In This Issue


  • Anne Bridgman

Neuroscience and Theory of Mind

From ages 4 to 6, children come to understand that people can have beliefs that contrast with reality (e.g., someone can think a toy is in the basket when it is really in the closet). In a study that furthers our understanding of the relation between brain and cognitive development, Liu, Sabbagh, Gehring, and Wellman (p. 318) measured surface electrical activity in the brains of more than 40 children as they responded to animated stories, then compared the results against the same measure in adults. Their goal was to assess whether changes in children’s performance on false-belief questions were associated with changes in neural activity. The researchers find that brain activation in a region of the prefrontal cortex is associated with reasoning about beliefs for adults and children who answered false-belief questions correctly, but not for children who answered false-belief questions incorrectly. The study is one of the first to provide a direct link between brain development and theory of mind and has implications for understanding brain development in children with autism.

Measure for Measure: Marking Puberty

Puberty is a time of big changes in physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Shirtcliff, Dahl, and Pollak (p. 327) sought to measure puberty in adolescents to assess which measures should be used under which circumstances. First, they compared different common ways of measuring visible signs of puberty, including the physical exam and self-report measures, to see to what degree the measures converged. Then, they examined how these physical measures of puberty are associated with the hormones responsible for advancing puberty-related development in 160 adolescents ages 9 to 14. They find that the stages identified in the physical exam or the self-report measures are related to boys’ and girls’ sex hormones. Because puberty involves a variety of changes and is not a single process, the researchers conclude that there is value in using different measures to determine different aspects of development in puberty.

Teen Adjustment

In every group of teenagers, there are some who are considered the most popular. These young people are the ones whose opinions matter to classmates, who have prestige and authority, and who are often the center of attention. From a sample of almost 5,500 German seventh graders, Jonkmann, Trautwein, and Lüdtke (p. 338) identified four types of adolescents who gain social influence in different ways, from being liked by many classmates and getting good grades to being disliked by peers and acting in a disruptive and deviant way. They conclude that the ways teens become socially dominant seem contradictory but can be understood by looking at context: In classrooms where low achievement is the norm, grades matter less than in more achievement-oriented environments. The study speaks to educators about creating a climate that helps promote positive student adjustment.

In an exploration of the changes children make when they move from middle school to high school, Benner and Graham (p. 356) studied nearly 2,000 American students from a largely urban and ethnically diverse area of the United States from 7th to 10th grades. They find that many students were doing well before high school but had challenges during the transition; although they liked the new school at the start, this feeling faded and they felt lonely and anxious, struggled academically, and were absent more often. These problems tended to worsen over time, especially for students transferring to high schools that were ethnically different from their middle schools. The study has implications for schools in terms of the transition support services they provide to students.

Growing Up in a Multicultural World

Children today grow up in increasingly diverse societies, but research has lagged in describing how they develop within this multicultural context. Three studies in this issue help address this gap. Feddes, Noack, and Rutland (p. 377) examine how young children’s ethnic prejudice is influenced by having friends from other ethnic groups. Ethnic prejudice—having negative attitudes toward others based on their ethnicity—develops as early as age 5. The researchers looked at German and Turkish children ages 7 to 11 who went to elementary schools in Germany, where Turks face discrimination. Being friends with someone in another ethnic group, they find, led to more positive attitudes toward the group. However, this depended on the social status of the group, occurring only among children who were in the majority (in this case, the German children). The study highlights the value of supporting children’s friendships across ethnicities.

In a large study of Latino culture, Umaña-Taylor, Gonzales-Backen, and Guimond (p. 391) focus on how adolescents’ feelings and knowledge about their ethnicity changed over a 4-year period, starting in 9th or 10th grade, and how those changes affected their self-esteem. The researchers followed more than 300 Latino adolescents ages 14 to 17 in the United States who attended schools in which Latinos made up less than 20% of the student body. They find that changes in ethnic identity occurred mostly for Latina girls, not for Latino boys, perhaps due to societal expectations. As Latina girls went from middle to late adolescence, they tended to explore their ethnicity more and to feel better and understand more about their ethnicity. For Latino boys, they only felt better about their ethnicity over the 4-year period. The study encourages those developing intervention programs for Latino teenagers to consider that girls and boys might have different views of their ethnicity.

Seaton, Yip, and Sellers (p. 406) take a look at racial identity, seeking to further our understanding of where African Americans’ perceptions of discrimination come from. Over a 3-year period, the researchers studied more than 200 teens ages 14 to 18 who lived and attended school in racially heterogeneous parts of the Midwestern United States. Their conclusions: African American teens see themselves as victims of racial discrimination and these perceptions are linked to how they feel about being Black, particularly their perceptions of how the broader society views African Americans. Older adolescents who had experienced more racial bias felt less positive about being Black. The findings suggest that those who work with African American teens as they explore and establish identity should help enhance their feelings about racial group membership.

