Tag Archives: child development

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 6, 2014

Kushnir

Kushnir

A hammer has many uses – breaking, prying, bending – but we all know that hammers are supposed to be for hammering nails into wood. It turns out we not only learn such cultural conventions when we’re very young, we can transmit them, too.

A recent Cornell study finds that toddlers notice subtle social clues to figure out what actions of others may be socially or culturally important and then preferentially share this information with others.

The findings show that social context influences children’s transmission of information, perhaps playing a role in the dissemination of cultural conventions from a young age, say authors Christopher Vredenburgh, graduate student in the field of human development; Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development in the College of Human Ecology; and Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development.

Casasola

Casasola

In their study, two-year-olds were shown two new toys that each light up and make a sound. One action was demonstrated by a person exploring the toy on their own without engaging the child, and one was demonstrated by a person using eye contact and child-directed speech, known informally as baby talk or “motherese,” cues that children pick up on as signals that you are trying to “teach” them something culturally or socially relevant.

The toddlers learned and produced both actions, but when a new person who was not part of the initial demonstration asked them what the toy does, the toddlers were more likely to show the cued action first and to spend more time showing it.

“Children are rapid causal learners and precocious imitators and can learn about cause/effect by observing others making things ‘go’ with no additional cues, but they prefer to transmit the cued action in a new social situation,” Kushnir said.

“They learn something additional about the cued effect – they learn that it may be something that is worth communicating to another person,” she explained.

“This builds on prior evidence that children think that some causal properties of objects might also be socially or culturally relevant – it may be a way children learn about culture. Furthermore, it shows that even two-year-old children actively participate in culture by transmitting selectively to the new person only the ‘relevant’ information.”

The study, “Pedagogical cues encourage toddlers’ transmission of recently demonstrated functions to unfamiliar adults,” published online in Developmental Science (Oct. 5), was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Leopold Schepp Foundation and the Cornell University Alumni Association.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

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Tamar Kushnir
Marianella Casasola
The paper
The College of Human Ecology

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 19, 2014

Gary Evans

Evans

By age 2, poor children have gained more weight than those who are better off. But after age 2, neighborhood poverty, not family poverty, puts the pounds on, finds a new study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (35:3).

About one-third of America’s children are overweight or obese, but rates are highest among poor and minority children. The study identifies for the first time the effects of neighborhood-level poverty, family poverty and ethnicity on children’s weight, shedding new light on the origins of adult health disparities, the authors say.

“The effects of neighborhood poverty on children’s weight may be just as important as the effects of family poverty,” says Cornell’s Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, who co-authored the study with Pamela Klebanov, Princeton University, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University.

“Children and families are embedded in neighborhoods; poor neighborhoods differ structurally from wealthier neighborhoods, with fewer safe and natural places to play and exercise, fewer supermarkets and more fast food,” Evans explains.

For their study, the researchers analyzed demographic factors and changes in body mass index (BMI) from ages 2 to 6 1/2 for nearly 1,000 children born with low birth weight. In typically developing children, BMI increases during the first year, then declines to a low point before increasing again in what is called adiposity rebound, usually between the ages of 5 and 7. Children who rapidly gain weight early in their first year or who have an early rebound are at risk for obesity throughout life.

Because they tend to gain weight more rapidly over their first two years to “catch up” with normal birth weight infants, low birth weight infants face higher risks for obesity, but being poor, a minority or living in poor neighborhoods adds to their disadvantage, the authors say.

Evans and colleagues found that the low birth weight toddlers from poor families already had higher BMIs than their wealthier counterparts by age 2, at which point the harmful effects of living in an impoverished neighborhood took over. The children in poor and near poor neighborhoods reached adiposity rebound more quickly, and their BMIs increased more rapidly compared to children from non-poor neighborhoods.

The team also found that African-American toddlers displayed an earlier adiposity rebound and greater subsequent BMI increases over time compared to Anglo-American toddlers. Hispanic-American children, on the other hand, had an atypical pattern in which their BMI increased steadily from birth, without exhibiting a decrease and rebound.

“Health disparities emerge early and shape lifelong health,” Evans says.

“Interventions need to address both the fundamental risk factors for pediatric obesity, such as poverty, chaotic living conditions and low parental education, as well as the mechanisms that appear to convey these risks, such as restricted access to healthy food, few safe and natural places to play, too much fast food, child food marketing and high levels of chronic stress, he concludes.

