Tag Archives: child development

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle May 20, 2013

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan ’11, who conducted interviews with Nepalese while studying abroad, with a Nepali child.
- Katie Sullivan/Provided

Preschoolers universally recognize that one’s choices are not always free – that our decisions may be constrained by social obligations to be nice to others or follow rules set by parents or elders, even when wanting to do otherwise.

As they age, however, American kids are more prone to acknowledge one’s freedom to act against such obligations compared to Nepalese children, who are less willing to say that people can and will violate social codes, finds a cross-cultural study by Cornell developmental psychologists titled “A Comparison of Nepalese and American Children’s Concepts of Free Will,” published May 20 in the journal Cognitive Science.

The findings, researchers said, suggest that culture is a significant influence on children’s concepts of choice regarding social norms.

“We know that adult views on whether social obligations constrain personal desires differ by culture, so this study helps us to determine when those variations emerge,” said first author Nadia Chernyak, a graduate student in the field of human development. “We can understand which ideas are universal and how culture influences individual ways of thinking.”

Led by Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor in the College of Human Ecology, the research team interviewed children in the two countries to understand their beliefs on free choice and the physical, mental and social factors that limit choice.

Co-author Katie Sullivan ’11, a human development major with a minor in global health, aided the project while studying abroad in 2009 through the Cornell Nepal Study Program – a joint venture with Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. Sullivan took courses, learned the language and immersed herself in the culture before working with Chernyak and Kushnir to adapt their survey into a culturally appropriate version for Nepalese children. Partnering with Rabindra Parajuli, a Nepali research assistant, she worked with village and school leaders to arrange and conduct interviews with children.

Researchers read a series of nine vignettes to 45 Nepalese and 31 American children – hailing from urban and rural areas and ranging in age from 4 to 11 – about characters who wanted to defy various physical, mental and social constraints, asking kids whether the characters are free to follow their wishes and to predict if they will do so.

Nearly all children, across ages and cultures, said the characters could freely choose when no constraints were evident – opting for juice or milk at a meal or whether to draw with a pen or pencil, for example. The children also universally agreed that one is not free to choose to go beyond one’s physical and mental abilities – opting to float in the air or to surpass the limits of one’s knowledge and skill.

Developmental and cultural differences emerged, however, in children’s evaluation of choice in the face of social constraints. Younger children in both cultures said that various social and moral obligations limit both choice and action – that one cannot be mean to others, act selfishly or break rules and social conventions, for instance. But by age 10, American children tended to view these obligations as choices – free to be followed or disregarded based on personal desires. Nepalese children continued to believe that such constraints override individual preference.

“As children become more exposed to their own culture and adult behaviors, they are more likely to adopt their culture’s ways of thinking,” Chernyak said. Chernyak said also that future research could try to define what contributes to these differing views.

Qi Wang, professor of human development, is a co-author on the study, which was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation Causal Learning Collaborative Initiative. The work was also supported by a Cornell Cognitive Science Dissertation Fellowship awarded to Chernyak.

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

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle March 21, 2013


Young children are not like sponges just soaking up information. They can actively evaluate what people know and go to the "experts" for information they want, reports a Cornell study published in a special issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 49:3).

Children, the researchers say, are "natural scientists" who gather and assess evidence from the world around them.

"As adults we rely on experts to help us fill in the gaps in our knowledge -- that is, we appreciate that there is a 'division of cognitive labor' in which different people know different things," said Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development and director of the College of Human Ecology's Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory. "Our research suggests that this appreciation for people's differing areas of expertise is based in our early, intuitive 'theory of mind' abilities -- a set of beliefs that begins to form while children are still very young."

To shed light on how children's understanding of cause and effect is influenced by information from other people, 3- and 4-year-old children were shown a short puppet show. One puppet (the "labeler") tried but failed to fix two broken toys, but demonstrated that he knew the names of the tools he used. The other (the "fixer") was able to fix the toys, but didn't know the names of the tools he used. In a series of follow-up questions, children were prompted to choose a puppet to ask for either the names of unfamiliar objects, the functions of unfamiliar tools or for help to fix a few more broken toys.

