Category Archives: At home

No more animals in storybooks? Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans

To you remember Watership Down? I bet – if you are as old as me – you are now humming that tune. A new study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic (human-like) animals. It is a randomized controlled trial with 3 groups of in total 96 participating children.

Overall, the researchers found:

  • Children ages 4 to 6 read either a book about sharing with human characters, a book about sharing with anthropomorphic animal
    characters, or a control book about seeds.
  • Reading the human story significantly increased preschoolers’ altruistic giving but reading the anthropomorphic story or the
    control story decreased it.
  • Children in the anthropomorphic condition who were more likely to categorize the animal characters as humans than as animals were
    more likely to share at post-test.
  • Storybooks with human characters can better promote children’s prosocial behaviors.

From the press release:

The findings are noteworthy since so much of children’s media– books, movies, video games, etc.– use human-like animal characters. But since many children in this study did not see these characters as similar to themselves, researchers say they may be less likely to translate social lessons from these stories into their everyday lives.

“These findings add to a growing body of research showing that children find it easier to apply knowledge from stories that are realistic,” said Dr. Patricia Ganea, Associate Professor of early cognitive development at OISE, University of Toronto. “Overall, children were more likely to act on the moral of the story when it featured a human character.”

Human versus human-like animal characters

In the study, children listened to a story with either human or human-like animal characters who spoke and wore clothes. Each book taught children about sharing with others. Children’s altruistic giving was assessed before and after the reading.

Overall, preschoolers shared more after listening to the book with humans. Children who were read the book with animal characters shared less after the reading.

Researchers assessed whether children viewed anthropmorphic animal characters as human or not. Most children said these animals lacked human characteristics. Of the children who read the animal book, those who attributed human characteristics to anthropomorphic animals shared more after reading. Researchers say one of the reasons some children did not act generously may have been because they did not interpret the anthropomorphic animals as similar to themselves.

Books with realistic characters lead to better learning

Dr. Ganea says the results highlight that storybooks can have an immediate impact on children’s social behaviour.

“Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives,” she said. “It is important for educators and parents to choose carefully when the goal is to teach real-world knowledge and social behaviours through storybooks.”

Nicole Larsen, who worked with Dr. Ganea on the study as part of her master’s degree, agreed, noting, “Parents can play an important role in children’s learning by asking them to explain parts of the story and helping them see the similarity between the story and their own lives.”

Children’s sharing tested

In the study, children first had a chance to share some of their 10 stickers with another child. They were then read one of three books: a book about sharing with human characters; the same book with anthropomorphic animal characters; or a book about seeds. This book was used to check how sharing changed when the story did not involve sharing. After the reading, children had another chance to give away new stickers. The number of stickers shared provided a measure of children’s altruistic giving.

Children were also asked to categorize different pictures of human, anthropomorphic, and realistic animals with either human traits or animal traits.

To see if a story with animal characters is more appealing to young children, the researchers asked the children who read the seeds book to choose between the human and animal books.

Abstract of the study:

For millennia, adults have told children stories not only to entertain but also to impart important moral lessons to promote prosocial behaviors. Many such stories contain anthropomorphized animals because it is believed that children learn from anthropomorphic stories as effectively, if not better than, from stories with human characters, and thus are more inclined to act according to the moral lessons of the stories. Here we experimentally tested this belief by reading preschoolers a sharing story with either human characters or anthropomorphized animal characters. Reading the human story significantly increased preschoolers’ altruistic giving but reading the anthropomorphic story or a control story decreased it. Thus, contrary to the common belief, realistic stories, not anthropomorphic ones, are better for promoting young children’s prosocial behavior.

 

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Not really surprising but very interesting study: child’s home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

This study isn’t surprising, but still pretty important: children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that can cascade into later academic success (I also found an interesting presentation by one of the authors of the study) Oh, because some of you would ask: yes, they did check for IQ which makes this a very interesting study.

From the press release:

Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that can cascade into later academic success, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

The study, published online in the journal Applied Developmental Science, followed a group of children from birth through 5th grade to track the influence of early home learning environments on later cognitive skills and understand the factors that might explain long-term influences.

“There is growing evidence for the power of early learning environments on later academic success,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, the study’s lead author and a professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt. “Our study confirms that strong home learning environments arm children with foundational skills that are springboards to long-term academic achievement.”

Research shows that the home learning environment powerfully shapes children’s language and cognitive development. Children’s participation in learning activities, the quality of parent-child interactions, and the availability of learning materials like books and toys are three key features of the home learning environment that support language and pre-academic skills in early childhood.

In this study, Tamis-LeMonda and her colleagues examined early home learning environments and whether they predict 5th grade academic skills for children of families from ethnically diverse, low-income backgrounds. The researchers studied 2,204 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project.