The study, “Poverty, ethnicity and risk of obesity among low birth weight infants,” was supported in part by the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

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Gary Evans
The Paper

By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, April 9, 2014

The very earliest childhood memories might begin even earlier than anyone realized – including the rememberer, his or her parents and memory researchers.

Four- to 13-year-olds in upstate New York and Newfoundland, Canada, probed their memories when researchers asked: “You know, some kids can remember things that happened to them when they were very little. What is the first thing you can remember? How old were you at that time?” The researchers then returned a year or two later to ask again about earliest memories – and at what age the children were when the events occurred.

“The age estimates of earliest childhood memories are not as accurate as what has been generally assumed,” report Qi Wang of Cornell University and Carole Peterson of Memorial University of Newfoundland in the March 2014 online issue of Developmental Psychology. “Using children’s own age estimates as the reference, we found that memory dating shifted to later ages as time elapsed.”

Childhood amnesia refers to our inability to remember events from our first years of life. Until now, cognitive psychologists estimated the so-called childhood amnesia offset at 3.5 years – the average age of our very earliest memory, the authors noted in their report, “Your Earliest Memory May Be Earlier Than You Think: Prospective Studies of Children’s Dating of Earliest Childhood Memories.”

But the children who originally answered, for example, “I think I was 3 years old when my dog fell through the ice,” postdated that same earliest memory by as much as nine months when asked – in follow-up interviews a year or two years later – to recall again. In other words, as time went by, children thought the same memory event occurred at an older age than they had thought previously. And that finding prompts Wang and Peterson to question the 3.5-year offset for childhood amnesia.

“This can happen to adults’ earliest childhood memories, too,” says Wang, professor of human development and director of the Social Cognition Development Laboratory in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “We all remember some events from our childhood. When we try to reconstruct the time of these events, we may postdate them to be more recent than they actually were, as if we are looking at the events through a telescope. Although none of us can recall events on the day of our birth – childhood amnesia may end somewhat earlier than the generally accepted 3.5 years.”

Parents might help because they have more clues (e.g., where they lived, what their children looked like at the time of events) to put their children’s experiences along a timeline. When asked, for example, “How old was Evan when Poochie fell through the ice?” they erred less than Evan had. Still, they are not free from errors in their time estimates.

The only way to settle that, Wang and Peterson mused, would be to look for documented evidence – a parent’s diary, for instance, or a newspaper account of Poochie’s memorable rescue.

What girls remember

In this study, as in another published by Wang in 2013, a gender-related difference was noted:

“Females generally, although not always, exhibit superior retention of episodic memories than males,” Wang and Peterson wrote in the 2014 report. The gender differences, according to the researchers, may reflect the development of life narratives in late childhood and early adolescence, where girls often tell lengthier and more coherent life stories than boys.

“The narrative organization of life events,” they speculated, “may allow girls to better remember the events over time, compared with boys.”

Wang, author of “The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture” (Oxford University Press, 2013), says her earliest childhood memory is “playing with the girls next door.” And given her findings, she wonders if that was around age 4.

Related Links:
Qi Wang
The Paper

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By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle November 14, 2013

Graduate student Yue Yu conducts an imitation toy test in Jushnir's Early Chilhood Cognition Laboratory with Saffron Gold-Rodgers.

Graduate student Yue Yu conducts an imitation toy test in Jushnir's Early Chilhood Cognition Laboratory with Saffron Gold-Rodgers. - Mark Vorreuter

From infancy, children learn by watching and imitating adults. Even when adults show them how to open a latch or solve a puzzle, for example, children use social cues to figure out what actions are important. But children read these cues differently depending on their age: Older children, interestingly, are more likely, not less likely, to faithfully imitate actions unnecessary to the task at hand, reports Cornell research.

The findings imply that children of different ages have different expectations when they watch and learn from adults, based on their growing social understanding, say authors Yue Yu, graduate student in the field of human development, and Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development in the College of Human Ecology, in a study published online in Developmental Psychology (Aug. 26) ahead of print.

“Understanding what causes children to imitate in any given situation, and especially to imitate actions that seem to have no obvious purpose, sheds light on how children’s minds work and what influences their learning,” Kushnir said.

