1. Study suggests praising kids for being smart can sometimes have side effects

    September 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    An international team of researchers reports that when children are praised for being smart not only are they quicker to give up in the face of obstacles they are also more likely to be dishonest and cheat. Kids as young as age 3 appear to behave differently when told “You are so smart” vs “You did very well this time.”

    The study, published in Psychological Science, is co-authored by Gail Heyman of the University of California San Diego, Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, and Lulu Chen and Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University in China.

    The research builds on well-known work by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset,” who has shown that praising a child’s innate ability instead of the child’s effort or a specific behavior has the unintended consequence of reducing their motivation to learn and their ability to deal with setbacks.

    The present study shows there’s also a moral dimension to different kinds of praise and that it affects children at younger ages than previously known. Even the kindergarten and preschool set seem to be sensitive to subtle differences in praise.

    “It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” said co-author Gail Heyman, a development psychologist at UC San Diego. “Even when parents and educators know that it harms kids’ achievement motivation, it’s still easy to do. What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well.”

    For their study the researchers asked 300 children in Eastern China to play a guessing game using number cards. In total, there were 150 3-year-olds and 150 5-year-olds. The children were either praised for being smart or for their performance. A control group got no praise at all. After praising the children and getting them to promise not to cheat, the researcher left the room for a minute in the middle of the game. The kids’ subsequent behavior was monitored by a hidden camera, which recorded who got out of their seat or leaned over to get a peek at the numbers.

    Results suggest that both the 3- and 5-year-olds who’d been praised for being smart were more likely to act dishonestly than the ones praised for how well they did or those who got no praise at all. The results were the same for boys and girls.

    In another study, published recently in Developmental Science, the same co-authors show that the consequences are similar even when children are not directly praised for their smarts but are merely told that they have a reputation for being smart.

    Why? The researchers believe that praising ability is tied to performance pressure in a way that praising behavior isn’t. When children are praised for being smart or are told that they have reputation for it, said co-author Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University, “they feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so.”

    Co-author Kang Lee, of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, emphasized the take-away for the adults in kids’ lives: “We want to encourage children. We want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior. Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”


  2. How reading and writing with your child boost more than just literacy

    September 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Washington press release:

    Children who read and write at home — whether for assignments or just for fun — are building long-term study and executive function skills, according to a paper from the University of Washington.

    And while home literacy activities have already been associated with higher test scores, the new study shows these activities also provide students with tools for lifetime success.

    “People who are good students tend to become good employees by being on time and putting forward their best work. All of the things that make you a good student also make you a good employee,” said Nicole Alston-Abel, a Federal Way Public Schools psychologist who conducted the study while pursuing her doctorate at the UW. “If you make sure your child is academically engaged at home through third grade, kids go on autopilot — they know how to ‘do’ school after that.

    Alston-Abel analyzed data collected by co-author Virginia Berninger, UW emeritus professor of education, who conducted a five-year longitudinal study of academic performance in grades one through seven. As part of that study, Berninger sent home questionnaires asking parents if, and how, they helped their children with reading and writing; Alston-Abel, a former primary teacher, then compared the responses with students’ academic performance.

    The study published online in May in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation.

    To collect a range of ages and school experiences, the study followed two groups of students in public elementary schools near the UW campus — one cohort of students from first to fifth grade, the other from third to seventh grade. In all, 241 families participated over five years, completing annual questionnaires about how their child felt about reading and writing, what kinds of activities they engaged in at home, and what kind of help parents provided.

    The demographics of both cohorts reflected neighborhoods around the university: About 85 percent of students were white or Asian American, and nearly three-fourths of parents had a bachelor’s or advanced degree. A more diverse pool, Alston-Abel said, would be illuminating from a research perspective, but the basic message would remain the same: “The takeaway is still the importance of having a parent involved in developing the habits and models a child needs to be successful. It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic status you come from.”

