In This Issue

Imagining Minds and Objects

The ability to understand people—often called theory of mind—develops in children worldwide. Wellman, Fang, and Peterson (p. 780) took a longitudinal look at almost 100 children representing disparate and contrasting cultural groups: A third were preschoolers from the United States, a third were preschoolers from China, and a third were school-age deaf children of hearing parents from Australia. Their goal: To use a theory-of-mind scale to test the children on their understanding of people. They find that a standard set of insights characterizes children’s developing social understandings, no matter where they are from and, in the case of the deaf children, even if they communicate in sign language—though the development of social understanding in these children progressed more slowly. This awareness of similarities in children’s developing theory of mind can help us grasp more about the nature and development of human understanding of self and others.

Visual imagery—seeing in your mind something that’s not physically there—is a powerful and useful tool for problem solving because it allows you to try out a solution before committing to a particular course of action. Joh, Jaswal, and Keen (p. 744) sought to determine whether young preschoolers benefit from visualizing a solution to a difficult spatial problem. In their study of about 50 mostly White middle-class 3-year-olds, they find that children who used visualization made more correct predictions that those who didn’t. This suggests that simply inviting children at age 3 (when they’re on the cusp of being able to solve problems) to use their imagination can influence their ability to solve a difficult problem.

Aggression in the Early School Years

Previous studies suggest that classroom environment may play an important role in students’ development of aggressive and disruptive behavior, especially in the initial years of elementary school. Thomas, Bierman, Powers, and the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (p. 751) looked at the influence of peer-level classroom aggression together with the quality of the classroom climate on about 4,200 aggressive students from kindergarten to second grade. Results: When students with high levels of aggression were assigned to first-grade classrooms, by the end of the first-grade year, those classrooms were marked by more peer aggression and a lower quality of classroom climate (as measured by how teachers managed the classroom and by teacher–student interactions). Also, while first-grade classroom aggression and quality of classroom climate were related, each made independent contributions to changes in students’ aggression as students moved from kindergarten to second grade. Particularly in schools serving high-risk students, the findings can inform ways to reduce negative interactions between children in classrooms.

Children who exhibit continually high levels of aggressive behavior in childhood are more likely to develop a broad range of severe social and psychological problems later in life. Sturaro, van Lier, Cuijpers, and Koot (p. 758) examined 740 Dutch children from 47 classrooms in 30 elementary schools, following them from kindergarten to third grade. They looked at aggressiveness, relationships with peers, and levels of aggression in best friends. Findings: When children have high levels of aggression in kindergarten, they’re likely to maintain high levels of aggressive behavior in both first and second grades. Because of this, they’re rejected by their peers starting in first grade, adding to the likelihood that they’ll continue to behave aggressively through second grade. The longitudinal study, whose findings apply equally to girls and boys, has implications for intervention, suggesting that programs begin early.

Gender Bias in Math

By the time they start first grade, girls rate their math ability lower than boys, even when there are no differences in achievement. Cvencek, Meltzoff, and Greenwald (p. 766) developed new measures of math self-concepts (existing measures are usually limited to self-reports) to see how cultural stereotypes affect children’s concepts of their abilities in math. After studying almost 250 American first to fifth graders, they find that as early as second grade, children demonstrate the cultural stereotype that’s prominent in the United States that boys do better than girls at math. They also find that boys identify with math (i.e., they have a stronger self-concept of math) more strongly than girls. This suggests that math gender stereotypes develop early, prior to the ages at which differences in math achievement appear.

In and Out Groups

How and why do children develop preferences in favor of the groups to which they belong, otherwise known as intergroup bias? It’s assumed that they learn these preferences from those around them. But Dunham, Baron, and Carey (p. 793) find that intergroup bias can emerge even when no specific information about the groups is provided. In their study, 140 mostly 5-year-olds were assigned to groups randomly, then asked their feelings about their group and other groups. The children showed a preference for their own group, suggesting that children are prepared to prefer the group to which they belong. Social learning, through teaching by adults or exposure to media or other sources of information, may not influence this initial impression. The study’s findings shed light on our understanding of the origins of stereotyping and prejudice.

Across Europe today, schools are experiencing unprecedented levels of ethnic diversity. Research suggests that cross-ethnic friendships are one of the most potent ways to reduce prejudice, but we don’t know a lot about how these friendships form. In their longitudinal study, Jugert, Noack, and Rutland (p. 812) asked: How do children make decisions about friendships in their first year of secondary school? They looked at about 150 German and Turkish students ages 9–12 who were enrolled in seven ethnically heterogeneous public schools in Germany, where Turks are the largest ethnic minority group and face a lot of discrimination. In these schools, which featured a balance across several ethnic groups, as students got to know each other, the importance of ethnicity as a criterion for friendship declined, as did students’ preferences for friendships with peers who shared their ethnicity. The findings contradict common assumptions that youths prefer friendships with peers of the same ethnicity.

