In This Issue


Race and Ethnicity

In the United States, children from different racial and ethnic groups tend to get different results on tests of school readiness and academic outcomes, creating racial-ethnic achievement gaps that begin early and last through all levels of school. McKown (p. 1120) proposes Social Equity Theory, which says that racial-ethnic achievement gaps come from two kinds of social processes—direct influences (social processes that support achievement) and signal influences (cues that communicate negative expectations about a child's racial-ethnic group)—that operate across key developmental contexts. These two influences combine to create racial-ethnic achievement gaps that vary by setting and age. The theory can inform interventions to reduce the achievement gap.

Adolescents living in diverse, urban areas come into contact with people of their own and different races daily. Yip, Douglass, and Shelton (p. 1425) asked how these interactions influence how about 130 Asian youths (mean age of 14, primarily from a mix of working- and middle-class families) feel about their own ethnic group and whether the racial composition of their school makes a difference in terms of their feelings about their own ethnic group (some students went to primarily Asian schools, some attended predominantly White schools, and some went to racially mixed schools). Findings: When Asian adolescents were in the numerical minority in their school, contact with other Asian people was associated with feeling better about one's ethnic heritage, particularly for those teens with a strong ethnic identity; this feeling carried over to the next day. The findings can help us develop a richer and more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity and race in adolescents' daily lives.

Perspectives on Parenting

Intrusive parenting is negatively related to children's personality resiliency through its negative effects on children's ability to regulate attention and behavior. That's what Taylor, Eisenberg, Spinrad, and Widaman (p. 1145) find in their longitudinal study of relationships between parenting behaviors and early temperamental traits. They looked at more than 250 mostly White, middle-class families when children were 18, 30, and 42 months old. At 18 months, intrusive parenting was negatively associated with children's adaptability to environmental stress and change, while the ability to focus and shift attention was positively associated with this type of adaptability, both concurrently and across time. The findings suggest that interventions that focus on reducing negative parental behaviors may affect not only children's regulatory abilities but also their skills at adapting to stressful situations.

Regardless of parents' sexual orientation, adopted children's outcomes are linked to how well parents work together. That's what Farr and Patterson (p. 1226) find in their examination of associations between coparenting and children's behavior among about 100 mostly White and well-educated adoptive families headed by lesbian, gay, or heterosexual couples with preschoolers. Lesbian and gay couples were likely to share child-care tasks, while heterosexual couples were likely to specialize, with more moms caring for the children than dads. This suggests that lesbian and gay couples are creating new ways to live together and raise children outside of traditional gender roles. The best predictors of children's behavior problems were competition between parents and dissatisfaction with how child care was divided—neither of which differed by parents' sexual orientation.

Considering Child Care

More hours in child care doesn't lead to more aggression and noncompliance in children, according to Zachrisson, Dearing, Lekhal, and Toppelberg (p. 1152), based on their study out of Norway, which has universal access to subsidized center care with regulated quality standards. This finding contrasts with U.S. findings, which have indicated that children who spend more time in child care have, on average, higher levels of aggression and noncompliance than children in little or no child care. One reason for this difference may be that Norway has a comprehensive early childhood policy that also includes a year of paid parental leave for the child's first year, so children in Norway start child care as toddlers, while many children in the United States enter child care as infants. The study followed 72,000 mothers and their children, including 8,000 sibling pairs, with a focus on mothers' reports of externalizing problems at 18 and 36 months, and on the hours children were in child care at the same time points; most children were in child care for 40 hours a week or less.

Many children spend numerous hours during preschool in child-care settings, and the quality of their care is believed to be an important factor in their development. Keys et al. (p. 1171) used data from four large studies (totaling 6,250 children) and meta-analysis techniques to predict the effects of quality of preschool center care on children's school readiness skills. Across a one- to two-school-year period, children who experienced higher quality preschool care showed modest gains in language and mathematics skills, but not in social skills and problem behaviors. This suggests that efforts to improve school readiness skills by boosting the quality of child care in the preschool years will have only modest success.

