In This Issue

Is Research on Distress Distressing?

Does merely taking part in research about distress cause distress? Over the course of five school days in a 2-week period, Nishina (p. 405) examined an ethnically diverse group of more than 200 sixth graders. Some were asked about current feelings and personal experiences of being bullied; others were asked the same questions, but also were asked about witnessing classmates being bullied; and yet others (the control group) weren’t asked about their daily feelings or bullying at all. All students reported on their general distress before and after the daily reports and 2 weeks later. Students didn’t show any negative effects from being in the study. In fact, daily negative feelings stayed the same or improved over the study, and general distress improved over 2 weeks for all three groups. Based on these results, researchers’ use of daily reports like the ones in this study appears to be a safe way to conduct research and doesn’t make students feel worse.

Bilingual Effects

Children who are raised bilingual show differences in the development of both language and cognitive skills through the early school years. However, bilingualism is often tied to other factors that make it difficult to determine which aspect of the bilingual experience is responsible, or indeed, whether it’s bilingualism at all. Barac and Bialystok (p. 413) compared groups of 6-year-old monolingual and bilingual children (English monolinguals, Chinese-English bilinguals, French-English bilinguals, and Spanish-English bilinguals) to examine the generality of bilingual effects on development. Findings: The bilingual groups differed in the degree of similarity between languages, cultural background, and language of schooling. Nevertheless, on an executive control task, all bilingual groups performed similarly and exceeded monolinguals. In contrast, on the language tasks, bilingual children whose language of instruction was the same as the language of the test performed the best.

Gleaning Information About Quantity, Categories

When you’re a kid, it matters how many Cheerios you have in your bowl or how much juice is in your cup. These distinctions—the result of understanding more and less based on quantity discriminations—seem obvious to adults, but Hespos, Dora, Rips, and Christie (p. 554) sought to determine when infants make discriminations in quantity for substances. (Past research has focused on discrimination involving counting discrete items such as blocks, not continuous quantities such as piles of sand.) They carried out two experiments with more than 160 babies aged 3, 7, 10, and 13 months. Findings: Infants as young as 3 months were able to discriminate quantities of substances—that is, when the difference between two piles was at least a 1–4 ratio. In addition, girls but not boys could discriminate a 1-to-2-ratio difference.

During childhood, children learn broad generalizations about categories in the world. Generic sentences, which make claims about categories (such as “birds fly”), help convey this knowledge. Brandone, Cimpian, Leslie, and Gelman (p. 423) looked at three dozen 5-year-olds to determine whether children interpret generics as statements about how many category members possess a property—or whether their judgments about generics depend on how characteristic of the category the generic statement is. Children answered “yes” to generic questions that expressed characteristic properties (such as “Do lions have manes?”) more often than noncharacteristic properties that are true of an equal number of members of a category (such as “Are lions boys?”). This shows that for young children, generics are about more than how many category members possess a given property. The findings suggest that by 5 years, children understand generics in much the same way that adults do and are already learning broad generalizations about categories.

Political Violence and Family Conflict

War, the aftermath of war, and political violence are harmful to children’s and teens’ mental health and well-being. In a longitudinal study of almost 300 families living in segregated, socially deprived neighborhoods in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Cummings et al. (p. 461) sought to explain how and why. (Neighborhoods studied ranked low on measures of income, health, education, proximity to services, crime, and quality of life.) Moms and children filled out surveys, and the study recorded the number of politically motivated deaths. Historical levels of political violence were associated with reports of conflict and violence in the community, and awareness of community conflict and violence between Catholics and Protestants was related to higher levels of family conflict a year later. Children who experienced family conflict had negative emotional and behavioral responses, which indicated emotional insecurity, and these responses were related to more mental health symptoms and conduct problems over time. The findings can inform policymakers and those working with families in violent communities.

