In This Issue

Inside Child Care: Sedentary Children, Multiple Arrangements

The rate of obesity among children has surged in the United States, spurring national and federal groups to label it an urgent health priority. As the number of preschoolers in center-based programs swells, Brown et al. (p. 45) find that, contrary to conventional wisdom, these preschoolers are largely sedentary throughout their preschool day—even when playing outside. This comprehensive study raises numerous policy questions about the focus of child-care programs and offers suggestions about how educators can actively encourage more physical activity.

Morrissey (p. 59) considers childcare from another vantage point. In the United States, where more than 60% of children under age 5 are in child care, about 15% of young children attend two or more child-care arrangements each week. Using longitudinal data on middle-class 2- and 3-year-olds, the researcher shows that when children made regular transitions among child-care arrangements, they were slightly more aggressive and disruptive, more anxious and withdrawn, and less compliant and cooperative than when they were enrolled in one child-care program per week. Policies that increase the availability and affordability of full-time and night or weekend care may help reduce these problems.

Improving School Performance

Almost 60% of low-income American children are not proficient readers. In a detailed look at how to help children become better readers, Connor et al. (p. 77) find that precision matters: The more closely instruction is tailored to individual children’s needs, the more success they have in learning to read. The study, of first graders in U.S. schools, used a computer program to figure out students’ vocabulary and reading skills, then tailored content and amount of reading instruction to each student (changing the prescription with changes in students’ skills) and measured gains over a school year. The researchers conclude that individualizing instruction is both important and complex, involving ongoing monitoring, feedback, and adjustments.

Amsterlaw, Lagattuta, and Meltzoff (p. 115) consider school performance as well, using stories to determine how much American 5- to 7-year-olds understand the connections between how you feel and how you do in school. They also looked at whether children see that other factors (such as how much effort you make and the level of noise in a classroom) influence school performance. All the children predicted that negative emotional states such as feeling sad or hungry would cause poorer performance in school; they also recognized that levels of interest, effort, and classroom noise would affect performance. But only 7-year-olds understood, as do adults, that positive emotions could boost how they function. These findings may help children understand how to do better in school.

The Whole Truth

As preschoolers, most children learn to tell the difference between what is real and what is not—for example, they learn that horses are real and unicorns are fictional. How do children make these decisions? In a study involving real and fantasy animals, Tullos and Woolley (p. 101) show that between ages 4 and 6, children begin using clues or evidence to figure out whether something new is real or pretend. They also find that young children are better at evaluating evidence about whether a new object is real or not if they do not bring strong preconceived notions to bear on their judgments. The findings shed light on how children evaluate scientific evidence; they also show parents and teachers how to help children develop inferential skills by encouraging them to see evidence as both conclusive and inconclusive.

Nurmsoo and Robinson (p. 23) explore a related aspect of judging information. Much of what children know about the world comes from what other people tell them. Although it is good to learn from others’ experiences, when others make mistakes, there is a risk that what you learn might not be true. Therefore, children need to develop ways to figure out whether what they are told is or is not true. Using puppets, this study examined how 3- to 5-year-olds judge speakers’ accuracy. The researchers found that children can make a nuanced distinction between the reliability of speakers who convey incorrect information, depending on the reasons for the misinformation.

Early Language Ability

What abilities contribute to the development of language? Much research is being done on how children break into the system of language by learning its different building blocks—word categories such as nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Using a new automated technique, Booth and Waxman (p. 15) sought to determine when English-speaking children start to link different types of words to different types of meaning. They find that 14- and 18-month-olds are able to map nouns to categories (e.g., horses) but unable to map adjectives to properties (e.g., purple). This provides new evidence that children show an understanding of the abstract difference between nouns and adjectives remarkably early, just after their first birthdays. The new technique also offers rich opportunities for studying the timing involved in learning words.

Rose, Feldman, and Jankowski (p. 134) focus on other capacities, asking whether basic cognitive abilities that are not specifically related to language, such as memory and attention, play a role in the development of language ability. To understand the link between how infants process information and how they develop language, they studied premature and full-term infants at age 1 and then again at age 3. Infants who had better memory and were better at thinking abstractly had better language abilities earlier in their lives and better growth of language between ages 1 and 3. The findings support the idea that some basic cognitive abilities, which had been found to contribute to general intelligence, also play a role in language development.