To explore how age and social context influence children’s imitation behavior, the researchers conducted two experiments with 2- and 4-year-olds. In one, children played one of three games with the experimenter (copying the experimenter’s hand gestures, taking turns to find and fit a puzzle piece, or a non-interactive drawing game). Then, they played a puzzle-box game after watching the experimenter show two actions on the toy and retrieve a puzzle piece. In half the trials, only the second action was necessary to recover the puzzle piece.

The researchers found that the 4-year-olds faithfully imitated both necessary and unnecessary actions to get the puzzle piece, regardless of the game they played beforehand; 2-year-olds, however, were heavily influenced by the context set up by the prior game. They were more likely to faithfully imitate unnecessary actions after playing the copying game and more likely to selectively emulate just the necessary action after playing the puzzle-solving game.

A second experiment ruled out the possibility that the 2-year-olds were merely primed to copy anyone – their strategies were not influenced by the copy game when they played it with a different experimenter. This suggests that toddlers in the first experiment were actively engaged in a social interaction with a particular individual from which they inferred goals for the following game, Yu and Kushnir concluded. Their findings underscore the important role that children’s developing social knowledge plays in what and how they learn, they said.

When toddlers watch adults, what they pay attention to and imitate appears highly dependent on the context and expectations set up by the adult, and this points to the importance of establishing rapport before trying to teach them something, said Yu.

Preschoolers, on the other hand, are more likely to view all adult’s purposeful actions as part of the social interaction, perhaps even as social norms, and thus imitate them as faithfully as possible. This enables imitation to be a source, not just for learning about objects (e.g., how a latch works), but for rich and accurate cultural transmission, Yu added.

Or for embarrassment, depending on what you just demonstrated in front of your preschooler.

The study, “Social Context Effects in 2- and 4-year-olds’ Selective Versus Faithful Imitation,” was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 30, 2013

Evans

Evans

The chronic stress of childhood poverty can trigger physical changes that have lifelong psychological effects, a study of adult brains has shown.

“Some of the anxiety disorders, depression, post traumatic stress disorders, impulsive aggression and substance abuse we’re seeing in adults might be traced to a stressful childhood,” says Cornell’s Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology.

The environmental and developmental psychologist joined researchers from three other universities to publish findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as “Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on regulatory brain function in adulthood.” The 15-year study confirms something Evans has long suspected: “Early experiences of poverty become embedded in the brain. Exposure to chronic stress in early childhood – when the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are rapidly developing – produces lasting neurological changes,” he says.

The longitudinal study followed 49 rural 9-year-olds for 15 years – checking in at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24. “Even if the 24-year-olds had escaped poverty and were making a comfortable living,” Evans says, “functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of two parts of the brain that process emotion, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, revealed neural patterns for emotion regulatory dysfunction.

“Chronic stresses of childhood poverty may make it harder to regulate your emotions and this remains whether or not you are upwardly mobile as an adult,” he adds.

The report by researchers at the University of Michigan, University of Denver, University of Illinois at Chicago and Cornell said “… children living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to chronic multiple stressors, including violence, family turmoil, separation from family members and substandard living environments.”

Pilyoung Kim, M.A. ’07, Ph.D. ’09, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver, is the lead author on the paper. Support for the long-term study came from the National Institutes of Health, William T. Grant Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 28, 2013

Wendy Wei leads a child through spatial cognition tests - Mark Vorreuter

Human development major Wendy Wei ’15 spent most of her summer at Ithaca-area day care centers leading 4- and 5-year-olds through brain teasers and puzzles or building towers with blocks and Legos. Far from child’s play, her work sought to understand how preschoolers develop spatial cognition and whether those abilities could be nurtured through interactive play.

Wei is one of 15 undergraduates who received $4,000 stipends from the College of Human Ecology to work in faculty labs full time this summer as part of the college’s long-running research immersion program. Made possible by a mix of alumni endowments and college and federal funds, it allows students to conduct research uninterrupted by classes, exams, jobs or extracurricular activities.

“We want students to deeply engage in research, not just doing a few hours as an assistant in the lab but helping the team to define the research question, methods and data collection and interpretation,” said Carole Bisogni ’70, M.S. ’72, Ph.D. ’76, associate dean for academic affairs. “For some students, it changes their entire outlook.”

Wei entered Cornell on a path to become a physician. But, partly due to her research in associate professor Marianella Casasola’s Cornell Infant Studies Laboratory, she’s now focused on a career in research and education.