Understanding Theory of Mind

Understanding people’s internal mental states—an everyday theory of mind—is crucial to interacting with others and navigating the social world. This understanding develops throughout childhood, but children with deafness and autism have difficulties and delays in theory-of-mind understanding. Peterson, Wellman, and Slaughter (p. 469) used a six-step theory-of-mind scale to test more than 180 children ages 3 to 12 with typical development, deafness, autism, or Asperger syndrome. After showing that the scale could be used effectively with typically developing children as an index of how well developed their theory of mind is, they sought to determine if it would work with children with delays. They find that although there are some small differences, the scale works with children with delays, showing that from early to late childhood, these children go through the same set of conceptual progressions as typically developing children. By providing data about the sequences of understanding that characterize children who are deaf, have autism or Asperger syndrome, or are typically developing, the study informs future research on the development of theory of mind from preschool into middle childhood.

Watching and Learning From Others

We’ve all seen babies seek out eye contact with others and respond with a smile when they find it. But when do infants begin to view another person’s social eye gaze as a goal-directed action? Beier and Spelke (p. 486) studied more than 100 babies to find that this understanding of social gaze develops considerably between 9 and 10 months of age. Across three experiments, 10-month-olds showed an understanding that a person’s eye gaze can be directed either toward or away from another person, and they knew that other people are likely to engage in social eye gaze in particular situations, such as during conversation; 9-month-olds didn’t show this sensitivity to social cues. By identifying the age at which infants achieve this understanding, this study helps draw a more complete picture of early social cognitive development.

Observing others helps infants learn actions like using a spoon. Fawcett and Liszkowski (p. 434) asked: Do they also learn about how to interact socially with others by observing others? The researchers looked at about 50 infants (18-month-olds) who watched people play with toys, then observed them when they were given the toys to see how they acted and interacted with another person. They find that the infants were more likely to try to engage another person by playing with a toy if they’d already seen two people playing together with that toy. This suggests that infants learn about social interaction by observing others and try to replicate those interactions. Given how readily infants learn from others’ social interactions, the study highlights the importance of modeling appropriate behavior for children from a very young age.

Preschoolers often listen from the sidelines as others have conversations around them, and sometimes they use what they hear to learn new things. Can they learn from the responses to questions asked by others? In five experiments, Mills, Danovitch, Grant, and Elashi (p. 568) studied almost 180 preschoolers, looking specifically at their ability to solve simple problems by listening to question-and-answer exchanges. They find that children become better at using information they overhear from exchanges between the ages of 3 and 5. Even 3-year-olds sometimes are quite successful at learning from others’ questions, but they may require more support to do so effectively. Given the range of situations in which people have to rely on others’ exchanges to get information, this research helps us understand the origins and development of the ability to learn from listening to others.

TV Scanning

TV programs and DVDs aimed at infants and toddlers claim to be educational, but research shows that children younger than 30 months have difficulty learning from videos. Kirkorian, Anderson, and Keen (p. 497) sought to learn why, asking specifically whether babies look at the right things when they watch videos. In the study, more than 60 youngsters (ages 1 and 4) and adults watched Sesame Street while researchers used specialized cameras to determine exactly where on the screen they looked. They find that unlike adults, infants don’t always know where to look, especially when they’re introduced to a new scene, and this might explain their inability to understand what they’re watching. The results add further support to the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children younger than 2 not watch any screen media; they also suggest ways videos might be produced differently to make them more effective in conveying educational content to very young children.

In a Word

Studies on the early development of communication and language suggest continuity between prelinguistic actions/gestures and words. Caselli, Rinaldi, Stefanini, and Volterra (p. 526), in a study out of Italy, interviewed parents of about 500 infants aged 8–18 months to explore the babies’ comprehension and use of more than 400 words, and the relation between these and their use of actions/gestures. At all ages, word comprehension was greater than word production and use of actions/gestures. Up to 16 months, infants produced more actions/gestures than words. The production of actions/gestures was more strongly tied to word comprehension than to word production, and this forms a bridge between actions/gestures and word production.

Infants are prepared at birth to learn any language they may encounter. Before 9 months, they can discriminate between sounds from different languages, but as they grow and develop, this ability narrows to encompass just those sounds they hear in the languages around them. Does the same developmental process take place for visual language, specifically, American Sign Language (ASL)? Palmer, Fais, Golinkoff, and Werker (p. 543) used an eye tracker (an infrared camera built into a computer monitor) to record exactly where 40 infants looked at moving stimuli of ASL hand shapes and for how long. The results suggest that children demonstrate the same perceptual narrowing in the visual language domain that was previously shown in the spoken language domain. The study sheds light on our understanding of how the brain operates.