    Among the study’s findings:

    • Students spent significantly more time at home reading than writing.
    • Without a specific assignment, children were more likely to choose reading as an activity than writing.
    • Parents provided more help with writing than with reading.
    • Starting at the intermediate grades (four and up), writing assignments increased, while parent help for writing declined more gradually than for reading.
    • About three-fourths of the fifth- and seventh-grade students used a computer for writing assignments.
    • Parents of those older students described their children as “fluent” in using a computer for writing homework for 19 percent of the fifth-graders, and 53 percent of the seventh-graders.
    • Parent ratings of their student’s “self-regulation,” or ability to stay on task and exhibit other study skills, were associated with academic performance, especially in reading comprehension and written expression.

    The authors point out that there is no direct causal link between the responses on the questionnaires and student achievement, but that some patterns do exist. For example, among students whose parents described their lack of focus or unwillingness to help set modest goals, academic achievement was generally lower than among students who stayed on task or learned to prioritize.

    The study speaks to the need for a collaborative effort between parents and teachers, Alston-Abel said, especially among marginalized populations, and at a time when kindergarteners, according to Common Core State Standards, are expected to demonstrate basic reading and writing skills.

    “Some kids come to kindergarten reading basic ‘sight words,’ and others don’t know their letters. Add up the disadvantages and the demands of the curriculum, and it becomes very apparent that if you don’t have a collaborative effort, for these same kids, that gap is always going to be there,” Alston-Abel said.

    Teachers can start by asking parents about how they support their child’s learning at home — like with the kinds of questionnaires used in the study. The responses to open-ended questions about what kinds of reading and writing a child does at home, why, and for how long each week, can then inform instruction. Meanwhile, parents who work with their children, Alston-Abel added, are introducing study skills like time management and impulse control.

    The paper provides other tips for parents and teachers on how to work together to develop literacy and study skills. One way is to engage a child in writing at home through journals, a story to a family member, even an email or thank-you note. Another is to look for specific skills to help develop, such as spelling or reading comprehension, but pull back when the child appears able to accomplish more independently. And encourage any opportunity to read or write for fun.

    “Academic success is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise,” Alston-Abel said. “Teacher, parent and student all have a part to play. Fostering home-school partnerships that enhance and extend the experience of the learner can lead to life-long habits that foster success.”

    The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


  3. Children’s sleep quality linked to mothers’ insomnia

    September 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Warwick press release:

    Children sleep more poorly if their mothers suffer from insomnia symptoms — potentially affecting their mental wellbeing and development — according to new research by the University of Warwick and the University of Basel.

    Led by Dr Sakari Lemola from Warwick’s Department of Psychology and Natalie Urfer-Maurer from the University of Basel, the study reported in Sleep Medicine shows that children of mothers with insomnia symptoms fall asleep later, get less sleep, and spend less time in deep sleep.

    Analysing data from nearly 200 healthy 7-12 year old children and their parents, the researchers studied the relationship between the parents’ insomnia symptoms and their children’s sleep quality.

    Sleep was assessed in the children during one night with in-home electroencephalography (EEG) — a method used to record electrical activity in the brain and makes it possible to identify different sleep stages — whilst parents reported their own insomnia symptoms and their children’s sleep problems.

    The researchers found that children whose mothers have insomnia symptoms fall asleep later, get less sleep, and spend less time in deep sleep, as measured by EEG.

    However, there was no association between the fathers’ sleep problems and children’s sleep as measured by EEG.

    The study suggests that the reason why children’s sleep is more closely related to mothers’ sleep than to fathers’ sleep is that, on average, mothers still spend more time with their children than fathers — and therefore, a stronger mutual influence is likely.

    When parents reported their children’s sleep, both mothers and fathers with sleep problems more often reported that their children had difficulties getting into bed and did not sleep enough.

    Sleep plays an essential role for adults’ and children’s well-being. Short sleep and poor sleep quality can affect mental health, learning, memory, and school achievement in children. In adulthood around 30% of people suffer from disturbed sleep. The most common sleep disorder in adulthood is insomnia, which is defined by symptoms such as difficulty falling or staying asleep at night.

    “These findings are important because sleep in childhood is essential for wellbeing and development,” commented Dr Sakari Lemola. “The findings show that children’s sleep has to be considered in the family context. In particular, the mother’s sleep appears to be important for how well school-aged children sleep.”