The researchers found that most of the preschoolers asked the fixer for help with fixing new broken toys. Moreover, they directed their requests selectively and appropriately. They did not ask the fixer to learn object names (for that they asked the labeler) or to learn new tool functions (for that they asked both puppets equally).

In a second experiment, children watched a short video of two adults -- one who fixed toys and one who failed to fix toys. Later, each adult provided explanations for a set of mechanical failures (for example, saying that the toy was broken "because the motor had stopped moving"). Each adult also made claims to know the names of some unfamiliar objects. The children overwhelmingly endorsed the fixer's explanations for why the toy didn't work. Once again, their endorsements were selective; they did not prefer to learn new words from the fixer.

The results suggest that preschoolers can infer what a person might know from watching what they do and use this to choose whom to learn from, the authors said. Across both studies, the children selectively judged the fixers to be reliable sources of information about cause and effect, but not about language (i.e., words) or other common conventions (i.e., tool functions). In other words, the children correctly evaluated the fixer's causal expertise.

"Good educators often struggle to teach a healthy dose of skepticism about unreliable sources, particularly when so much information is readily available electronically," said Kushnir. "Our study and others like it suggest that young children are not entirely credulous. Perhaps there are ways to take advantage of these intuitions as part of early childhood education."

Kushnir co-authored the paper, "'Who can help me fix this toy?' The Distinction Between Causal Knowledge and Word Knowledge Guides Preschoolers' Selective Requests for Information," with graduate student Christopher Vredenburgh and Lauren A. Schneider '11. The study is part of a larger National Science Foundation-funded study on causal learning and was also supported in part by the Leopold Schepp Foundation and the Institute for the Social Sciences at Cornell.

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

By Sarah Cutler
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 7, 2012

Tommy Rucker '13 and graduate student Nadia Chernyak, both research team members of the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory, work with Ruby Yantorno-France, 3, at the Sciencenter in Ithaca Nov. 1.
- Linsay France, University Photography

"Doggy feels sad today," Nadia Chernyak, a Cornell graduate student, recently said as she showed a dog puppet to several children at the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum in Ithaca. Chernyak '08, M.A. '09, was conducting an experiment with the children and had given them colorful stickers, which they presumably wanted to keep.

The kids -- between 2 and 4 years old -- could cheer up the puppet only by giving him a sticker. Some faced what Chernyak called an "easy choice": either share their sticker with the puppet or hand it to Chernyak, who would throw it away. Others had a tougher decision: keep the sticker for themselves or share it with the puppet. After making their decisions, the children received three more stickers and the choice to share some with a different toy, "Ellie," a stuffed elephant.

Chernyak found that most children shared their stickers with Doggy, and the ones who made difficult choices in the first stage were more willing to share a second time with Ellie. Her findings, part of her dissertation on children's moral development, suggest that kids may learn empathy in part by making difficult autonomous choices.

Chernyak's investigation is contributing to a larger study overseen by Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development and director of the College of Human Ecology's Early Childhood Cognition (ECC) Laboratory, which is investigating how young children develop a concept of choice and its influence on their behaviors and perceptions.

Through a novel partnership begun last February, undergraduate and graduate students in Kushnir's lab have conducted experiments with more than 500 children at the Sciencenter. The collaboration began after Kushnir, Michelle Kortenaar, Sciencenter director of education, and Charles Trautmann, the center's executive director and Cornell adjunct associate professor of engineering, explored a mutual interest in involving young children in research and creating more evidence-based programs at the museum focused on learning in early childhood.

"It's viewed as a benefit to our guests to have their kids take part in this research," Trautmann said.

The ECC lab's work at the Sciencenter has helped researchers share their findings, said Kushnir, who also examines how toddlers and preschoolers understand cause and effect.

"Parents are watching as you play with the kids, and they'll ask, 'What happened there?' and a researcher will explain it to them. Our researchers are disseminating directly to parents," she said. "So science gets done, museums get support, research gets support and students get trained."

The Sciencenter has shown its visitors "what research looks like," Kortenaar said, and Cornell graduate students have made two presentations on their study findings.

She also noted that parents and caretakers have largely been enthusiastic about involving their children in the experiments.