Children are exposed to a lot of sources of information—parents, friends, TV, teachers, and more—and they have to figure out which are reliable. Krogh-Jespersen and Echols (p. 581), in a study on word learning, looked at one hundred sixty 2-year-olds; the youngsters interacted with adults who gave them accurate or inaccurate information, for example, labeling something correctly or incorrectly (calling a ball a “duck”), simply stating that they knew or didn’t know what an item was, or providing no information. Then the children were taught new words; half learned new names for familiar objects, while the others were taught new names for unfamiliar objects. Researchers assessed how much the children learned by asking them to select the target from a set of four objects. Findings: Children were willing to learn new names from accurate, knowledgeable, and neutral adults, regardless of whether they already knew a name for the objects. But when exposed to inaccurate or ignorant adults, children failed to learn a new word for a familiar object. This suggests that young children generally expect adults to be accurate sources of information but are alert to cues that suggest unreliability.

Attachment: Continuity and Change

There’s general agreement that the quality of children’s early attachment experiences is key to development. Groh, Roisman, van IJzendoorn, Bakermans-Kranenburg, and Fearon (p. 591) did a meta-analysis to summarize results across studies on this topic; it follows up on a previous meta-analysis in which they found that variations in early attachment influence children’s development of externalizing symptoms (such as aggression). This study—an analysis of 42 samples including more than 4,500 children who were initially assessed in early childhood and then re-examined between ages 2 and 14—finds that children’s attachment insecurity is significantly associated with higher levels of internalizing symptoms (such as depression and anxiety), and that early attachment more strongly predicts the development of externalizing symptoms than internalizing symptoms. The analysis also finds a significant association between avoidant (but not resistant or disorganized) early attachment and internalizing symptoms, as well as a small association between insecure early attachment and internalizing symptoms.

Young children who have experienced early life stress, such as maltreatment, are at risk for developing disorganized attachments—that is, lacking a way to deal with distress when they’re with their parents. This, in turn, can lead to problems later in life. In a longitudinal study, Bernard et al. (p. 623) examined the Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) intervention, 10 parent–child sessions in the homes of families with recent Child Protective Services involvement; the intervention is designed to promote nurturing, sensitive care in at-risk parents of young children (the children were 1–21 months at the start of the study). After the sessions, researchers assessed attachment quality for 120 children—children whose parents had taken part in ABC and children in a control group whose parents received an intervention to enhance children’s language and cognitive development. Children in the ABC intervention had significantly lower rates of disorganized attachment and higher rates of secure attachment, relative to the control group, suggesting that a short-term program such as ABC can enhance attachment quality among young children at high risk for maltreatment. The results have implications for public health.

Children’s Understanding of Abuse

Investigators and other professionals often claim that young children, because they lack the cognitive skills needed to answer questions competently, shouldn’t be questioned formally about events they’ve experienced, including instances of sexual or physical abuse. Hershkowitz, Lamb, Orbach, Katz, and Horowitz (p. 611) analyzed almost 300 investigative interviews conducted in Israel with children who reported they’d been abused. Findings: Even 3-year-olds were able to participate in extended interviews, including as many as 84 questions, and to answer more than 90 percent of the questions. However, their ability to understand the questions and provide relevant and informative responses was more limited. The findings shed light on the abilities of 3- to 6-year-old children to understand questions and provide important details in the course of child abuse investigations.

Peer Influence

We know that when kids have troubling relationships with their peers, they can experience more psychological dysfunction, such as depression. Kochel, Ladd, and Rudolph (p. 637) asked: Does depression precipitate youths’ relationship difficulties or do difficulties in the relationships provoke depression? Findings from this longitudinal study suggest that, for a sample of about 480 youths in fourth through sixth grades, depression forecasts peer relationship difficulties. Specifically, being depressed in fourth grade predicted being victimized by peers in fifth grade, which in turn predicted having difficulty being accepted in sixth grade. The findings call into question the assumption that relationship problems cause psychological problems like depression. The study’s results can inform prevention and early intervention efforts with depressed youth.