    Several mechanisms could account for the relationship between parents’ and children’s sleep. First, children may learn sleep habits from their parents. Second, poor family functioning could affect both parents’ and children’s sleep. For instance, family fights in the evening before bedtime may prevent the whole family from a good night’s sleep.

    Third, it is possible that parents suffering from poor sleep show “selective attention” for their own as well as their children’s sleep problems, leading to increased monitoring of sleep. It is possible that increased monitoring and attempts to control sleep may negatively affect sleep quality. Finally, children may also share genes with their parents that predispose them to poor sleep.

    The research, ‘The association of mothers’ and fathers’ insomnia symptoms with school-aged children’s sleep assessed by parent report and in-home sleep-electroencephalography’, is published in Sleep Medicine.


  4. Study suggests shared custody equals less stress for children

    by Ashley

    From the Stockholm University press release:

    Children who live full time with one parent are more likely to feel stressed than children in shared custody situations. The benefit holds regardless of the level of conflict between the parents or between parent and child. These are the results of a new study from Stockholm University’s Demography Unit.

    “The explanation may be that children, who spend most of the time away from one parent, lose resources like relatives, friends and money. Previous research has also shown that children may worry about the parent they rarely meet, which can make them more stressed,” says Jani Turunen, researcher in Demography at Stockholm University and Centre for research on child and adolescent mental health at Karlstad University.

    The fact that children who live full time with one parent are worse psychologically than children in shared physical custody has been previously shown, but this study is the first to look specifically at stress. Shared physical custody is not to be confounded with shared legal custody. Shared legal custody only gives both parents the legal right to decisions about the child’s upbringing, school choices, religion, and so on. Shared physical custody means that the child actually lives for equal, or near equal, time with both parents, alternating between separate households.

    The data for this study are from the Surveys of Living Conditions in Sweden, ULF, from 2001-2003, combined with registry data. Sweden is a country that is often considered a forerunner in emerging family forms and behaviors like divorce, childbearing and family reconstitution.

    “This means that the results of this study are relevant to today’s situation in many European countries, since their situation today might be comparable to the one in Sweden 15 years ago,” says Jani Turunen.

    In the survey, a total of 807 children with different types of living arrangements answered to questions about how often they experience stress and how well, or badly, they get along with their parents. The parents have answered how well they get along with their former partner.

    The study shows that children living with only one of the parents have a higher likelihood of experiencing stress several times a week, than children in shared physical custody. This generally applies even if the parents have a poor relationship, or if the children don’t get along with either of them.

    “There has previously been a concern that shared physical custody could be an unstable living situation, that can lead to children becoming more stressed. But those who pointed to it earlier have built their concerns on theoretical assumptions, rather than empirical research,” says Jani Turunen.

    What probably makes children in shared physical custody less stressed is that they can have an active relationship with both their parents, which previous research has shown to be important for the children’s well-being. The relationship between the child and both of its parents becomes stronger, the child finds the relationship to be better and the parents can both exercise more active parenting.

    “In other words, living with both parents does not mean instability for the children. It’s just an adaptation to another housing situation, where regular relocation and a good contact with both parents equals to stability,” says Jani Turunen.


  5. Inattentive kids show worse grades in later life

    September 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Researchers studied children with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and found that inattentiveness was linked to worse academic performance up to 10 years later, regardless of ADHD, even when they accounted for the children’s intellectual ability.

    Although grades aren’t everything, academic achievement is clearly an important factor in later career success and financial stability. Helping children to maximize their academic potential and overcome obstacles to academic success is important. One factor in academic performance is intellectual ability, and unsurprisingly, numerous studies have found that higher intellectual ability is linked with higher academic performance.

    Another factor that can affect academic performance is attentiveness. Aside from making it difficult to focus in school and on homework, inattentiveness can be associated with other problems, such as mood disorders and difficulties interacting with other children. Helping children to overcome inattentiveness could pay dividends in later life.

    Astri Lundervold, a researcher at the University of Bergen, is interested in the short- and long-term consequences of inattention in childhood. “A high number of children are challenged by problems related to inattention. A cluster of these problems is defined as hallmark symptoms of ADHD, but inattentiveness is not restricted to children with a specific diagnosis,” explains Lundervold. Are problems related to inattention something that parents and teachers should address in any child?