The Eye of the Beholder: Visual Processing

When does visual control of locomotion start? Can visual stimulation alone encourage newborn babies to take steps even when their feet do not come in contact with a surface, as they do in the traditional method for encouraging stepping? In the earliest attempt to answer this question, Barbu-Roth et al. (p. 8) show that 3-day-old infants who are exposed to a visual treadmill that moves beneath their feet take more steps than infants exposed to a stationary image or one that rotates. This rudimentary coupling of vision with action within hours of birth and months before walking tells us that infants are biologically prepared to control their legs based on what they see. The study not only contributes to our understanding of human development but also may help in the early diagnosis and treatment of infants with visual and motor deficits.

Quinn, Doran, Reiss, and Hoffman (p. 151) ask how infants organize the visual world around them. Previous research has suggested that when infants look at pictures of cats and dogs, they use information about the animals’ heads to place the animals into categories. In one of the first studies to examine directly where infants look in this process, they used a new eye-tracking procedure to figure out what parts of the animals babies look at and for how long. They show that when 6- and 7-month-olds are shown a photo of a whole cat or dog, they immediately fixate on the animals’ heads. The finding that babies have a bias when they first look at animals is key in helping us understand how they learn quickly and efficiently. The eye-tracking technology holds great promise for future work in this field.

Scherf, Behrmann, Kimchi, and Luna (p. 162) also consider how children make sense of the visual world around them, specifically, how they develop the ability to determine a whole shape from a bunch of different elements, a skill that is essential to identify objects. They showed children, teens, and adults letters and shapes that included big pictures made from little images (such as a big H made from little forms of the letters). Adults saw the big picture very quickly, but children and adolescents focused on the little images. Although previous research found that the ability to integrate parts to see a whole object develops early in infancy, this study suggests that it takes a very long time—well into adolescence—for the visual parts of the brain to carry out this complicated process.

Anzures, Mondloch, and Lackner (p. 178) examine visual processing as well, focusing on faces. Each time adults see a new face, they compare it to an ideal that is based on all the faces they have seen before, which is then updated with each new face. This process helps adults recognize others and also influences their ideas of attractiveness. This study used a new picture-book method to figure out how children, who have a harder time recognizing faces, become accustomed to various facial dimensions. The researchers found that by age 8, children rated faces that looked like ones they had seen before as more attractive than other faces, similar to how adults respond. But in children, the process was less refined. This new method can lead to additional research on how exposure to different kinds of faces affects children’s perception of faces.

Mothers and Children: The Ties That Bind

Young children with depressed mothers are more likely to develop social and emotional difficulties and are at risk for later mental health problems. To understand how these problems unfold from an early age, Toth, Rogosch, Sturge-Apple, and Cicchetti (p. 192) carried out a longitudinal study of American toddlers and their mothers. They looked at the connections among depression in mothers, the quality of toddlers’ attachment to their mothers, and the children’s views of themselves and expectations about their mothers. When mothers were depressed, their children were less securely attached to them, which in turn led children to develop negative perceptions of themselves and their parents. The researchers suggest that early intervention would provide a window of opportunity to help the children.

In one of the first studies to look at both mothers’ and infants’ physiological responses when interacting, Moore et al. (p. 209) measured both parties’ vagal tone, a measure of heart activity. Working with a socioeconomically diverse sample of mothers and babies, the researchers observed the pairs actively engaging, then watched as the mothers withdrew their support, and finally saw them reunite. Mothers who were rated as very sensitive (based on their interactions with their babies) were expected to have a decrease in vagal tone as their bodies reacted to the emotional work of reengaging. They did. But surprisingly, babies of very sensitive mothers, whose vagal tone was expected to rise because their mothers were doing most of the work to reengage, also had decreased vagal tone. The researchers speculate that this happened because the babies were in sync with their very sensitive mothers, with both working hard to reestablish their close connection. The study sheds additional light on the possibility that parents may have an impact on young children’s ability to engage in self-regulation, both behaviorally and physiologically.