Most children in developed countries receive some form of child care during early childhood. Côté, Doyle, Petitclerc, and Timmins (p. 1191) examined the effect of child care on the cognitive outcomes of 13,000 children at ages 3, 5, and 7, using the British Millennium Cohort Study. Receiving any type of child care up to 9 months was associated with better cognitive outcomes at age 3, but only for children of mothers with low education; these effects did not persist to ages 5 or 7. Early center-based (or formal) child care was associated with better cognitive outcomes than informal care at ages 3 and 5 years, but not at 7. Furthermore, the impact of child care did not differ based on family income. The results suggest that social programs that provide child care to vulnerable populations should target low maternal education rather than low family income.

The effects of the quality of child care depend on a child's genetic makeup, according to a longitudinal study by Belsky and Pluess (p. 1209) that's the first to address this question. The study focused on two genetic markers in more than 500 White children who took part in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development and three different features of child care (quality, quantity, and type) to predict children's behavior problems and social competence from age 4 through sixth grade. Findings: Children who carried one version of a genotype had more behavior problems and less social competence when in low-quality care, and more social competence when in high-quality care, although the effects faded over time. The study suggests that failing to consider children's genetic makeup may lead to inaccurate estimates of the effects of child care because not all children are equally susceptible to, in this case, the benefits of high-quality care and the costs of low-quality care with respect to their social development.

Benefits of Role Models

Children who are raised in low-income homes often have poor health outcomes. In their study of about 160 youths (ages 13–16) from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, Chen, Lee, Cavey, and Ho (p. 1241) asked about role models, coping methods, and beliefs about the future, and took blood to assess inflammatory markers that predict cardiovascular disease. They find a biological benefit—less inflammation—for low-socioeconomic status youths who had supportive role models and also for those who engaged in adaptive coping like “shift-and-persist” strategies that reframe stressful events more positively. These strategies may begin to reduce the physiological burden of growing up in low-income neighborhoods.

Biases in Thinking: Traits and Gender

People's traits influence how young children learn from them, according to Lane, Wellman, and Gelman (p. 1253). They examined how people's traits—specifically their smartness, kindness, and honesty—affect how 3- to 6-year-olds seek information from people, trust their claims, and make judgments about those people's knowledge. They studied about 80 primarily White, middle-class children and two dozen adults to find that children (and adults) clearly tracked people's traits when learning from them, preferring to ask and endorse information provided by people who were nice, smart, and honest. And these traits influenced the knowledge that young children attributed to the informants. They find that even though young preschoolers understand what it means to be knowledgeable and ignorant, they inaccurately over-attribute knowledge to people who are nice, smart, and honest.

While preschoolers tend to act in highly gender-stereotypical ways (think girls dressing up as princesses), by age 5, they may begin to reject gender stereotypes and be more flexible in following gender norms. Most research in this area has been done with middle-income, ethnic-majority groups. In their longitudinal study, Halim, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, and Shrout (p. 1269) pursued the developmental course of gender-stereotypic behaviors in low-income, ethnic-minority children, asking whether change in children's gender-stereotypic behaviors is due to children's growing awareness of being a boy or girl and their accompanying active search for and acquisition of knowledge of gender stereotypes during this period. Almost 230 Mexican, Dominican, and African American children were examined annually. From ages 3 to 4, children increasingly played dress-up, dressed in feminine and masculine ways, and tended to have more same-gender friends. For certain behaviors, children acted in less gender-stereotypical ways at age 5, indicating movement toward flexibility, with timing and levels of behavior varying by ethnic group.

Forces of Nature

Can children predict cause–effect relations within events such as throwing Frisbees and blocking soccer balls? Göksun, George, Hirsh-Pasek, and Golinkoff (p. 1285) looked at whether preschool children understand the relation between forces and motion in causal events, specifically whether young children can integrate how two forces affect an object's movement. Their study of 60 primarily White middle-class children ages 3–5 finds that the children understood the forces in causal events only incompletely, with understanding of more complex relations developing around kindergarten age. By providing evidence about how preschoolers use force and motion to evaluate the causal relations they witness, the study suggests that children may not fully understand complex causal chains until later than previously thought.