    This question inspired Lundervold to investigate the link between inattentiveness and academic performance in a sample containing mostly healthy children in Bergen, Norway. To make the sample more culturally diverse and inclusive of a larger spectrum of mental health disorders, she collaborated with researchers in America (Stephen Hinshaw and Jocelyn Meza). Together, they expanded the study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, to include a sample of girls from another long-term study in Berkeley, California, where a large subgroup had been diagnosed with ADHD.

    The children were aged from 6 — 12 when the researchers recruited them and began the study. They assessed the children’s IQ and asked their parents to rate their inattentiveness. Finally, 10 years later, the researchers followed-up with the children to see how they had performed in school.

    Unsurprisingly, children with higher IQ scores tended to perform better academically. Also, as expected, the children with ADHD showed higher inattentiveness compared with those without, and also performed worse in school. However, the negative effects of inattention on academic performance were not restricted to children with ADHD. “We found a surprisingly similar effect of early inattention on high school academic achievement across the two samples, an effect that remained even when we adjusted for intellectual ability,” explains Lundervold.

    The results highlight the long-term effects that childhood inattention can have on academic performance. These findings suggest that inattention could have significant adverse effects on the academic performance of a variety of children, potentially including those with a high intellectual ability and no ADHD. So, how can parents help their children to achieve their academic potential, regardless of their IQ or mental health?

    “Parents of primary school children showing signs of inattention should ask for help for the child. Remedial strategies and training programs for these children should be available at school, and not just for children with a specific diagnosis,” says Lundervold. “Parents and teachers could also benefit from training to help address the needs of inattentive children.”


  6. Study suggests exclusion from school can trigger long-term psychiatric illness

    September 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Excluding children from school may lead to long- term psychiatric problems and psychological distress, a study of thousands of children has shown.

    Research by the University of Exeter, published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that a new onset mental disorder may be a consequence of exclusion from school.

    The study, also found that — separately — poor mental health can lead to exclusion from school.

    Professor Tamsin Ford, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Exeter’s Medical School, warned that excluded children can develop a range of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety as well as behavioural disturbance. The impact of excluding a child from school on their education and progress is often long term, and this work suggests that their mental health may also deteriorate.

    The study is the most rigorous study of the impact of exclusion from school among the general population so far and included a standardised assessment of children’s difficulties.

    Consistently poor behaviour in the classroom is the main reason for school exclusion, with many students, mainly of secondary school age, facing repeated dismissal from school. Relatively few pupils are expelled from school, but Professor Ford warned that even temporary exclusions can amplify psychological distress.

    Professor Ford, who practises as a child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as carrying out research, said identifying children who struggle in class could, if coupled with tailored support, prevent exclusion and improve their success at school, while exclusion might precipitate future mental disorder. These severe psychological difficulties are often persistent so could then require long-term clinical support by the NHS.

    Professor Ford said: “For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes then from an unbearable situation with the result that on their return to school they will behave even more badly to escape again. As such, it becomes an entirely counterproductive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behaviour that it intends to punish. By avoiding exclusion and finding other solutions to poor behaviour, schools can help children’s mental health in the future as well as their education.”

    Exclusion from school is commoner among boys, secondary school pupils, and those living in socio-economically deprived circumstances. Poor general health and learning disabilities, as well as having parents with mental illness, is also associated with exclusion.

    The analysis by a team led by Professor Ford of responses from over 5000 school-aged children, their parents and their teachers in the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys collected by the Office of National Statistics on behalf of the Department of Health found that children with learning difficulties and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and autism spectrum conditions were more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

    The research team found more children with mental disorder among those who had been excluded from school, when they followed up on their progress, than those who had not. The research team omitted children who had a previous mental disorder from this analysis.

    The researchers concluded there is a ‘bi-directional association’ between psychological distress and exclusion: children with psychological distress and mental-health problems are more likely to be excluded in the first place but exclusion predicted increased levels of psychological distress three years later.