Children’s learning environments were measured through a series of home visits at 14 months, at 2 and 3 years, and at pre-kindergarten. The researchers looked at literacy activities (including book reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers), learning materials in the home (including books, toys, or games that facilitate expression and learning), and the quality of mothers’ interactions with their children. Examples of high quality interactions included labeling objects in the environment and responding to children’s cues; these sensitive interactions are attentive to children’s needs and cognitively stimulating.

Learning environments were again assessed in 5th grade based on the number of books in the home and the quality of mothers’ engagement with children, both spontaneous interactions and during a discussion-based task.

At the pre-kindergarten and 5th grade visits, children were assessed on age-appropriate academic skills. The pre-K visit included measures of vocabulary, letter and word identification, and math problem-solving; the 5th grade visit measured vocabulary, reading, math, and general cognitive abilities.

The researchers found that early learning environments supported the emergence of pre-academic skills that persisted into early adolescence to predict children’s 5th grade academic skills. Pathways from early learning environments to later academic skill were similar for children from White, Black, Hispanic, English-speaking, and Hispanic Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

Notably, learning environments were highly stable over the 10-year study, suggesting that the experiences parents provide their infants as early as the first year of life may solidify into patterns of engagement that either continue to support or impede children’s emerging skills.

The study highlights the importance of early childhood experiences for children’s skill development and long-term academic success, and reinforces the notion that families have a major influence on children’s academic outcomes.

The researchers note that the findings have implications for policy and practice, including the design of interventions for young children and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Improvements to early learning environments, whether it be in the home or through early childhood programs like Early Head Start, can effectively support the development of children exposed to socioeconomic disadvantage,” said Tamis-LeMonda, who also co-directs the Center for Research on Culture, Development and Education at NYU Steinhardt.

Abstract of the study:

We examined whether the early learning environment predicts children’s 5th grade skills in 2,204 families from ethnically diverse, low-income backgrounds; tested the mediating roles of children’s pre-kindergarten school-related skills and later learning environment; and asked whether lagged associations generalize across White, Black, Hispanic English-speaking, and Hispanic Spanish-speaking samples. Children’s early learning environment comprised measures of literacy activities, the quality of mothers’ engagements with children, and learning materials assessed at 14 months, 2 and 3 years, and at pre-kindergarten; learning environments were again assessed in 5th grade. At pre-kindergarten and in 5th grade, children were assessed on pre-academic and academic skills respectively. Early learning environments predicted children’s 5th grade academic skills, and children’s pre-kindergarten skills and 5th grade learning environment mediated longitudinal associations. The early learning environment supports the emergence of pre-academic skills that are stable into early adolescence, and pathways generalize across ethnic/racial groups.

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How we balance work and family life may be learned from our parents

There is a new qualitative study co-authored by Dr Ioana Lupu from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) that looks at how parents influence the work-family life balance from their children later on in life. One insight? Women who had stay-at-home mothers ‘work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers’.

From the press release:

Previous work-life balance research has focused more on the organisational context or on individual psychological traits to explain work and career decisions. However, this new study, published in Human Relations, highlights the important role of our personal history and what we subconsciously learn from our parents.

“We are not blank slates when we join the workforce — many of our attitudes are already deeply engrained from childhood,” according to co-author by Dr Ioana Lupu.

The study argues that our beliefs and expectations about the right balance between work and family are often formed and shaped in the earliest part of our lives. One of the most powerful and enduring influences on our thinking may come from watching our parents.

The research is based on 148 interviews with 78 male and female employees from legal and accounting firms. Interviewees were sorted into four categories by the researchers: (1) willingly reproducing parental model; (2) reproducing the parental model against one’s will; (3) willingly distancing from the parental model; (4) and distancing from the parental model against one’s will.

The study shows a number of differences between women and men who grew up in ‘traditional’ households where the father had the role of breadwinner while the mother managed the household. Male participants who grew up in this kind of household tended to be unaffected by the guilt often associated with balancing work and family.

Male participant in the study: “I’ve always had a very strong work ethic drilled into me anyway, again by my parents, my family. So, I never needed anyone looking over my shoulder or giving me a kick up the backside and telling me I needed to do something — I’d get on and I’d do it. So, I found the environment [of the accountancy firm] in general one that suited me quite well.” (David, Partner, accountancy firm, two children).

Women on the other hand were much more conflicted — they reported feeling torn in two different directions. Women who had stay-at-home mothers “work like their fathers but want to parent like their mothers,” says Dr Lupu.