An exhibit based on the ECC lab's work and a plan to expand the partnership to include teaching along with research are under discussion. Kushnir added a service-learning component to her senior seminar to create interactive tools for young children and their parents to use the museum to learn about science in an age-appropriate way.

This partnership is part of a larger national trend encouraging informal childhood learning, Kushnir said: "We're part of a large group of museums and labs doing this kind of thing; it's happening in San Francisco, New York, Minnesota, Chicago -- every major urban center -- and tiny little Ithaca. As long as I'm around, this isn't going anywhere."

Sarah Cutler '16 is a student communications assistant for the College of Human Ecology.

Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 15, 2013


Stephen J. Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the College of Human Ecology, will receive the 2013 Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development Award, April 19 in Seattle from the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), the largest organization of developmental psychologists in the world, the organization announced this week.

Ceci is the author or co-author of more than 400 academic publications, and, according to the society, one of the most cited developmental psychologists -- 35 of his articles and books have been cited more than 100 times each. All told, his work has been cited about 17,000 times, according to Google Scholar, with an H index of 55 (meaning that 55 of his articles have each been cited at least 55 times).

In the award nomination, Ceci's seminal scientific contributions were noted in the areas of everyday intelligence (with the late Cornell Professors Urie Bronfenbrenner and Ulric Neisser), sex differences in mathematical ability (with Cornell Professor Wendy M. Williams) and the reliability of child witnesses (with Maggie Bruck of Johns Hopkins University).

"His work on children's testimony is among the highest impact in psychology, having been cited in every level of judicial reasoning all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 ruling in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which the Court reversed a lower court's death penalty verdict," says the SRCD. His research has been published in the leading developmental psychology journals as well as in the highly esteemed general journals in psychology, the award selections committee added.

The SRCD also noted that Ceci's work on the role of schooling in intelligence (Ceci, 1991, Developmental Psychology), cited around 600 times, according to Google Scholar, and his groundbreaking study of racetrack handicappers' intelligence (JEP:General, 1986), cited around 200 times, have been instrumental in shifting psychometrics from its reliance on theories of general intelligence toward a contextualist theory of everyday intelligence. This a view has become current among researchers even though it was not 25 years ago when Ceci's research began to challenge it by showing how cognitive performance is altered as a function of non-cognitive variables.

Ceci came to Cornell in 1980 and has since received lifetime distinguished scientist awards from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Psychological Science.

"We have run out of lifetime awards to recognize Steve's genius, which is a problem because he continues to do groundbreaking work," said Frank H. Farley, past president of APA and one of Ceci's nominators.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 6, 2012


 Children often use language differently than adults when referring to a person or thing, which can result in misleading testimony, according to a new Cornell study.

"This is the first study to examine developmental differences in referential language ability as a factor in children's ability to provide accurate testimony," said Stephen Ceci, professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He co-authored the study, which appears in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (33:4), with lead author David Battin, Ph.D. '04, assistant professor at SUNY Institute of Technology, and Barbara Lust, professor of human development, also in the College of Human Ecology.

For the study, 63 children from 3 to 10 years old were shown a four-minute video in which a woman knocked down a stack of empty cans after being asked not to. The researchers compared the ability of the younger children (3-5 years old) with older children (6-10 years old) to explain who did it.

Children as old as 10 used words such as "a," "the" and "they" to refer to the woman. Small changes in the use of these words have big consequences in terms of meaning, including number and specificity, which is critical for legal testimony, the researchers said. Furthermore, the younger children were often incapable of correcting their misleading statements during follow-up questioning, because they don't understand what information listeners need for clarity. Overall, 13 percent of the younger children and 63 percent of the older children provided the information necessary for accurate identification of the wrong-doer.

"We found children lead adult conversational partners astray by using the definite article ['the'] to introduce a new person or a thing when they should have used the indefinite article ['a']," said Battin. "But, the big surprise in this research was the very high rate at which both younger and older children initially used the plural pronoun 'they' to refer to the person who committed the highly salient and disallowed act of knocking the cans down," he said.

Ceci, who has consulted for law enforcement and the legal system for several decades, elaborated: "When police interview young children in a suspected day care abuse investigation, they can be seriously misled when child after child keeps referring to the suspected perpetrator as 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she.' It can lead to the pursuit of multiple perpetrators when the actual situation had only one."