    Claire Parker, a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School, who carried out doctoral research on the project said:

    “Although an exclusion from school may only last for a day or two, the impact and repercussions for the child and parents are much wider. Exclusion often marks a turning point during an ongoing difficult time for the child, parent and those trying to support the child in school.”

    Most research into the impact of exclusion has so far involved the study of individuals’ experience and narratives from much smaller groups of people chosen because of their experience, which may not be so representative.

    This study included an analysis of detailed questionnaires filled in by children parents and teachers as well as an assessment of disorder by child psychiatrists, drawing on data from over 5000 children in two linked surveys to allow the researchers to compare their responses with students who had been excluded. This sample from the general population included over 200 children who had experienced at least one exclusion.

    The report concluded: “Support for children whose behaviour challenges school systems is important. Timely intervention may prevent exclusion from school as well as future psychopathology. A number of vulnerable children may face exclusion from school that might be avoided with suitable interventions.”

    Professor Ford added: “Given the established link between children’s behaviour, classroom climate and teachers’ mental health, burn out and self-efficacy, greater availability of timely support for children whose behaviour is challenging might also improve teachers’ productivity and school effectiveness”.


  7. Young children’s sense of self is similar to that of adults

    September 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Young children’s sense of self is similar to that of older kids and adults, a team of psychology researchers has found. The results show that our ability to reason about our self-worth as individuals develops early in life, but also suggest that failure can instill discouragement sooner than previously thought.

    “Young children’s self-concepts are not qualitatively different from those of older children and adults,” explains Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “Young children can think of themselves as possessing abstract traits and abilities, and they can also reason about their self-worth, which has implications for self-esteem.

    “However, this level of maturity in reasoning about the self also means that young children can become dispirited in the face of failure and are not the undaunted optimists that previous theories have described. In light of this new work, we need to think carefully about, and investigate, ways of supporting young children’s motivation and engagement with important — but often difficult — activities such as school.”

    The study, which appears in the journal Child Development, also included Matthew Hammond, a faculty member at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, as well as Giulia Mazza and Grace Corry, who were undergraduate researchers at the University of Illinois when this research was conducted.

    It has long been thought that young children think of themselves in concrete, behavioral terms and, unlike adults or older children, are cognitively incapable of reasoning about their traits or their worth as individuals.

    The researchers tested this belief, aiming to understand if young children can think about themselves in terms of general traits and abilities (e.g., “I’m smart”) and judge their global worth as individuals — or if they are largely focused on concrete behaviors and outcomes (e.g., “I got a good grade”).

    To answer this question, the researchers conducted a series of studies of children ranging from four to seven years old. The participants were presented several hypothetical scenarios — commonly employed in psychology research for this age group — that varied in several respects. In them, the children were asked to imagine they could not complete a task (e.g., solving a puzzle) despite “trying really hard.” In some cases, they were told the task was easy (e.g., drawing the sun) and in others that it was difficult (e.g., drawing a horse). In addition, some children were informed the task was done at the request of an adult (a parent or teacher) while others were told it was self-initiated.

    They were then asked questions about their abilities (e.g., “Does not drawing the sun/horse right make you feel like you’re good at drawing or not good at drawing?”) and their global sense of self-worth (e.g., “Does not finishing the puzzle make you feel like a good boy/girl or not a good boy/girl?”). At the end of the sessions, children acted out positive scenarios and were debriefed.

    The results showed that children as young as four can flexibly reason about their abilities and their global sense of self-worth based on the context of their behavior. For example, children lowered their estimation of their abilities, but not their global self-worth, when told they failed an easy, as opposed to hard, task. Conversely, they lowered their estimation of their global self-worth, but not their abilities, when informed they failed an adult-requested (vs. self-initiated) task — in other words, adult involvement could negatively affect self-esteem, independent of the task.

    “This evidence reveals surprising continuity between young children’s self-concepts and those of older children and adults,” Cimpian observes. “However, more importantly, our findings show the impact others can have on young children’s sense of self-worth at a very young age.

    “It is therefore important for both parents and educators to understand that our children may become more discouraged than we previously realized and find ways to foster a productive learning environment.”