Children and Peers: Fitting in and Fighting It Out

Children grow up in a social world in which they are constantly included or excluded by others because they belong to particular groups. The ways in which children learn the ground rules of being a member of these groups is complex. Prior research has considered this question by thinking about bullies and victims. In two studies of middle childhood in Europe, Abrams, Rutland, Pelletier, and Ferrell (p. 224) look at how groups deal with members who do not conform. They conclude that children who understand group dynamics seem more likely to anticipate and, in some cases, even avoid negative reactions from peers. The study encourages educators to consider how children figure out relationships within and between social groups, rather than focusing just on the personalities of bullies and victims.

Xu, Farver, and Zhang (p. 244), in a study from China that is one of the first to examine the issue from a non-Western perspective, address a related question about peers: Why do children fight? Some children fight to acquire something or gain social status, whereas others fight because they are frustrated or angry. The study finds that both forms of aggression may be related to different features of children’s temperament, such as whether they look for excitement or stimulation or are easily frustrated or prone to anger. But children’s temperament alone does not determine what kind of fighting occurs, but rather the complex interplay between temperament and childrearing. The researchers suggest that different interventions are needed depending on which type of aggression children display.

Teens on Thinking of the Future, Coping With the Present

Teenagers are shortsighted, leaving them prone to poor judgment and risky decision making about matters like having sex and taking drugs—at least that is what many believe. Steinberg et al. (p. 28) looked at more than 900 Americans ranging in age from 10 to 30 to determine how people of different ages think about the future consequences of their decisions. They find that it is true that—compared to adults—teens consider the future less and prefer immediate rewards over delayed ones ($500 today vs. $1,000 6 months from now). But it may not be impulsivity that guides their lack of forethought. Instead, it seems that teens are shortsighted more due to immaturity in the brain systems governing sensation seeking than to immaturity in the brain systems responsible for self-control. Those crafting legal policies on teens’ rights and responsibilities should be more specific about which capacities are in question—sensation seeking or self-control—because the two do not mature at the same time.

Adolescence is also purported to be a period of increased stress. Seiffge-Krenke, Aunola, and Nurmi (p. 259), in a longitudinal study of German adolescents, note that most teens experience high levels of stress between ages 13 and 15. After that, because their ability to cope with stress improves considerably as they go from early to late adolescence, teens’ stress levels decline. The study illustrates that teens deal with stress in a variety of ways based on their personalities, gender, and maturity, as well as on the situation in which the stress takes place. Boys and girls say they have equally high levels of stress when it comes to school, parents, future, leisure time, and identity. But girls report more stress in relationships with peers, and they tend to cope in more active ways that involve help from friends and intervention programs. Programs that help teens cope with stress should take into account age- and gender-based differences.

Teenagers’ Helping Hands

Popular culture tends to portray American teens as selfish and lacking in moral values. Smetana et al. (p. 280) conducted a study of how lower-middle–class 7th- and 10th-grade teens and their parents feel about helping each other in everyday situations when requests for help clash with personal desires. They find that the view is brighter than expected: American teens do not always act out of personal desire or selfishness, but feel relatively obligated to help their parents, even when the requests are small. Surprisingly, parents think it is more acceptable for teens to fulfill their personal desires than do the teens themselves. Adolescents and parents appear to balance and coordinate family members’ requests for help with conflicting personal desires and to consider both the family role of the person asking for help and how much help is needed.

Wood, Larson, and Brown (p. 295) also considered adolescent values. They surveyed high school–aged youth taking part in 11 programs such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Future Farmers of America to determine how some programs help youth develop responsibility. They find that it is not the fun and games of the programs, but the boring, tough, or obligatory tasks—those that ask young people to make sacrifices and do difficult things for the good of the group—that are most likely to foster responsibility and self-discipline. Programs that give young people ownership for their ideas, are very structured, and expect a lot of the participants are also more likely to promote responsibility than those that lack these components. These findings can inform program providers.

Anne Bridgman