Teens on Rules and Responsibilities

Two groups of researchers assess teenagers’ views of authority and responsibility, areas they need to come to terms with as adolescents. Cumsille, Darling, Flaherty, and Martínez (p. 418) consider what Chilean teens think about how much power parents should wield. In a longitudinal study of more than 2,600 adolescents ages 12 to 16, they identified three groups: teens who believed that their parents had the right to set rules over all areas of their lives, teens who thought their parents had the right to set rules over issues like drinking and drugs but not over personal issues such as how they dressed or what they watched on TV, and teens who felt that their parents had no right to set rules over any issues. Younger teens were more likely to be part of the first group, whereas older ones were more likely to fall into the last group. Most of the adolescents did not change their beliefs about their parents’ authority over the 3 years of the study. The findings may help foster greater understanding between parents and their teenagers.

As more schools encourage or require students to take part in community service, Metzger and Smetana (p. 433) look at adolescents’ attitudes about civic activity. In a study of more than 300 primarily White middle-class American teenagers ages 15 to 19, they conclude that most young people think civic activity is obligatory, but their judgments and justifications about different types of civic involvement vary according to their moral concerns with welfare and fairness, personal concerns, and other factors. On the whole, teens thought it was more important to be involved in community service and standard political activities than in social movements. Boys put a higher priority on political involvement than girls, who thought community service was more important. The more teens took part in civic activities, the less they saw such involvement as a personal issue and the more they viewed it as an obligation. These findings are important because teens who are involved in civic and community activities tend to be involved in these activities as adults.

Origins of the Moral Self

Previous research has considered whether it is emotions (sympathy) or judgment (children’s readiness to abide by a moral rule) that is more important in motivating children to act morally. In a pair of longitudinal studies that span a year—one of almost 1,300 Swiss 6-year-olds, the other of 175 Swiss kindergarteners—Malti, Gummerum, Keller, and Buchmann (p. 442) suggest that emotions and judgment have to be considered together. For example, when a child sees someone in distress, an emotion is triggered; children then act on that emotion with judgment. They also find that moral behavior rises with increases in sympathy. The study provides new insights into the development of the moral self in young children and should be useful to those developing programs to promote children’s moral growth.

What Are Girls and Boys Made Of?

Two studies look at gender, one from the perspective of how girls and boys think about it, the other looking at actual differences in girls’ and boys’ personality traits. Taylor, Rhodes, and Gelman (p. 461) explore how young children think about and explain differences between males and females. They surveyed more than 450 Americans from diverse racial-ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who were age 5 to college age. The researchers find that 5- and 6-year-olds think about gender in the same way they think about species of animals, believing that gender-related behaviors are inborn—for example, that a boy’s preference for football is innate, as is a girl’s preference for dolls. It is not until children are at least 10 that they are more flexible in their views of gender differences and understand that environment plays a role in gender-related behaviors. The study has implications for how educators and parents encourage girls and boys to go beyond gender-typical pursuits and explore a range of activities.

In a longitudinal exploration of children’s personality traits, McHale, Kim, Dotterer, Crouter, and Booth (p. 482) looked at first- and second-born siblings from nearly 200 mostly White, middle-class American families. They tell us that sex-typed personality differences develop differently in girls and boys. Girls’ stereotypically feminine, expressive traits (such as kindness and sensitivity) did not change over time, but boys’ expressivity declined across middle childhood and increased in later adolescence. For stereotypically masculine traits such as independence and adventurousness, girls showed increases only in middle childhood, but in boys, these traits rose across adolescence. Changes in girls’ and boys’ personality traits and interests were related to the people they spent time with: Girls who spent time with other females developed female personality characteristics, and boys who hung out with other males developed male characteristics.

Remembrance of Things Past

Two multiyear studies tackle the issue of early memories in childhood. Jack, MacDonald, Reese, and Hayne (p. 496) look at children’s development of memory and how it relates to the way parents talk with them about past shared experiences. In a study spanning 10 years, the researchers analyzed conversations between 17 pairs of mothers and their children in New Zealand between the children’s second and fourth birthdays, measuring the extent to which each mother used a style that was elaborative (introducing new information, asking questions about the event) or repetitive (repeating questions, focusing on just one or two aspects of the event). When the children were 12 or 13, the researchers interviewed them about their early memories, then checked those against mothers’ recollections. Adolescents whose mothers used a more elaborative reminiscing style had earlier memories of childhood than teens whose mothers used a less elaborative style. The study provides the first longitudinal evidence that the way parents talk about past events with young children affects the age of the children’s earliest memories later in life.

In the first study to look at whether children’s loss of early memories is affected by the culture in which they are raised, Peterson, Wang, and Hou (p. 506) explore when children lose memories of their early lives. The researchers examined more than 350 children in Canada and China at ages 8, 11, and 14 to determine how well they could remember their early lives, then confirmed the children’s recollections with parents. Younger children recalled earlier first memories than older children, but cultural differences also were evident. Chinese children remembered considerably fewer early events than Canadian children, and Chinese children’s earliest memories came from a later period than the earliest memories of Canadian children. The content of memories also differed, with Canadian children more likely to recall events that focused on themselves, whereas Chinese children were more likely to recall social relationships with others. These differences underscore the effect of social environment on memories.