Differences Across Cultures: Peers and Parenting

Every culture has rules for how to manage conflict, and children learn these rules at a young age. French et al. (p. 830) studied how more than 250 Canadian and Chinese 7-year-olds dealt with conflicts that arose when four children were given one new toy. Findings: Children in the two cultures reacted differently, showing patterns of conflict behavior that were largely consistent with cultural expectations. Popular Canadian children tended to assertively gain control of the toy, while popular Chinese children were more reticent and let others have their way. Canadian children tended to take turns with the toy, while Chinese children organized the group and specified who should use the toy. The results suggest that children learn cultural scripts for dealing with conflict as they socialize with others, then make use of these strategies during further social interactions and transform them over time. The conflict strategies used by adults, including diplomats and business executives of different cultures, likely have their origins in young children’s playgroups.

In the United States, we know from research that American parents’ involvement in their children’s education benefits the youngsters, not only academically but also in terms of confidence and happiness. What about in China, where ideas about learning and parents’ roles are quite different? In their longitudinal study, Cheung and Pomerantz (p. 932) looked at parents’ school involvement in both countries, examining 825 American and Chinese middle-school students and their parents. In both countries, children whose parents were more involved did better academically. In the United States, parents’ involvement was less controlling and more supportive of their children’s autonomy, whereas among Chinese parents, involvement was more controlling and less supportive of autonomy. But only in the United States did parents’ involvement boost youngsters’ confidence and happiness, even though American parents were significantly less involved than Chinese parents. The study suggests that parents become involved in their middle schoolers’ education in ways that are culturally specific.

Infant Communication

How early do infants pick up on signals and cues that make communication successful? Henning and Striano (p. 916) investigated whether 3- and 6-month-old infants and their mothers noticed a 3-second delay in interactive behavior when they were communicating face to face. Mothers and infants sat in separate rooms and interacted via video. By the time the infants were 3 months old, they noticed when their mothers’ behavior was delayed by 3 seconds, smiling more when the interaction wasn’t delayed. This suggests that by 3 months, infants are sensitive to a change in familiar levels of interpersonal timing. Sensitivity to timing is necessary for infants to determine which people in the world to pay attention to, as well as an important part of language learning and communication.

Even very young infants are sensitive to language, with studies showing that they’re able to differentiate forward- from backward-spoken speech from birth. They’re also sensitive to such communication cues as eye gaze. Parise, Handl, Palumbo, and Friederici (p. 842) sought to determine whether and how these two abilities interact. In their work with German infants, they find evidence that by 4 months, the power of social cues in interactions clearly affects the way that everyday stimuli are perceived; in other words, the infants use others’ gaze direction to process spoken words. Overall, infants showed higher neural activity when they heard forward- versus backward-spoken words. However, when backward-spoken words were presented in combination with direct eye contact, the babies showed neural evidence of faster attentional processes. The study, the first to show that young infants don’t process eye gaze and spoken words in isolation when they’re presented together, suggests that such pragmatic communication plays a role in the early stages of processing spoken language.

Getting Reading Off to a Good Start

In a longitudinal study, Dickinson and Porche (p. 870) sought to determine how children’s preschool language experiences are related to their reading skills in elementary school among low-income students. The study, of more than 50 children, finds that teachers’ use of sophisticated, thoughtful vocabulary in informal conversations in preschool during free play time was related to better word reading and comprehension when the children reached fourth grade. In addition, preschool teachers’ conversations that included analyses of books and discussions of words, as well as teachers’ corrections of incorrect responses, were related to the students’ vocabulary in fourth grade, and teachers’ efforts to hold children’s attention were related to children’s comprehension in fourth grade. By illustrating the long-term effects of early experiences, the findings can inform teacher training at the preschool level.

Developmental dyslexia, an inherited failure to acquire reading and spelling skills, affects about 5%–10% of children and adults. There has long been controversy over whether dyslexia is predominantly a disorder of language or of visual processing. Boets, Vandermosten, Cornelissen, Wouters, and Ghesquière (p. 854) took a longitudinal look at about thirty 5-year-old Belgian children from families with dyslexia, following them until third grade; they were compared to about 30 children in a control group. Each group completed tests of literacy and of visual processing in kindergarten, first, and third grades. Children who had difficulties processing coherently moving dots were more likely to have reading problems in first and third grades, bolstering the hypothesis that visual problems contribute to dyslexia. The findings have important clinical implications, suggesting that early identification and remediation of dyslexia may be addressed through visual assessments and interventions.