This summer, Wei led an experiment to test how children’s knowledge of spatial language (terms like “up,” “down,” “in” and “on”) influences their spatial cognition (how well they recognize two-dimensional shapes and patterns, and mentally map their physical surroundings).

“Prior work has shown a link between spatial cognition and future performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” Wei said. “Hopefully the study will help in coming up with better methods for teaching kids spatial concepts.”

While Wei focused on cognitive growth, Judith Mildner ’14, human development, was examining declines in brain function. Mildner helped conduct a study in the Cornell MRI Facility searching for biomarkers in the brain that might predict the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases years ahead of what is now possible.

Mildner said she enjoyed working on a team of research assistants and the close interaction with faculty that’s rarely possible during the busy academic year.

“I want to work in neuropsychology research, probably on aging and dementia, and I have learned a lot about what it takes to run an functional MRI study [a type of imaging that allows neuroscientists to see different forms of brain activity],” she said. “I want a job doing research, and this summer I’ve been able to do it all day, every day.”

Ariana Levitt working on fiber electrospinning in the lab of Margaret Frey, associate professor of fiber science and apparel design, in the Human Ecology Building - Jason Koski, University Photography

Students from each of Human Ecology’s five academic departments – Design and Environmental Analysis, Fiber Science & Apparel Design, Human Development, Policy Analysis and Management, and Nutritional Sciences – received summer stipends.

Some, like Nivetha Subramanian ’15 and Ariana Levitt ’15, donned white coats at lab benches: Subramanian compared genetic properties of breast milk from mothers of full-term and premature infants, and Levitt looked for the right mix of polymers needed to spin nanofibers with high conductivity and low water solubility. Others contributed to social science projects: Williams “Carlos” Higgins ’14 surveyed occupants of Caldwell Hall to gather data for a project to identify structures best suited for energy-saving retrofits, and Max Kellogg ’15 built a statistical model to track how TV ads influence people’s daily consumption of sweetened and unsweetened drinks.

Higgins said the summer program builds on classes by allowing him to “dive in much deeper.”

“It’s exciting when I find something I don’t expect to,” he said. “Usually in class everything is laid out in the syllabus, and you know what’s coming. With research, I’ve thought about the problem for hundreds of hours and still get results totally different from what I expected.”

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

Footnote

Overall, six Human Development majors were among the 15 undergraduates who received research stipends from the College of Human Ecology this summer:

  • Rebecca Derven ’15 worked with Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, on "Interventions for Risk Reduction in Obesity Prevention;"
  • Judith Mildner ’14, mentioned above, worked with Nathan Spreng, assistant professor of human development, on "Age-related changes in enhancement and modulation of the default network;"
  • Emily Bastarach ’14 worked with Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development, on "Resilience to parental loss: A prospective study of early parental support and positive emotions;"
  • Wendy Wei, ’15 worked with Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development, on the project mentioned above called "Putting the pieces together;"
  • Jasmin Perez ’14 worked with Gary Evans, professor of human development, on "The effect of socioeconomc status on infant Distractibility;" and
  • Jenna Behrendt ’14 worked with Barbara Lust, professor of human development, on "Characterizing language deficits in mildly cognitive impaired elderly compared to a healthy aging and a young population."

Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 19, 2013

Tamar Kushnir works with a child as part of a partnership between ECC and the Ithaca Sciencenter - Lindsay France, University Photography

For parents, getting kids to share their toys can be a constant battle, and compelling them to hand over their favorite doll or truck rarely works for long. New Cornell research suggests that allowing children to freely choose to give valuable possessions to another leads them to share more in the future.

The findings, by Nadia Chernyak, a graduate student in the field of human development, and Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development in the College of Human Ecology, are published in a paper, “Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior,” in the journal Psychological Science.

Their studies suggest that sharing when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a new, more beneficent light – one that makes them more likely to act in a sharing manner in the future.

“Making difficult choices allows children to infer something important about themselves: In making choices that aren't necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own prosociality,” Chernyak said.

To test this, the researchers introduced 3-5 year-olds to Doggie, a puppet, who was feeling sad. Some of the children were given a difficult choice: Share a precious sticker with Doggie, or keep it for themselves. Other children were given an easy choice between sharing and discarding the sticker, while children in a third group were required by the researcher to share.

Later on, all the children were introduced to Ellie, another sad puppet. They were given the option of how many stickers to share (up to three) to cheer her up. The kids who earlier made the difficult choice to help Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie. The children who were initially confronted with an easy choice or who were required to give their sticker to Doggie, on the other hand, shared fewer stickers with Ellie.