This research was funded by the Cornell Cognitive Studies Program.

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

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 7, 2012



Boys who reach sexual maturity more rapidly than their peers have more problems getting along with others their age and are at a higher risk for depression, according to a Cornell study published in Developmental Psychology (47:2).

"The dramatic physical changes of puberty are paralleled by equally dramatic social and emotional changes because boys are transitioning into the new roles and expectations that go along with biological maturity," said lead author Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. Co-authors include K. Paige Harden, University of Texas at Austin; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University; and Julia Graber, University of Florida.

These changes mean big adjustments not only for the individual but also for their family and social network, she said. "In cases of rapid pubertal tempo, boys may progress through puberty at a rate that is faster than the social environment can feasibly respond."

During adolescence when friendships with peers are becoming increasingly important, it may be especially difficult for rapidly maturing adolescent boys to maintain friendships with their peers who aren't developing at a comparable rate, the researchers said. Problems getting along with others their age heighten the risk for depression and future mental health problems, they said.

Although there have been many studies on the timing of puberty, Mendle and colleagues were the first to research the effects of its tempo, beginning with a study published in 2010 that found a link between pubertal tempo and depression in boys. There was no association between the tempo of puberty and depression in girls, although the study replicated the well-established finding that an earlier timing of puberty in girls was associated with depression. The study also found that early pubertal timing in boys was associated with increased depression, though the effect of timing in boys was significantly smaller than the effect of tempo.

"These findings were an important step," Mendle said, "since virtually all of the puberty research to date has been conducted on girls. Very little is known about the role puberty plays in emotional health for boys, and virtually no research had been conducted on individual differences in puberty other than timing."

The current study looks at the potential mechanisms for the links they found between pubertal tempo and depression in boys, using a sample of 128 boys between ages 8 and 12 from the New York City metropolitan area. The parents and children in the study completed annual assessments measuring the child's level of physical development, depressive symptoms and quality of peer relationships over the course of four years.

Mendle and colleagues found that while most boys experienced fewer friendship problems over the transition from childhood to early adolescence, the early maturing and the rapidly maturing boys experienced more friendship problems over time. Those with the greatest increases in friendship problems had the greatest increases in depressive symptoms. Their analysis indicated that the link between maturation and depression was due to the changes in peer relationships.

When asked about the implications of her research for parents and people working with youth, Mendle replied, "Probably the biggest advice I can give is that puberty is a highly individualized process, and the way an adolescent appears externally is no indicator of cognitive or emotional maturity."

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 16, 2012

Big Red Buddies volunteer, Michael Verini

Michael Verini '14 works with children at the Cornell Child Care Center as part of the Big Red Buddies program. Photo by Mark Vorreuter

Not everyone gets to be a prince for an afternoon, but Emilie Stewart '14 did as a volunteer for Big Red Buddies. The new program places Cornell students at the Cornell Child Care Center to read to and play with the children -- and to learn and be inspired.

Stewart, a human development major in the College of Human Ecology, explained that one afternoon when she came in, the children did not want story time. Instead they headed for the dress-up corner. "I spent my entire afternoon pretending to be a prince and chasing the kids around on my imaginary horse," she said. "The spirit and enthusiasm of these children reminded me of the importance of doing things just because they bring you happiness."

Someday, she said, "the firsthand experiences that I have had with children during their educational process will enable me to better develop early childhood programs within low-income communities."

Human development major Monique Hall '14 volunteers with infants, which provides her with a close-up view of child development. "I saw one of the babies go from just being able to lie on her back to being able to roll over and sit up on her own. Another went from babbling to saying words. Others begin to walk and feed themselves," she said. "It's just so amazing to watch them grow."

The program was started last semester by Elizabeth Stilwell, lecturer and teaching liaison in the Department of Human Development. She got the idea for the program from students who observe children at the center to fulfill course requirements. "Observing was interesting, but these students wanted to spend time interacting with children," Stilwell said.

The center's director, Patty Sinclair, welcomed the idea. Stilwell and the center's leaders set about building the program. With funding from the Department of Human Development's undergraduate education committee, Stilwell hired a student coordinator, Michael Verini '14, a human development major who not only volunteers at the center but also recruits, trains and schedules the other student volunteers.