Children with low prereading skills (such as lack of awareness of how words are constructed and knowledge of letters) are at risk for failing to read. In a Finnish study, Saine, Lerkkanen, Ahonen, Tolvanen, and Lyytinen (p. 1013) looked at early elementary-school-aged children in remedial reading groups. Children who received computer-based training (in naming and sounding out letters) benefited greatly; they acquired adequate skills in letter knowledge, decoding, and accuracy, as well as in fluency and spelling, and they reached the level of peers who weren’t at risk. These gains were maintained 16 months after the intervention ended. Children in a remedial group who didn’t receive the computer-assisted intervention were less successful. The study, of more than 150 children who were 7 years old, followed the children from the time they started school to third grade. The findings suggest that computer-aided instruction is a powerful instrument to help children at risk for reading disabilities.

Learning Language

Very young children learn words from overhearing adults’ conversations, but studies show that they have trouble learning words from a person talking on TV. To find out why, O’Doherty et al. (p. 902) had almost a hundred 2–1/2-year-olds watch adults (some of whom were in the room, some of whom were on video) talk about and name a new toy. They find that toddlers were able to learn a new word if they interacted with the speaker or if they “eavesdropped” on an interaction between the speaker and another person—even when that interaction happened on video. The children didn’t learn the new word when the adult speaker (on video or in person) just talked about the toy but failed to interact by handing it to another adult. By showing that toddlers can learn new words by listening in on others’ conversations on video—as long as the speaker and listener are interacting with each other—the study can inform the design of educational programs for young children.

Learning a new language after you’ve been exposed to a first language may be difficult for some children. Gauthier and Genesee (p. 887) studied internationally adopted children, most of whom learn a second language after they abruptly stop developing their first language. They looked at the language skills of Chinese-born children who were adopted in the first 2 years of their lives by Canadian French-speaking families, comparing them with the skills of children who hadn’t been adopted, spoke only French, and were the same age, gender, and socioeconomic status. In both groups, the children’s language was tested when they were 4 and again at age 5–1/2. While the two groups didn’t differ in social-emotional adjustment or intellectual abilities, the adopted children lagged behind the children who hadn’t been adopted in some areas of language development. The findings suggest that even a modest delay in learning a new language might have subtle but important effects on preschoolers’ language learning ability.

Memories and Emotions

Are children’s memory processes affected by maltreatment? More specifically, do maltreated and nonmaltreated children differ when they’re asked about emotionally laden information? To find out the answers to these questions, Howe, Toth, and Cicchetti (p. 967) examined more than 250 children ages 6–12—some had been maltreated and others hadn’t—to see how they responded when asked to remember or forget lists deemed emotional or neutral. They find no differences in the basic memory processes of those who were maltreated and those who weren’t: Children were able to remember or hold back emotionally laden information when they were asked to do so, regardless of whether they’d been maltreated. The study extends the emerging literature, showing that the experience of child maltreatment doesn’t adversely affect, nor does it enhance, memory of emotional information. The findings suggest that children who have been maltreated are capable of reporting emotional memories, and thus shed light on maltreated children’s ability to testify about remembered events in the courtroom.

How preadolescent children manage their frustration and anxiety has implications for how they do emotionally and socially. To learn more about how temperament relates to children’s ability to manage their emotions, and how managing emotions affects emotional and behavioral problems, Zalewski, Lengua, Wilson, Trancik, and Bazinet (p. 951) considered preadolescence (ages 8–12), a time when children increasingly rely on their own abilities to manage emotions. In their 3-year study of almost 200 youngsters, they find that children who were less able to control their temperaments were more likely to report feeling emotional, express their emotions, and react with increased heart rates. This heightened emotional reaction in turn increased their behavioral and emotional problems. However, when children modulated one or more of their emotion systems, suggesting they could better handle their emotions, they had fewer problems and were better socially adjusted.

Researchers and clinicians sometimes get differing reports from different sources—for example, a teen may say that her depression has improved but her mom doesn’t report the same change. Ehrlich, Cassidy, and Dykas (p. 999) looked at whether an individual’s negative feelings contribute to negative biases in such reports, and whether the ways teens think and talk about their early attachment experiences explain differences in how they report their feelings. Findings of this study of almost two hundred 11th graders: Reports of adolescents with secure attachments agreed more with other reporters than did those of teens with insecure attachments. Specifically, compared to insecure adolescents, secure teens and their mothers had fewer discrepancies in reports of the youngsters’ symptoms of depression. The findings have implications for how reports are handled, suggesting that disagreement isn’t always random or the result of an error, but may stem from underlying issues related to trust and communication between parents and their teens.

Dropping Out of School

Why do students drop out of school? Porche, Fortuna, Lin, and Alegria (p. 982) looked at a nationally representative sample of more than 2,500 young adults with diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds and immigration histories. Adults who had been exposed to trauma—including physical and sexual abuse, severe injury, and death of a loved one—as children were more likely to drop out than those who hadn’t. Early traumatic experiences affect psychological, social, and physiological development, which disrupts learning and academic achievement. And although trauma occurs across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, this study suggests that Black and Latino students may be more vulnerable to dropping out because of such factors as chronic stress, poverty, poor schools, and community violence. The findings point to the need for coordinated support systems for students.

Anne Bridgman