslexia (JLD). Half of the children who participated in the project had an inherited risk of dyslexia.


  4. Holding infants – or not – can leave traces on their genes

    December 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia press release:

    The amount of close and comforting contact between infants and their caregivers can affect children at the molecular level, an effect detectable four years later, according to new research from the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

    The study showed that children who had been more distressed as infants and had received less physical contact had a molecular profile in their cells that was underdeveloped for their age — pointing to the possibility that they were lagging biologically.

    “In children, we think slower epigenetic aging might indicate an inability to thrive,” said Michael Kobor, a Professor in the UBC Department of Medical Genetics who leads the “Healthy Starts” theme at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

    Although the implications for childhood development and adult health have yet to be understood, this finding builds on similar work in rodents. This is the first study to show in humans that the simple act of touching, early in life, has deeply-rooted and potentially lifelong consequences on genetic expression.

    The study, published last month in Development and Psychopathology, involved 94 healthy children in British Columbia. Researchers from UBC and BC Children’s Hospital asked parents of 5-week-old babies to keep a diary of their infants’ behavior (such as sleeping, fussing, crying or feeding) as well as the duration of caregiving that involved bodily contact. When the children were about 4 1/2 years old, their DNA was sampled by swabbing the inside of their cheeks.

    The team examined a biochemical modification called DNA methylation, in which some parts of the chromosome are tagged with small molecules made of carbon and hydrogen. These molecules act as “dimmer switches” that help to control how active each gene is, and thus affect how cells function.

    The extent of methylation, and where on the DNA it specifically happens, can be influenced by external conditions, especially in childhood. These epigenetic patterns also change in predictable ways as we age.

    Scientists found consistent methylation differences between high-contact and low-contact children at five specific DNA sites. Two of these sites fall within genes: one plays a role in the immune system, and the other is involved in metabolism. However, the downstream effects of these epigenetic changes on child development and health aren’t known yet.

    The children who experienced higher distress and received relatively little contact had an “epigenetic age” that was lower than would be expected, given their actual age. Such a discrepancy has been linked to poor health in several recent studies.

    “We plan on following up to see whether the ‘biological immaturity’ we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development,” says lead author Sarah Moore, a postdoctoral fellow. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”


  5. Study suggests babies can determine the value of a goal from how hard someone works to achieve it

    December 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    Babies as young as 10 months can assess how much someone values a particular goal by observing how hard they are willing to work to achieve it, according to a new study from MIT and Harvard University.

    This ability requires integrating information about both the costs of obtaining a goal and the benefit gained by the person seeking it, suggesting that babies acquire very early an intuition about how people make decisions.

    “Infants are far from experiencing the world as a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion,'” says lead author Shari Liu, referring to a description by philosopher and psychologist William James about a baby’s first experience of the world. “They interpret people’s actions in terms of hidden variables, including the effort [people] expend in producing those actions, and also the value of the goals those actions achieve.”

    “This study is an important step in trying to understand the roots of common-sense understanding of other people’s actions. It shows quite strikingly that in some sense, the basic math that is at the heart of how economists think about rational choice is very intuitive to babies who don’t know math, don’t speak, and can barely understand a few words,” says Josh Tenenbaum, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a core member of the joint MIT-Harvard Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM), and one of the paper’s authors.

    Tenenbaum helped to direct the research team along with Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and CBMM core member, in whose lab the research was conducted. Liu, the paper’s lead author, is a graduate student at Harvard. CBMM postdoc Tomer Ullman is also an author of the paper, which appears in the Nov. 23 online edition of Science.

    Calculating value

    Previous research has shown that adults and older children can infer someone’s motivations by observing how much effort that person exerts toward obtaining a goal.

    The Harvard/MIT team wanted to learn more about how and when this ability develops. Babies expect people to be consistent in their preferences and to be efficient in how they achieve their goals, previous studies have found. The question posed in this study was whether babies can combine what they know about a person’s goal and the effort required to obtain it, to calculate the value of that goal.

    To answer that question, the researchers showed 10-month-old infants animated videos in which an “agent,” a cartoon character shaped like a bouncing ball, tries to reach a certain goal (another cartoon character). In one of the videos, the agent has to leap over walls of varying height to reach the goal. First, the babies saw the agent jump over a low wall and then refuse to jump over a medium-height wall. Next, the agent jumped over the medium-height wall to reach a different goal, but refused to jump over a high wall to reach that goal.

    The babies were then shown a scene in which the agent could choose between the two goals, with no obstacles in the way. An adult or older child would assume the agent would choose the second goal, because the agent had worked harder to reach that goal in the video seen earlier. The researchers found that 10-month-olds also reached this conclusion: When the agent was shown choosing the first goal, infants looked at the scene longer, indicating that they were surprised by that outcome. (Length of looking time is commonly used to measure surprise in studies of infants.)

    The researchers found the same results when babies watched the agents perform the same set of actions with two different types of effort: climbing ramps of varying incline and jumping across gaps of varying width.

    “Across our experiments, we found that babies looked longer when the agent chose the thing it had exerted less effort for, showing that they infer the amount of value that agents place on goals from the amount of effort that they take toward these goals,” Liu says.

    The findings suggest that infants are able to calculate how much another person values something based on how much effort they put into getting it.