Attachment and Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) typically have profound social deficits, yet half form secure attachments to their mothers. Oppenheim, Koren-Karie, Dolev, and Yirmiya (p. 519) studied 45 preschool-age boys with ASD and their mothers to figure out whether maternal insightfulness—the ability to see things from the child’s point of view, which helps parents of typically developing children interpret their children’s signals and promotes secure attachments between children and parents—is also beneficial to children with ASD. Although children with ASD have difficulty communicating, those whose mothers understand their children’s inner world and accept the painful feelings about their children’s diagnosis are more likely to be have a secure tie to their mothers. The study sheds light on how intervention programs might enhance the security of children with ASD.

Infants at Risk

Infants born at risk present significant public health challenges. Two studies in this issue help inform the design of interventions appropriate for infants from this diverse group. Eiden, Veira, and Granger (p. 528) look at how infants who have been exposed to cocaine react to stress. The researchers examined about one hundred and seventy 7-month-olds, about half of whom had been exposed to the drug, testing the children’s saliva before, during, and after mildly stressful situations to determine their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Babies exposed to cocaine had significantly higher increases in cortisol after being stressed than babies who had not been exposed to the drug. Boys had greater increases in cortisol than girls. Infants who were exposed to cocaine and had unstable caregiving environments also had greater increases in cortisol. The results are important because chronically elevated levels of cortisol can have harmful effects on the brain. The findings suggest that interventions that focus on increasing stability of care for infants who have been exposed to drugs may reduce their vulnerability to stress.

The second study tackles regulatory functions—those processes that allow us to organize internal changes or external stimuli into adaptive responses. Feldman (p. 544) addresses the development of these functions in young children who were born early and whether and how they are related to each other. In the first study to consider these questions from birth, the researcher followed 126 premature infants in Israel at seven points in the first 5 years of their lives. She finds that all forms of regulation are related and that the early ways children organized themselves physiologically, emotionally, and in terms of attention predicted how they did so at age 5. She also finds that although there is step-by-step progress from each level of regulation to the next, the early-maturing physiological systems directly affect children’s later abilities to manage impulses, hold back irrelevant information, and behave according to social norms. The study can inform the development of interventions for premature infants, suggesting that it is important to monitor and repair early disruptions to regulation systems in the neonatal period to prevent later problems in more complex abilities.

Violence at Home

More than 10 million U.S. children witness domestic violence yearly, resulting in emotional and behavioral problems. In a longitudinal study, Martinez-Torteya, Bogat, von Eye, and Levendosky (p. 562) explore why some of these children are resilient. These researchers assessed more than 100 American children who had seen violent acts against their mothers, as well as more than 70 children who had not, when the children were 2, 3, and 4 years old. They find that more than half of the children exposed to violence adapted well, thanks in part to easy temperaments and mothers with good mental health. Children exposed to violence were almost 4 times more likely than others to develop emotional or behavioral problems; chronically exposed children without protective characteristics were more likely to have these problems. The study underscores the differences in how children adapt and has implications for intervention programs to help children in the face of domestic violence.

In a look at the relation between harsh parenting and childhood behavior problems, Erath, El-Sheikh, and Cummings (p. 578) surveyed more than 250 American children ages 8 and 9 years old. They asked the children and their parents about how the parents treated the children, and they asked the parents about the children’s behavior. They then measured the responses of the children’s sympathetic nervous systems to stressful or challenging circumstances. The results: a link between harsh parenting such as yelling, calling children names, spanking, or hitting, and children’s behavior problems such as aggression or disruptive behavior. This is especially the case among children with lower physiological responses to stress or challenge. The findings suggest that harsh parenting may be counterproductive for certain children and that it may exacerbate behavior problems.

Spotlight on Children With Language and Cognitive Impairments

As many as 5% of children have language impairments that affect speaking and listening, conditions that are less well known than dyslexia. Bishop, McDonald, Bird, and Hayiou-Thomas (p. 593) looked at nearly 200 pairs of twins in England and Wales at ages 9 and 10. They find that most children with language impairments also have reading impairments, but there is a subgroup of children who have language impairments but learn to decode words and nonwords accurately. These children can name pictures and numbers rapidly but do not do well in comprehension. Teachers and others should recognize that children with language impairments who appear to read accurately might not always understand what they read; for these children, it may make sense to focus on oral language skills such as vocabulary rather than just phonological processing or decoding.

Working memory—how we store and use information over a short period of time—also plays a role in school achievement. Alloway, Gathercole, Kirkwood, and Elliott (p. 606) conducted the first systematic, large-scale examination of the cognitive and behavioral characteristics of school children with very low scores on tests of working memory. Based on a study of more than 3,000 elementary school students in England, the researchers conclude that children with low working memory are more likely to do poorly in reading and math. They are also more likely to be inattentive, forgetful, and easily distracted, leading to careless mistakes and difficulty solving problems. These children—lacking a formal diagnosis of learning difficulties but failing to make normal academic progress—are fairly common in schools (perhaps as many as 10%) and merit research attention and educational support.