Tag Archives: cognitive development

The Cornell Chronicle, August 1, 2017.

By Stephen D'Angelo

Cornell researchers are working with Head Start Centers and day schools in New York City on early-intervention work to promote development of spatial skills and language acquisition in preschoolers.

Marianella Casasola

Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development and a faculty fellow of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, said studies show those with better spatial skills are more likely to flourish in STEM fields.

“Working with children at Head Start in Harlem and through a partnership with the Audrey Johnson Day Care Learning Center in Brooklyn allows us to focus on families from a variety of demographics and backgrounds, and to target research on environmental factors within populations of various socioeconomic status,” Casasola said.

Casasola is examining the benefits of constructive play – using blocks, puzzles and shapes – and how language through narration of activities affects cognitive development and spatial skills. She hopes her research findings will inform early-education programs and lead to creation of ideal environments to develop children’s cognitive skills, no matter their demographic background.

“Our goal is to not only understand how early spatial and language skills develop, but also how best to promote their development both at home and in the classroom,” she said. “Designed for preschoolers from low-income families, these programs would be constructed to establish environments for the early development of these skills and promote parent interaction within day-to-day activities, such as counting, simple math and reading.”

Casasola and her team of students are collaborating with the Clinical and Translational Science Center at Weill Cornell Medicine to discover effective approaches to translate such findings for families. She and her students design and host monthly parent training workshops at Brooklyn’s Audrey Johnson day school.

“Children who both interacted and were narrated to saw at least a 30 percent increase in spatial gains over the group that still interacted with the same sorts of activities and games, but did not have language incorporated into their play by an adult,” she said. “Both groups improved, but those who heard items being labeled and actions described showed significantly greater gains.”

The hope is to integrate such development practices into the busyness of day-to-day life and positively impact a child’s language and learning development.

“Many people are surprised to hear that talking to infants really matters,” Casasola said. “The simple message is, remember to talk to your child. And have fun even for only a few minutes of play.”

Charles Brainerd

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, March 8, 2017.

By Stephen D'Angelo

Charles Brainerd, professor and chair of the Department of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology, and 13 other scholars nationwide have been elected the newest members of the National Academy of Education (NAEd) for their scholarly contributions in the field of education research.

NAEd advances high-quality education research and its use in policy and practice. It consists of 209 U.S. members and 11 foreign associates who are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship related to education.

“It was not something that I anticipated and came as a surprise,” Brainerd said. “For me, this is another indicator of the international stature of the human development department.”

Brainerd joins fellow Cornell NAEd members Stephen Ceci, Ronald Ehrenberg, Robert Sternberg and Kenneth Strike.

Brainerd has published more than 300 research articles and chapters and more than 20 books. His research covers human memory and decision-making, statistics and mathematical modeling, cognitive neuroscience, learning, intelligence, cognitive development, learning disability and child abuse.

Within the field, Brainerd’s research is known for having had deep impacts on educational, developmental and cognitive psychology, and he is credited with major breakthroughs across both his theoretical and empirical contributions.

His current research centers on the relation between memory and higher reasoning abilities in children and adults, also focusing on false-memory phenomena, cognitive neuroscience, aging and neurocognitive impairment.

Academy members are tapped to serve on expert study panels and are also engaged in NAEd’s professional development programs, including postdoctoral and dissertation fellowship programs.

“It’s an opportunity to serve,” said Brainerd. “The national academy forms committees and study groups of leading scholars to work on important issues in higher education – important and prominent questions of the day – and provides advice and leadership on those questions.”

Stephen D'Angelo is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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.

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

Kushnir

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.

Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 15, 2012

Reyna

Professor Valerie Reyna said that teens take dangerous risks because they believe "it's worth the risk" for the perceived awards, speaking on March 13 to New York City media.

Teenagers take risks that might give most adults pause -- speeding through a red light, binge drinking or having unprotected sex.

Contrary to popular belief, such behaviors are often not impulsive and don't occur because teens think they're invulnerable. Instead, says Cornell human development professor Valerie Reyna, her research shows that adolescents are aware of the potential dangers of their actions, but make calculated choices to "play the odds" because they believe "it's worth the risk" for the perceived rewards.

Sharing the latest evidence on adolescent brain development, Reyna punctured this and other myths for reporters at an Inside Cornell media luncheon March 13 at Cornell's ILR Conference Center in New York City.

Reyna's studies have revealed that adolescents tend to reason and assess risk via "verbatim-based analysis" -- where the mind focuses on precise details and facts and runs a complex comparison of the costs and benefits of a decision. Adults, on the other hand, more often use "gist-based intuition" to immediately understand the bottom-line dangers inherent in an action. Teen drivers may be inclined to race to beat a train, knowing there's a high probability they'll make it; adults would automatically sense that's a bad idea, realizing that it could be deadly.