  8. Like adults, children show bias in attributing mental states to others

    September 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    Young children are more likely to attribute mental states to characters that belong to the same group as them relative to characters that belong to an outside group, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The study shows that 5- and 6-year-olds were more likely to describe interactions between two characters in terms of what they were thinking and feeling when the characters had the same gender or geographic origin as them.

    “We found that young children were selective in the way they attribute mental states — they were less likely to spontaneously refer to the mind of individuals belonging to a different group,” says researcher Niamh McLoughlin of the University of York. “Our research suggests that, at least from the age of 5, children demonstrate a bias that might be similar to dehumanization — ascribing fewer mental abilities and uniquely human traits to others. In addition, this work illustrates that there are situations in which children are more or less motivated to reason about the minds of other people.”

    Previous research has shown that adults tend to dehumanize people who belong to social groups or categories — for example, race, gender, socioeconomic status — that are different from their own. These “outsiders” are seen as having less intelligence, rationality, and emotional depth than do those who belong to the in-group. McLoughlin and University of York co-author Harriet Over were interested in investigating the developmental origins of this phenomenon.

    “Our aim was to examine whether young children also exhibited this bias with relation to mental state attribution,” says McLoughlin.

    Adapting an established technique, the researchers showed a total of 128 5- and 6-year-olds animations of a big triangle and a small triangle that seemed to interact, with one triangle seemingly coaxing or surprising the other.

    Each child saw two videos. In one, the triangles were described as having the same gender or coming from the same town as the participant; in the other, the triangles were described as having a different gender or coming from a far-away country. The researchers chose to examine gender because it’s a category that children are particularly sensitive to, while they decided to look at geographic origin because of its relevance to current social and political debates.

    The researchers asked the participants to describe what happened and to rate how much they liked the group discussed in each video.

    Using a predetermined coding scheme, the researchers counted any words that described a character’s thoughts, desires, emotions, intentions, or current states as mental-state terms.

    The data showed that 6 year-olds used more mental-state words overall and a more diverse range of these words compared with children who were one year younger, a finding that highlights the ongoing development of theory-of-mind processes in early childhood.

    More importantly, both 5- and 6-year-olds used more mental-state terms when they believed the characters had the same gender or home town as opposed to when they had a different one. And the 6-year-olds also used more diverse mental-state words in describing characters from the same group relative to those from a different group.

    This group-based bias extended to direct ratings: Participants also preferred individuals who belonged to their own gender and geographic group. .

    These findings hint at early origins for social phenomena including bias between social groups and dehumanization, the researchers argue.

    “We plan to use this research as the base for future work examining the social consequences of biased mental-state attribution, such as the extent to which children help members of an outgroup,” says McLoughlin. “We hope that this work can ultimately inform research-led interventions that aim to foster positive intergroup relations.”


  9. Life at home affects kids at school, some more than others

    August 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) press release:

    Some children are more susceptible to changes than others. They carry the relationship with their parents to school with them. Genetics can help explain why.

    “When the situation changes at home for these children, the relationship with their teacher changes too,” says researcher and PhD candidate Beate W. Hygen at NTNU Social Research and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

    This means that when things are going well at home and in the parent-child relationship, the relationship between the child and the teacher is correspondingly good. However, the teacher-child relationship deteriorates when the child’s home life becomes more difficult.

    Genetic explanation

    “Some children seem to soak up environmental factors at home. This in turn affects the relationship with the teacher. For other children, the conditions at home don’t have much influence on their relationship with the teacher,” says Hygen.

    The explanation may be partly genetic. Hygen is the first author of a recent article that considers whether certain environmental factors affect children’s social development differently depending on what kind of genetic variants the child has.

    Hygen says the researchers are finding a link between children’s susceptibility to such factors and differences in a gene that regulates how individuals are affected by oxytocin. The differences found by the researchers were located in a variant of a receptor gene called OXTR, rs 53576. You can read more about this gene at https://www.snpedia.com/index.php/Rs53576

    Oxytocin is well known, even outside research circles. It is often called the “love hormone,” because it’s triggered when we’re together with someone we love, like a romantic love or our child. But oxytocin levels also increase when a relationship appears to be in danger, so the nickname isn’t totally accurate.