Contextual Supports

Infants learn words best when their caregivers use the words in an ongoing activity with the infants and when caregivers gesture to the objects they're talking about. However, before they can speak, infants already communicate with gestures to direct attention to things they like or want. And the more infants gesture, the earlier they begin to speak. Salomo and Liszkowski (p. 1296) looked at the daily activities of about 50 infants (ages 8–15 months) in three settings—Yucatec Mayans in Mexico, Dutch in the Netherlands, and Mandarin-Chinese in Shanghai. They find that the infants were immersed in social activity related to various objects to varying degrees and received different amounts of gestures based on the culture they came from. Critically, the amount of gestures infants received correlated with their own production of such gestures. This supports the idea that infants' preverbal gestures, like later first words, emerge through social activities and the gestures directed to them.

Why can many preschoolers transition from playtime to quiet time without incident, but fail to shift from playing by one rule to using another in simple cognitive tests? Ramscar, Dye, Gustafson, and Klein (p. 1308) sought to learn why very young children seem capable of engaging in nuanced and context-appropriate behavior in certain situations but not others. In their study of almost fifty 3-year-olds from a range of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds, they find that when children are given the right contextual information, they can succeed in a test of cognitive control at which they would otherwise fail. This supports the idea that there are dual routes to smart, flexible behavior, and has theoretical implications both for how we conceptualize the developing mind and for how we can exploit the principles of learning theory to help children navigate tasks they might otherwise find difficult.

Speak Easy

Children's rate of speech gradually and steadily increases during the first two decades of life. Research on the factors that allow children to talk faster as they grow older is important for understanding normal speech development and how delays in physical growth, motor function, language, and cognition may impede it. Nip and Green (p. 1324) studied about 50 primarily White, middle-class children and adults ranging in age from 4 to 24 to learn about changes in speaking rates, using an innovative optical motion capture system to record mouth movements during speech. They find that increases in speaking rate as children age are driven primarily by faster language and cognitive processing rather than by factors related to physical maturation or growth. The findings can inform efforts to identify and treat children with speech delays and difficulties.

Teens: Peer Rejection and Acculturation

Even when teens avoid being the actual target of peer rejection and bullying, they're negatively affected by witnessing these behaviors. Masten, Eisenberger, Pfeifer, Colich, and Dapretto (p. 1338) studied sixteen 13-year-olds who watched peers playing a game in which one player was excluded; the participants, from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, also completed questionnaires to gauge how various changes in physical and emotional development related to brain activity while they watched. Teens who showed maturity in different aspects of physical and emotional development—those who had undergone more rapid development in puberty—had stronger activity in brain regions known to be associated with taking others' perspectives. Teens with more ability to empathize with others' distress showed stronger activity in brain regions involved in processing distress and pain. In suggesting that teens at different stages and rates of development respond differently to peer rejection, this study can inform parents and teachers in their efforts to reduce the negative impact of bullying.

Hispanic immigrants have been coming to the United States in large numbers since the 1980s, and studies suggest that acculturation can predispose adolescents toward aggressive or delinquent behavior, drug and alcohol use, and early and unsafe sexual activity. Schwartz et al. (p. 1355) took a longitudinal look at patterns of cultural adjustment over 2 years (between seventh and ninth grades) in about 270 Hispanic immigrants; the researchers also interviewed the youths' parents, most of whom were mothers and of low income. Adolescents who said they took part in many American behaviors and few Hispanic behaviors had the poorest family functioning in ninth grade. Most parents engaged in many Hispanic behaviors and few American behaviors. The discrepancy in reports of family functioning between adolescents and parents predicted adolescent cigarette smoking, sexual activity, and unprotected sex. The findings have implications for intervention efforts.

New Mothers' Sensitivity

How sensitive a new mother is to her baby's needs is critically important for both the baby's well-being and the new relationship the mother is building with her baby. From birth, the quality of the mother–baby relationship, or attachment, is thought to provide the foundation for the baby's emotional and relationship health throughout life. Ablow, Marks, Feldman, and Huffman (p. 1373) looked at more than 50 primarily European-American, middle-class women in the last trimester of their first pregnancies and when their babies were 9 months. They find that expectant women's state of mind in terms of attachment is associated with their physiological reactions to the sounds of crying babies: Soon-to-be moms with dismissive states of mind responded to crying babies in a way that suggests withdrawal or avoidant instincts, while women with autonomous states of mind tended to respond to the cries with a physiological pattern of approach instincts. The findings can inform intervention efforts to help new moms.