"The calculation that teens make may be technically correct, but it ignores the categorical possibility of disaster," said Reyna of the College of Human Ecology. "If people are weighing the odds in potentially catastrophic situations, they're already on the wrong track."

To help vulnerable youths make smarter choices about sexual activity, nutrition and fitness, Reyna and Cornell Cooperative Extension partners are applying her research in a new extension-funded risk reduction project. Working with 189 youth ages 14-19 in Broome County, Ithaca, Queens, Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, extension educators are teaching a gist-enhanced version of the Reducing the Risk curriculum identified as effective by the Centers for Disease Control.

Reyna developed two interventions -- one to reduce risk of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy and another to promote healthy eating and physical activity -- that teach teens how to apply gist thinking when temptation strikes. Through 14 one-hour lessons, students learn to quickly and automatically recognize hazardous situations and how to reflexively recall and apply their core values to sidestep such dangers.

"Even teens with strongly held values do not always retrieve those values when they need them," Reyna said. "They retrieve them later -- that's called regret. In risky situations, teens need to respond the way troops in battle do to gunfire: Don't reflect, just react and follow your values to get through."

"The students really responded to [the approach] and said how they had learned many of these things in health class but not in this way," said Eduardo Gonzalez Jr., a Cornell University Cooperative Extension-New York City (CUCE-NYC) educator who has taught the curriculum and who also attended the media session two other CUCE-NYC educators.

Initial findings support Gonzalez's impressions: Compared with control groups, students educated about gist principles were more likely to limit their sexual intentions and behaviors and number of partners, Reyna said.

Reyna also spoke about "The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning and Decision Making," a new book she edited that collects research from neuroscientists, educators and psychologists on how the teen mind develops.

The stakes, she said, are incredibly high when it comes to risky decision-making by teens. A wrong choice could lead to death or destroyed potential.

"But teens are not fated to negative outcomes from risky behaviors," she said. "We can give them strategies to avoid risk and turn around their life trajectories."

View the video of Reyna's Inside Cornell presentation

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

By Susan Kelley
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, January 30, 2012

Evans

Evans

The more ongoing stress children are exposed to, the greater the odds they will become obese by adolescence, reports Cornell environmental psychologist Gary Evans in the journal Pediatrics (129:1).

Nine-year-old children who were chronically exposed to such stressors as poverty, crowded housing and family turmoil gain more weight and were significantly heavier by age 13 than they would have been otherwise, the study found. The reason, Evans and his co-authors suggest, is that ongoing stress makes it tougher for children to control their behavior and emotions -- or self-regulate. That, in turn, can lead to obesity by their teen years.

"These children are heavier, and they gain weight faster as they grow up. A very good predictor of adults' ability to follow healthy habits is their ability to self-regulate. It seems reasonable that the origins of that are probably in childhood. This [research] is starting to lay that out," said Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

Evans conducted the study with former students Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, now a Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stacey Doan, Ph.D. '10, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston University.

The researchers measured the height and weight of 244 9-year-olds in rural New York state and calculated their various physical and psycho-social stressors -- for example, exposure to violence, living in a substandard house or having no access to such resources as books. They also measured the children's ability to delay gratification by offering them a choice between waiting for a large plate of candy versus having a medium plate immediately. The researchers measured the children's height and weight again four years later.

While the study doesn't prove that a child's inability to delay gratification causes her to gain weight, there's strong evidence to suggest that it does, Evans said. First, previous studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to weight gain in children and teenagers, and that children eat more sugary, fatty foods when stressed.

Second, there's a plausible neurocognitive mechanism that may help better understand this behavior, Evans said. "There's some evidence that parts of the brain that are vulnerable and sensitive to stress, particularly early in life, are some of the same parts involved in this self-regulatory behavior."

The study has implications for education policies such as No Child Left Behind that emphasize testing cognitive abilities but ignore children's ability to control their behavior and emotions, Evans said.

"A child's ability to self-regulate is not just predictive of things like whether you're going to have trouble with weight -- it predicts grades, graduating from high school. A 4-year-old's ability to self-regulate even predicts SAT scores. This is a very powerful phenomenon," he said.

The findings also have implications for interventions and policies aimed at reducing individual stressors. "If it's the cumulative impact of stress on these families that is important, that means an intervention that only looks at one stressor -- say, just drug abuse, which is how most interventions are designed -- is doomed to fail," Evans concluded.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation, Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

 

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