    “This paper is not the first to suggest that idea, but its novelty is that it shows this is true in much younger babies than anyone has seen. These are preverbal babies, who themselves are not actively doing very much, yet they appear to understand other people’s actions in this sophisticated, quantitative way,” says Tenenbaum, who is also affiliated with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

    Studies of infants can reveal deep commonalities in the ways that we think throughout our lives, suggests Spelke. “Abstract, interrelated concepts like cost and value — concepts at the center both of our intuitive psychology and of utility theory in philosophy and economics — may originate in an early-emerging system by which infants understand other people’s actions,” she says.

    Modeling intelligence

    Over the past 10 years, scientists have developed computer models that come close to replicating how adults and older children incorporate different types of input to infer other people’s goals, intentions, and beliefs. For this study, the researchers built on that work, especially work by Julian Jara-Ettinger PhD ’16, who studied similar questions in preschool-age children. The researchers developed a computer model that can predict what 10-month-old babies would infer about an agent’s goals after observing the agent’s actions. This new model also posits an ability to calculate “work” (or total force applied over a distance) as a measure of the cost of actions, which the researchers believe babies are able to do on some intuitive level.

    “Babies of this age seem to understand basic ideas of Newtonian mechanics, before they can talk and before they can count,” Tenenbaum says. “They’re putting together an understanding of forces, including things like gravity, and they also have some understanding of the usefulness of a goal to another person.”

    Building this type of model is an important step toward developing artificial intelligence that replicates human behavior more accurately, the researchers say.

    “We have to recognize that we’re very far from building AI systems that have anything like the common sense even of a 10-month-old,” Tenenbaum says. “But if we can understand in engineering terms the intuitive theories that even these young infants seem to have, that hopefully would be the basis for building machines that have more human-like intelligence.”

    Still unanswered are the questions of exactly how and when these intuitive abilities arise in babies.

    “Do infants start with a completely blank slate, and somehow they’re able to build up this sophisticated machinery? Or do they start with some rudimentary understanding of goals and beliefs, and then build up the sophisticated machinery? Or is it all just built in?” Ullman says.

    The researchers hope that studies of even younger babies, perhaps as young as 3 months old, and computational models of learning intuitive theories that the team is also developing, may help to shed light on these questions.


  6. Study suggests hearing different accents at home impacts language processing in infants

    December 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    Infants raised in homes where they hear a single language, but spoken with different accents, recognize words dramatically differently at about 12 months of age than their age-matched peers exposed to little variation in accent, according to a recent study by a University at Buffalo expert in language development.

    The findings, published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, point to the importance of considering the effects of multiple accents when studying speech development and suggest that monolingual infants should not be viewed as a single group.

    “This is important if you think about clinical settings where children are tested,” says Marieke van Heugten, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study with Elizabeth K. Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Speech language pathologists [in most of North America] typically work with the local variant of English, but if you have a child growing up in an environment with more than one accent then they might recognize words differently than a child who hears only one accent.

    Although extensive research exists on bilingualism, few studies have taken accents into account when looking at early word recognition in monolingualism, and van Heugten says none have explored the issue of accents in children younger than 18 months, the age when they traditionally develop the ability to recognize pronunciation differences that can occur across identical words.

    “Variability in children’s language input, what they hear and how they hear it, can have important consequences on word recognition in young, monolingual children,” she says. For instance, an American-English speaking parent might call the yellow vehicle that takes children to school a “bus,” while the pronunciation of the same word by an Irish-English speaking parent might sound more like “boss.” The parents are referencing the same object, but because the child hears the word pronounced two ways she needs to learn how to map those different pronunciations to the same object.

    For the study, researchers tested children who were seated on the lap of a parent. The children heard words typically known to 12-1/2 month olds, like daddy, mommy, ball, dog and bath, along with nonsense words, such as dimma, mitty and guttle. Head turns by the children, a common procedure used in infant speech perception that signals recognition, determined preference for particular words. A second experiment included children of 14-1/2- and 18-months of age.

    Van Heugten says children show a preference for the known words when they recognize words that occur in their language. If they fail to recognize words there’s no reason for them to express a preference, as on the surface, the known and the nonsense words sound equally exciting with an infant-directed intonation.

    The results indicate that children who hear just a single accent prefer to listen to real words in the lab, although those who hear multiple accents don’t have that preference at 12-1/2 months. This difference between preference patterns was found even though the two groups were matched on socioeconomic status as well as the number of words children understand and produce. This suggests that both groups of children are learning words at about the same rate, but that hearing multiple accents at home might change how children recognize these words around their first birthday, at least in lab settings. Perhaps children raised in multi-accent environments need more contextual information to recognize words because they do not assume all words will be spoken in the regional accent.

    But they no longer have difficulties recognizing these words in this challenging task by the time they’re 18-months-old, according to van Heugten.

    “What we’re concluding is that children who hear multiple accents process language differently than those who hear a single accent,” she says. “We should be aware of this difference, and keep in mind as a factor prediction behavior in test settings, especially when testing children from diverse areas in the world.”

    “We are excited to carry out additional work in this area, comparing the development of young children growing up in more or less linguistically diverse environments,” adds Johnson. “[This] will help us better understand language acquisition in general, and perhaps help us better diagnose and treat language delays in children growing up in different types of environments.”


  7. 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.


  8. 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.”

     


  9. 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.”


  10. 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.”