Most teens take part in minor delinquent behaviors, such as spreading graffiti, shoplifting, and vandalizing at school, and usually, they act with friends. In a longitudinal study, Keijsers et al. (p. 651) looked at 13- to 16-year-olds to answer the questions: Should parents try to control and prohibit their children from spending time with friends who engage in delinquent behaviors? In so doing, will they put peers in the category of forbidden fruits, exacerbating teens’ desire to join in? After administering annual questionnaires to almost 500 Dutch youths, their best friends, and both their parents, the study finds that spending time with deviant friends boosted the likelihood that teens became delinquent a year later. When parents prohibited the friendships, though, there were more (not fewer) contacts with deviant peers a year later, resulting in higher levels of delinquency 2 years later. In sum, the study suggests that when parents prohibit friendships, their actions may backfire.

Young people are influenced in their use of drugs and alcohol by peers—not only close friends, but also sports teammates. Fujimoto, Unger, and Valente (p. 442) took a longitudinal look at 1,260 ethnically diverse, urban, middle-class sixth through eighth graders, using a new social network method for measuring the extent to which youngsters are exposed to smoking through participation in organized activities with other students who smoke. Findings: Youths were more likely to smoke as they were increasingly exposed to teammates who smoked, a tendency that may be stronger among girls than boys. In addition, youths who participated in a greater number of sports were less likely to smoke than those who participated in fewer. The results can inform prevention programs.

Positive Thinking and Perspective-Taking

Even kindergarteners know that thinking positively will make you feel better. And parents’ own feelings of optimism may play a role in whether their children understand how thoughts influence emotions. Those are the findings of a study by Bamford and Lagattuta (p. 667) that looked at 90 mostly White children aged 5–10 and their parents. Children as young as 5 predicted that people would feel better after thinking positive thoughts than they would after thinking negative thoughts. Children had the most difficulty understanding how positive thinking could boost someone’s spirits in situations that involved negative events—such as falling down and getting hurt. In these coping situations, children’s levels of hope and optimism were linked with their ability to understand the power of positive thinking, but parents’ optimism was even more strongly related to children’s reasoning.

How egocentric are children? Can they see things from another person’s perspective? If so, how difficult is it for children to do this? And how does this ability develop? Surtees and Apperly (p. 452), in a study out of the UK, compared children (ages 6–11) and adults on a single task that tested their visual perspective-taking abilities. Findings: Older children and adults performed much more quickly and accurately than their younger counterparts, suggesting that with age we get better at taking others’ perspectives. People in all age groups found it harder to judge another’s perspective when it was different from their own and this effect didn’t change with age. And people in all age groups, when they took into consideration others’ perspectives, did so automatically, suggesting that this ability isn’t the result of years of practice, but rather an underlying ability that’s there from childhood.

Right or Wrong

Developing an awareness of moral rules (such as not being mean to others) and social-conventional rules (such as understanding manners) has been shown to be a critical part of social development. Yet little research has examined longitudinal changes over a year or how these judgments are related to children’s temperament. Smetana et al. (p. 683) used a longitudinal design to test 70 middle-income 2½- to 4-year-olds over the course of a year. They find that children’s understanding that authority figures (teachers) aren’t the sole determination of what makes an act right or wrong increased over the year. And children who controlled their own behavior were slower in acquiring the notion that moral rules are not alterable. The researchers conclude that preschoolers evaluate familiar, everyday moral transgressions as distinct from conventional transgressions along several dimensions that change from 2½ to 4 and that are related to their temperaments.

On the Outs

What do tweens and teens think about excluding peers and how do they expect others to feel when they take on the role of the excluder? Malti, Killen, and Gasser (p. 697) investigated how ethnic minority and majority youths in Switzerland evaluate situations in which someone is excluded from the peer group. Almost 250 youths (ages 12 and 15) from ethnic majority and minority groups in Switzerland were asked about peer groups that excluded on the basis of nationality (non-Swiss nationals), gender (girls), and personality traits (shy people). While youths judged exclusion based on nationality as more wrong than exclusion based on gender or personality, non-Swiss youths saw exclusion based on nationality as worse than did Swiss nationals; surprisingly, they were also likely to attribute positive emotions to Swiss nationals who excluded ethnic minority peers. By providing new findings about the perspective of ethnic minority youths in a country that’s been homogeneous until recently, the study can help educators create positive school climates in contexts involving recently immigrated minority youths.