Female participant in the study: “My mum raised us…she was always at home and to some extent I feel guilty for not giving my children the same because I feel she raised me well and she had control over the situation. I’m not there every day … and I feel like I’ve failed them in a way because I leave them with somebody else. I sometimes think maybe I should be at home with them until they are a bit older.” (Eva, director, accountancy firm, two children).

Women who had working mothers are not necessarily always in a better position because they were marked by the absence of their mothers. A female participant in the study remembers vividly, many years later how her mother was absent whereas other children’s mothers were waiting at the school gates.

Female participant in the study: “I remember being picked up by a child-minder, and if I was ill, I’d be outsourced to whoever happened to be available at the time . . . I hated it, I hated it, because I felt like I just wanted to be with my mum and dad. My mum never picked me up from school when I was at primary school, and then everybody else’s mums would be stood there at the gate . . . And it’s only now that I’ve started re-thinking about that and thinking, well isn’t that going to be the same for [my son] if I’m working the way I am, he’s going to have somebody picking him up from school and maybe he won’t like that and is that what I want for my child?” (Jane, Partner, law firm, one child and expecting another).

An exception was found in female participants whose stay-at-home mothers had instilled strong career aspirations into them from an early stage. In these cases, the participants’ mothers sometimes set themselves up consciously as ‘negative role models’, encouraging their daughters not to repeat their own mistake.

Female participant in the study: “I do remember my mother always regretting she didn’t have a job outside the home and that was something that influenced me and all my sisters. […] She’d encourage us to find a career where we could work. She was quite academic herself, more educated than my father, but because of the nature of families and young children, she’d had to become this stay-at-home parent.” (Monica, director, AUDIT, one child)

“We have found that the enduring influence of upbringing goes some way towards explaining why the careers of individuals, both male and female, are differentially affected following parenthood, even when those individuals possess broadly equivalent levels of cultural capital, such as levels of education, and have hitherto pursued very similar career paths,” says Dr Lupu.

She says the research raises awareness of the gap that often exists between unconscious expectations and conscious ambitions related to career and parenting.

“If individuals are to reach their full potential, they have to be aware of how the person that they are has been shaped through previous socialisation and how their own work?family decisions further reproduce the structures constraining these decisions,” says Dr Lupu.

Abstract of the study:

Prior research generally presents work–family decisions as an individual’s rational choice between alternatives, downplaying the crucial role that upbringing plays in shaping work and parenting decisions. This article emphasizes how habitus – historically constituted and embodied dispositions – structures perceptions about what is ‘right’ and ‘normal’ for working mothers and fathers. This relational approach explores how the entrenched dispositions of individuals interact dynamically with contextual imperatives to influence professionals’ work–family decisions. Drawing on 148 interviews with 78 male and female professionals, our study looks at much deeper rooted causes of work–family conflict in professional service firms than have hitherto been considered. We show how dispositions embodied during one’s upbringing can largely transcend time and space. These dispositions hold a powerful sway over individuals and may continue to structure action even when professionals exhibit a desire to act differently. In turn, this implies that the impediments to greater equality lie not only in organizational and societal structures, but within individuals themselves in the form of dispositions and categories of perception that contribute towards the maintenance and reproduction of those structures. Additionally, in a more limited number of cases, we show how dispositions adapt as a result of either reflexive distancing or an encounter with objective circumstances, leading to discontinuity in the habitus.

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A study that can be looked at from different angles: genes account for half of differences in social mobility

Is the bottle half full or half empty? Well it doesn’t mind, this new study shows that genes account for nearly 50 per cent of the differences between whether children are socially mobile or not. What does this mean? That everything is determined by our genes? No, it’s the half of the differences. Does this mean that genes don’t play an important role? No, guess again.

From the press release (bold by me, because great quote):

A new King’s College London study suggests that genes account for nearly 50 per cent of the differences between whether children are socially mobile or not.

One of the best predictors of children’s educational attainment is their parents’ educational level and in the past this association was thought to be environmental, rather than influenced by genes.

Parents with higher levels of educational achievement, for example, are thought to access greater academic and social resources, enabling them to pass on better opportunities for their children than less educated parents.

This new King’s study, published today in Psychological Science, is the first to find substantial genetic influence on children’s social mobility, which could have important implications for reducing educational inequality.

Using a sample of more than 6,000 twin families from the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded Twins Early Development Study, the researchers measured genetic influence on four categories of social mobility:

  • Downwardly mobile: children who did not complete A-Levels but were raised in families with a university-educated parent;
  • Upwardly mobile: children who completed A-Levels but their parent did not attend university;
  • Stably educated: children who completed A-levels and were raised in families with a university-educated parent
  • Stably uneducated: children who did not complete A-Levels and whose parents did not attend university

The researchers also used an alternative method to study genetic influences on social mobility that focuses on people’s DNA markers for educational achievement, so-called genome-wide polygenic scores (GPS).