This past fall, the program had about 35 students spending one to two hours per week with children. "Because of the large number of applicants, we plan on expanding to 50 volunteers this spring," said Verini. "Ultimately, we hope to extend Big Red Buddies to include off-campus, community-based child care programs to increase the diversity of settings."

The program offers a way to thank the center for the undergraduate education and research opportunities that it provides to the College of Human Ecology, Stilwell noted.

While the students benefit from the play time, the children do too, Sinclair said.

"Whether the students are comforting a sleepy baby, helping a toddler express herself or reading a preschool child his favorite book, they are making a big impact in these young children's lives."

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



By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 31, 2011

Chronic stress in childhood can hurt children and teens physically, mentally and emotionally. However, having a sensitive, responsive mother can reduce at least one of these harmful effects, reports a new Cornell study. It shows that such moms can help buffer the effects of chronic stress on teens' working memories.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology (23), sheds light on why some children are surprisingly resilient and seemingly unharmed despite growing up in difficult, high-stress situations. It was authored by Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D. '10, assistant professor of psychology at Boston University, and environmental psychologist Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis and of human development in the College of Human Ecology.

Earlier research by Evans showed that the chronic high stress of children living in poverty was linked to working memory deficits in young adults. Working memory -- the ability to temporarily hold information in mind -- is critical for tasks like learning and problem-solving, he said.

The new study used longitudinal data on children and families in rural upstate New York when the children were about 9, 13 and 17 years old. More than half of the families were low-income. Wave 1 included 1,342 children, wave 2 involved 195 and wave 3 involved 214. Allostatic load -- a measure of stress-induced changes in neuroendocrine hormonal systems, cardiovascular responses and metabolism that indicate the severity of wear and tear that cumulative strain puts on organs and tissues -- was assessed in the 9- and 13-year-olds. Maternal responsiveness was measured when the children were 13 years of age, by rating during games such maternal behaviors as cooperation, helping and adaptability to their child's mood and abilities, and by their children's perception of how much their mothers helped with homework, were willingness to talk when needed, spent time doing enjoyable things with the child or knowing where the child was after school. Children's working memory was assessed when they were 17.

The study confirmed that low-income children with higher levels of allostatic load tended to have worse working memory -- but only when maternal responsiveness was medium to low.

"Although high chronic stress in childhood appears to be problematic for working memory among young adults, if during the childhood period you had a more responsive, sensitive parent, you have some protection," Evans said.

Next, the researchers plan to determine whether allostatic load has direct effects on brain areas associated with working memory and to explore whether maternal responsiveness buffers some of the effects of chronic stress via better self-regulation/coping strategies in their children or by influencing levels of stress hormone, for example.

Evans noted that the study underscores the potential for interventions to break the poverty-stress-working memory link, which may be one pathway by which children growing up in poverty fall behind in school. The authors also emphasize, however, that parenting is not sufficient or even the best way to overcome the adverse consequences of childhood poverty. The impacts of poverty, they said, far outweigh the protective effects of maternal responsiveness. Ultimately poverty must be dealt with by more equitable and generous sharing of resources throughout society.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Gary Evans

By Karene Booker

Anna Zhu practices teaching an experimental curriculum

Nine undergraduate students from the College of Human Ecology serving as extension interns spent their summer engaged in everything from teaching teens how to make better decisions to playing games with toddlers in order to answer key child development questions. Four of the internships were led by faculty in the department of human development.

The interns worked with faculty and community collaborators, particularly Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) associations, on creative projects that embody the college’s research, education and outreach missions and benefit communities throughout New York State. “CCE internships provide excellent opportunities for undergraduate students to learn first-hand about the ways research, education, and outreach complement each other,” said Jennifer Tiffany, associate director for extension and outreach in the College of Human Ecology.

Distenfeld poster

Shelby Distenfeld's presentation poster

Human development major Shelby Distenfeld ’13, traveled to Tioga and Seneca counties to recruit rural and low-income children for a study about how factors such as income and parenting influence children’s concept of choice. The project, under the direction of Tamar Kushnir, assistant professor of human development, “was very rewarding because I was able to play a role in many aspects of research from administrative duties and participant recruitment to collecting data,” Distenfeld said. “The opportunity to work with the mothers and children and see first-hand the differences in development among the children was eye opening.”