Seeking Attention

Toddlers’ efforts to get adults’ attention are often viewed negatively, but Gosselin and Forman (p. 712), in a study of more than one hundred 2-year-olds and their parents, find that the way toddlers seek attention from busy parents may tell us something about their relationships. As the children and their parents took part in different daily activities, researchers gauged parents’ responsiveness and observed children and parents doing things together, such as building with blocks. They also examined children’s patterns of attention seeking when the parent was busy. Would children who expected to have a positive interaction with their parents seek attention in positive ways, by sharing with or smiling at the parent, for example? Would children who expected little or no responsiveness seek attention in more negative ways, say by whining or acting out? Children who sought attention in positive ways were eagerly motivated to collaborate with their parents and more successful at imitating them than children who sought attention in negative ways. The results put a spin on how we usually consider children’s attention-seeking behavior, showing that what matters isn’t the amount of attention toddlers seek, but the emotional tone of their attention seeking.

Genes and Environments

Although many studies have shown connections between parenting and how children do, critics of such socialization research say that these links might not reflect socialization per se, but the possibility that the same genes that make it easier or harder to care for a child sensitively also contribute to variation in how kids do. Twin studies are one way to examine to what degree connections between how parents care for their children and how their children fare are due to environmental processes. In a study of about 500 same-sex fraternal and identical twin pairs in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative sample, Roisman and Fraley (p. 728) examined whether correlations between parenting quality before school entry, and academic skills, social competence, and externalizing problems (such as aggression) in kindergarten were in fact tied to genetic variation among children in the study. Findings: Nongenetic influences shared between twin siblings within families accounted for virtually all the links between early parenting and academic skills, roughly half the links between parenting and children’s social competence, and about a quarter of the links between parenting and kids’ externalizing behavior.

Previous studies have found that genetic influences on academic achievement are larger among individuals raised in wealthier homes. This suggests that the expression of genes for academic achievement depends on adequate environmental opportunity. Tucker-Drob and Harden (p. 743) hypothesized that one way this gene-by-environment interaction happens is that, in more privileged socioeconomic situations, individuals have greater opportunity to find and take advantage of social and educational experiences that are in line with their genetically influenced interests. Their study, of more than 750 pairs of identical and fraternal adolescent twins, confirms that the relation between academic achievement and genes for intellectual interest is stronger among twins being raised in wealthier homes.

School Readiness

Children vary widely in the rate at which they acquire words. In a longitudinal study to explore the pace of early vocabulary growth, Rowe, Raudenbush, and Goldin-Meadow (p. 508) looked at more than 60 families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds whose children were 14 months old at the start of the study and 54 months at the end. Families’ socioeconomic status, the number of vocabulary words parents used with their children, and the children’s own gestures were related to the rate at which the children learned new words. These growth rates, in turn, were related to the size of the children’s vocabulary at the end of the study—particularly for children from poorer families. The results suggest that children’s early rates of vocabulary growth can tell us about their later vocabulary abilities as they enter kindergarten. Understanding the pace of early vocabulary growth therefore improves our ability to predict school readiness, and might help identify children at risk for starting school behind their peers.

High-quality early child care isn’t important just for children, but for their mothers, too. That’s what Crosnoe, Augustine, and Huston (p. 758) find in a study that analyzed data from more than 1,300 children in the longitudinal NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Moms whose children spent their early years in high-quality nonparental care were more likely to be involved in their children’s schools later, regardless of the moms’ socioeconomic status. These findings tie into two important components—and associated policy interventions—of children’s transitions into elementary school: On the one hand, high-quality child care promotes school readiness; on the other, children make a smoother transition to school when families and schools are strongly connected. The study has implications for policy and practice, suggesting that linking multiple settings of early childhood—home, child care, and school—early in children’s lives helps support children’s school readiness and early academic progress.

Anne Bridgman