    Oxytocin release, the level of oxytocin in the brain and how oxytocin affects us play a significant role in our human relationships and how we interact and engage with others.

    Study looks at ambience

    Genetic differences in how we are affected by oxytocin can thus create differences in the way we relate to each other. Biology largely determines how we behave, but this study shows that this happens in conjunction with our surroundings.

    Previous surveys that have studied conditions at home versus in school have usually primarily looked at the parents’ situation. Social learning models, Hygen says, approach the issue from a starting point of “if there’s just yelling and negativity at home, some children can take these experiences into other relationships, such as with their teachers.”

    But the researchers in this survey start with the child itself and ask the question, “How vulnerable is the child to environmental factors?”

    “The most susceptible children will bring their home situation — both good and bad — into the school setting,” says Hygen.

    The Norwegian researchers examined 652 children in two age groups: 4-to-6 year olds and 6-to-8 year olds. This data is part of the long-term Tidlig Trygg i Trondheim study conducted by the Regional Centre for Child and Youth Mental Health and Child Welfare (RKBU) of Central Norway. The survey goes into detail about the home ambience. The study aims to identify risk and protection factors for psychosocial development and development of mental health problems in children.

    The researchers also asked the children’s teachers to assess the relationships they had with the children. This last component might be a source of error in the study, the researchers said.

    Different result in the United States

    The Norwegian researchers collaborated with American researchers, who conducted the same analysis in the US. The American researchers included 559 children from different locations in the United States. They did not find the same connection between home and school relationships.

    Hygen believes she has an idea why the Norwegian and American researchers have gotten divergent results.

    “In the United States, the stability of the relationship between teacher and child is often not the same in this age group,” she says.

    Norwegian children in the 6-to-8-year age group often have the same teacher for several years. In the United States, teachers change more often, and a change in the child’s relationship with their teacher over time may therefore be due to a change of teacher, not necessarily an improvement or worsening of the relationship with the same teacher.

    So, according to Hygen, researchers are less sure whether they are able to accurately measure relationship improvement or deterioration in the US, and the more frequent teacher changes may explain why the study doesn’t capture the effect of changes in the parent-child relationship.

    The researchers also assume that the quality of teachers varies a lot more in the United States than in Norway, since the funding of the school system differs from state to state. Greater social inequalities in the United States, which can influence relationships between teachers and children, may also affect the US results.

    The study has been published in the professional journal Developmental Psychology.


  10. Study suggests lower prenatal stress reduces risk of behavioral issues in kids

    August 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Ottawa press release:

    Parenting is a complicated journey full of questions, and when a beloved child begins to show signs of a behavioural disorder, a parent’s challenges become even more difficult to navigate.

    Expectant mothers may want to consider adopting today’s trend towards stress management, in light of new research from the University of Ottawa pointing to its ability to lower the risk of problematic behaviour in their offspring.

    Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, led a team of researchers in examining data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The team found that mothers who experience significant prenatal stress may be increasing their child’s risk for behavioural issues.

    “Mothers who are exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy have kids who are more than twice as likely to have chronic symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder,” Dr. Colman said of the team’s recently published findings.

    “Hyperactivity is a symptom of ADHD, and about 10% of school-age children are affected by ADHD or conduct disorder,” he said. “These disorders can lead to poor results in school and difficulties in their relationships with family and friends.”

    Behavioural disorders such as those seen by the researchers are characterized by aggressive or antisocial behaviour, high activity levels, and difficulty inhibiting behaviour. They are also associated with school failure, substance use/abuse, and criminal activity, according to the paper.

    A mother’s stress can alter brain development in the fetus, and it is believed these changes may be long-lasting or permanent, said Dr. Colman.

    The team was unique in its approach: it studied the effects of specific stressors on participants, as opposed to gauging overall stress levels. Participants reported stressful events, such as problems at work, the illness of a relative, or an argument with a partner, family or friend. “Generally speaking, we found that the higher the stress, the higher the symptoms,” Dr. Colman said. “We can’t avoid most stressful events in our lives and since we can’t always prevent them, the focus should be on helping mothers manage stress in order to give their children the best start in life.”