“An important lesson I learned is how research is actually conducted and how to successfully run a research project,” said Hemavattie Ramtahal ‘13. As a human development major, she dedicated her summer to investigating the relationship between poverty, emotion, and cognitive development in young children with Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development. Ramtahal worked in Tompkins, Cortland, and Yates counties recruiting families for the study, conducted the experimental tasks or “baby games” with the children, trained other research assistants and analyzed data.

“My burning curiosity about risky decision making started in high school,” said Anna Zhu ’14.  She wondered why teens make bad choices that jeopardize their health, future, or lives, and how to help them. A Human Biology, Health & Society major, she tackled these questions as part of her internship with Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. Zhu taught the experimental risk reduction curriculum in CCE’s 4-H Career Exploration program, prepared data for analysis, and worked with local partners and extension staff in New York City and Broome counties to administer follow-up surveys. “From this experience,” she said “I’ve already gained valuable skills in teaching, statistical analysis, and social science research – tools I expect to use in my career in public health.”

Sarah Dephtereos ’13 spent her summer exploring how 4-H educators use research. A policy analysis and management major, she worked with Steve Hamilton, human development professor and associate director for youth development at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, to review the literature on research utilization and draft a guide to youth development websites for 4-H educators. Her review identified common problems practitioners experience with accessing research. “I saw these issues reflected in the youth development websites I assessed,” Dephtereos said.”

Other extension internships in the college included teaching new immigrants ways to maintain a healthy diet, creating gardens at low-income schools, developing a high tech fabric class for girls, piloting nutrition and parenting education program, and researching child custody decisions in low-income families.

Information for faculty about applying for the 2012 CCE internship program will be available in December.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the department of human development.

Related websites:
Jennifer Tiffany:
CCE Summer Internship Program


By Karene Booker

Graduate student Yoo Mee Lee works in the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab with Professor Barbara Lust on research results of how multilingualism affects children.

When young children learn a second language, it strengthens their ability to pay attention to the right stuff, reports a new Cornell study.

"Our study showed that bilingualism in young children strengthens what is known as executive attention, which helps orient individuals in the sea of information coming in," said Sujin Yang, Ph.D. '07, lead author and now a professor at Tyndale University College in Canada. "It helps them know what to pay attention to, what to ignore and what action to take."

The study, co-authored by Barbara Lust, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, and Hwajin Yang of Singapore Management University, is published in the July issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.

"We were able to begin to separate out the effects of bilingualism from the effects of culture, which other studies had not done," noted Lust. "Culture strongly influences parenting and child development. Emphasis on behavioral control and inhibition at an early age -- a feature more often found in East Asian cultures - has been linked to improved attention in children. Western cultures, by contrast, tend to emphasize individuality and self expression."

In their study of 56 4-year-olds with college-educated parents living in middle-class neighborhoods, the researchers compared native English-only speaking U.S. children, bilingual children in the United States, Korean-only speaking children in the United States and Korean-only speaking children in Korea. The Korean and Korean-English speaking children from the United States had first generation native Korean parents; the bilingual children had about 11 months of formal exposure to English through a bilingual daycare program.

The study reports that a child's version of a computer-game test that is designed to assess various components of executive attention showed that the Korean-English bilingual children were significantly faster and more accurate compared with the other three groups. The researchers also found that the Korean-speaking children in Korea were more accurate than the Korean-only and English-only speaking children in the United States, indicating a sizable effect of culture. This accuracy, however, was accompanied by slower response times.

Their results suggest not only that bilingualism is good for executive attention, but also that executive attention develops quite early in both cognitive development and in the process of gaining a second language.

"If executive attention is improved by bilingualism, then we should be able to detect and perhaps enhance improvements in academic skills. Ultimately, we want to understand how bilingualism is creating the advanced executive attention," Lust said. "Understanding this could potentially lead to other interventions to facilitate the development of this essential capacity."

The work was supported by the College of Human Ecology and Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in human development.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Department of Human Development
Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory
Virtual Center for Language Acquisition
Barbara Lust
Sinhala Language at Cornell