“You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don’t feel the need to do so again,” Chernyak said. “But this wasn’t the case: Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on.”

Another experiment supported these findings, illustrating that children are more generous after choosing to share valuable toy frogs compared to worthless shreds of paper. Those who initially shared the frogs with Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie later on. Those who readily shared the paper, on the other hand, shared fewer stickers with Ellie. Therefore, children did not benefit from the mere act of sharing, but rather from willingly sacrificing something of value.

“Children are frequently taught to share, be polite and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to know which factors may aid in young children’s sharing behavior,” Chernyak said. “Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences and intentions toward others.”

The research was supported by a Cognitive Science Fellowship from Cornell.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, July 3, 2013

Evans

Evans

Children from low-income families tend to do worse at school than their financially better-off peers. Poor planning skills, which can emerge as early as kindergarten and continue through high school, is one reason for the income-achievement gap, reports a new Cornell study of a large ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of children from across the United States.

The study, "The role of planning skills in the income-achievement gap," is published in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development (84:4).

“Low-income children appear to have more difficulty accomplishing planning tasks efficiently, and this, in turn, partially explains the income-achievement gap,” says Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology at Cornell, senior author of the study with Stephen Crook ’10, M.A. ’11. “Efforts to enhance the academic performance of low-income children need to consider multiple aspects of their development, including the ability to plan in a goal-oriented manner.”

The study, which was based on Crook’s master’s thesis, used data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which looked at almost 1,500 children from 10 geographic sites across the United States.

Planning skills were assessed when the children were in third grade, through the widely used Tower of Hanoi game. The game starts with a stack of rings placed on a rod so that the biggest ring is at the bottom, and the smallest is on the top. Using two other rods and moving only one ring at a time without ever placing a wider ring on a smaller ring, the children have to recreate the original stack on one of the two spare rods.

The study found that the children’s performance in fifth grade could be explained, in part, by how they did on the third-grade planning task, even when taking IQ into consideration. Using income as well as math and reading scores, the study also found that the lower the household income during infancy, the worse the children’s performance on reading and math in fifth grade – replicating the well-known gap between income and achievement.

The researchers suggest several reasons why poverty may interfere with the development of good planning skills. Individuals living in low-income homes experience greater chaos in their daily lives, including more moves, school changes, family turmoil, and crowded and noisy environments, and fewer structured routines and rituals. In addition, low-income parents may be less successful at planning because of their own stress levels.

Researchers believe the group of skills called executive function, which includes planning skills, can be strengthened through interventions. Such interventions are being developed and tested for children as young as the preschool years.

The study was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 25, 2013

The new book "Human Bonding: The Science of Affectional Ties" (Guilford Press) provides a scientific roadmap to love, relationships and what makes them strong – from our first attachments in infancy through old age.

“It is amply documented that people with close social ties are happier, healthier and even live longer than those without such ties; indeed, our very survival as a species depends on the formation and maintenance of strong social bonds,” said Cindy Hazan, co-editor of the book, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and a founder in the field of relationship science.

“A central aim of this book is to provide an integrative, science-based overview of human bonding across the lifespan,” she said.

The book grew out Cornell’s popular course on human bonding, which Hazan designed and has taught for 25 years to capacity crowds, Hazan explained. Many students who took the course have gone on to become relationship scientists in their own right, she said, including seven of the contributors to the current volume.

"Human Bonding" addresses early bonding experiences from infancy through adolescence; mate selection, love and sexual desire, hooking up and online dating; keys to relationship success’ predictors and consequences of relationship dissolution; and the role of social connectedness in mental and physical health.

The book includes a chapter by Hazan and Gul Gunaydin, Ph.D. ’13, and Emre Selcuk, Ph.D. ’13, which integrates the social science evidence on the process of human mate selection. In it, the authors explain the many factors that influence how we narrow a large pool of potential mates down to one. For years, researchers focused on the characteristics that people say they seek in a mate, but more recent work has revealed that what we say we want in a partner differs significantly from who we actually end up partnering with. Proximity, the authors say, turns out to be a surprisingly influential factor.

The book, designed for students and relationship scholars, and those interested in understanding our closest – and often most perplexing – relationships, was co-edited by Mary Campa, Ph.D. ’07, assistant professor of psychology at Skidmore College.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.