Visual Processing

Young infants face the challenge of learning in a complex and confusing world. In two experiments with about 40 infants from predominantly European, middle-class families, Addyman and Mareschal (p. 1137) show that 5-month-olds are sensitive to local redundancy in visual–temporal sequences—the lack of predictability in a sequence of stimuli that kept changing kept them looking. In demonstrating that babies are spontaneously aware of complexity and randomness in visual sequences, the study suggests that infants have basic attentional mechanisms that guide their learning.

Research has shown that individual differences in looking behavior can be identified in infancy and that these differences may be associated with efficiency of information processing. Infants who display brief visual fixations are labeled short lookers and are more likely to recognize a familiar stimulus than infants who display long visual fixations, labeled long lookers. In their study of about 20 primarily White, middle-class 6-month-olds, Guy, Reynolds, and Zhang (p. 1392) investigated the possibility that short and long lookers use different processing strategies and examined via electroencephalogram changes in brain activity associated with attention and memory. They find that short lookers attend to the global properties (overall configuration) of a stimulus, while long lookers attend to the local elements (smaller features) that compose the stimulus. This study replicates previous literature, but does so with brain-based measurement rather than behavioral data.

Being able to decode people's facial expressions is critical for social interaction. Between ages 5 and 12, significant changes occur in how the brain processes faces—for example, children become more accurate at identifying facial expressions of emotion—yet we don't know a lot about the mechanisms underlying these developmental changes. Birmingham et al. (p. 1407) used a new approach to examine the strategies used by about 130 Canadian children (ages 5–12) and young adults to selectively attend to different parts of the face and how these strategies change across development. Findings: At ages 11–12, children begin to look less often at the mouth and more at the eyes to understand others' mental states, and as they grow older, they look more at the left eye than the right, which allows them to make more sophisticated judgments about how facial expressions mirror emotions.

Sibling Dynamics

The social understanding known as theory of mind develops earlier in children with at least one sibling than in only children. That's the conclusion of McAlister and Peterson (p. 1442), who also find that having two or more siblings is even better. Their longitudinal study (of about 160 Australian ethnic-majority 3- to 5-year-olds from a variety of economic backgrounds) also finds that children with more siblings master executive function skills better than those with fewer or none. However, according to their research, while having siblings seems to positively influence the development of theory of mind, in the case of executive function, later developmental gains seem to be channeled at least partially through earlier theory of mind development. The results highlight the value of including assessment of sibling status in studies looking at the relation between theory of mind and executive function.

Children's experiences of causing harm to others may serve as key contexts for moral development. Recchia, Wainryb, and Pasupathi (p. 1459) examined about 100 middle-income children's and adolescents' open-ended accounts of harming their younger siblings and friends (children were 7, 11, and 16 and primarily White). They find that children's experiences harming their friends are distinct from their experiences harming siblings. Children described transgressions against friends as more unusual, unforeseeable, and circumstantial. Harm against siblings was said to occur when siblings engaged in obviously offensive behavior that was typical of the relationship. By contrasting children's accounts of hurting or upsetting their friends and siblings across a broad age range, the study provides insights into how youngsters' experiences with individuals of different ages contribute to their understanding of themselves, others, and relationships.

Summing Up

It's not how smart students are but how motivated they are and how they study that determines their growth in math achievement. That's what Murayama, Pekrun, Lichtenfeld, and vom Hofe (p. 1475) find in their examination of six annual waves of data from a German longitudinal study assessing math ability in 3,520 students in grades 5–10. Intelligence was strongly linked to students' math achievement, but only in the initial development of competence in the subject. Motivation and study skills turned out to be more important factors in terms of students' growth in math. Students who felt competent; were intrinsically motivated; used skills like summarizing, explaining, and making connections to other materials; and avoided rote learning showed more growth in math achievement than those who didn't. In contrast, after taking into account demographic characteristics, students' intelligence had no relation to growth in math achievement.

  • Anne Bridgman

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