They found that children with higher polygenic scores completed A-levels, even if they had come from families where no parent had gone to university. The highest polygenic scores were found for families that were ‘stably educated’, the lowest scores for those who were ‘stably uneducated’, and results fell in the middle for downwardly and upwardly mobile families.

Ziada Ayorech, first author of the study from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: ‘The role of parent’s education in their children’s educational outcomes has previously been thought of as environmental, but our study suggests a strong genetic component too. These results show that half of the differences between whether families were socially mobile or not, can be attributed to genetic differences between them.

‘This tells us that if we want to reduce educational inequalities, it’s important to understand children’s genetic propensity for educational achievement. That way, we can better identify those who require more support.’

Dr Sophie von Stumm, senior author and a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London, added: ‘Finding genetic influences on social mobility can be viewed as an index of equality, rather than inequality. The reason is that genetics can only play a significant role for children’s educational attainment if their environmental opportunities are relatively equal.

Abstract of the study:

Using twin (6,105 twin pairs) and genomic (5,825 unrelated individuals taken from the twin sample) analyses, we tested for genetic influences on the parent-offspring correspondence in educational attainment. Genetics accounted for nearly half of the variance in intergenerational educational attainment. A genomewide polygenic score (GPS) for years of education was also associated with intergenerational educational attainment: The highest and lowest GPS means were found for offspring in stably educated families (i.e., who had taken A Levels and had a university-educated parent; M = 0.43, SD = 0.97) and stably uneducated families (i.e., who had not taken A Levels and had no university-educated parent; M = −0.19, SD = 0.97). The average GPSs fell in between for children who were upwardly mobile (i.e., who had taken A Levels but had no university-educated parent; M = 0.05, SD = 0.96) and children who were downwardly mobile (i.e., who had not taken A Levels but had a university-educated parent; M = 0.28, SD = 1.03). Genetic influences on intergenerational educational attainment can be viewed as an index of equality of educational opportunity.

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This study surprised me: the link between infertility and children’s performance in school.

Hoping for a pregnancy can sometimes be a long burden for some mothers and couples. But with some luck – and often with a lot of medical help – the hoping can result in a child. Researchers have now investigated if this parental infertility can be linked to the performance in school later on in the child’s life.

My first reaction when I read this, was: but this happened even before the conception?!? My second thought was that there could be a correlational link and this study did find such a link: involuntary childlessness prior to either a first or a second birth is associated with lower academic achievement — both test scores and grade point average — at age 16, even if the period of infertility was prior to a sibling’s birth rather than the child’s own.   It’s a result I’ll have to chew on for some time.

From the press release:

How does resolved parental infertility relate to children’s performance in school?

A University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist considers this question in a sample of all Swedish births between 1988 and 1995.

Findings from the co-authored study suggest that involuntary childlessness prior to either a first or a second birth is associated with lower academic achievement– both test scores and grade point average– at age 16, even if the period of infertility was prior to a sibling’s birth rather than the child’s own.

The authors also find that infertility among parents who already have a first child, known as “secondary infertility,” has negative effects on how first- and second-born children perform in school only when the family did not already experience infertility before a first birth.

“Our results suggest that we need to be thinking of infertility as a cumulative physical and social experience, with effects extending well beyond the point at which a child is ultimately born,” said Amelia Branigan, the study’s lead author and UIC visiting assistant professor of sociology.

Branigan and co-author Jonas Helgertz of Lund University used data from the Swedish Interdisciplinary Panel, which links multiple Swedish government registers.

Infertility is measured as the number of years that parents spent trying to conceive, reported by the mother after a baby is delivered. Grades and test scores were measured at grade 9, when children are about 16 years old.

“To our knowledge, no large U.S. data source currently includes measures of both years of infertility, as well as long-term outcomes in parents and in children ultimately born,” Branigan said.

As no previous study has considered the long-term socioeconomic consequences of resolved infertility for the children ultimately conceived, Branigan emphasizes that further research is needed to determine specific mechanisms driving this relationship.

She notes that the direction of the finding is consistent with previous studies on younger children, which point to parents’ experience of infertility as one likely factor connecting resolved infertility to child outcomes.

“Researchers have suggested that infertility may be a more traumatic experience for parents than is often recognized, with potential consequences on parenting even after infertility is ‘resolved’ by the birth of a child,” Branigan said.

Abstract of the study:

Although difficulty conceiving a child has long been a major medical and social preoccupation, it has not been considered as a predictor of long-term outcomes in children ultimately conceived. This is consistent with a broader gap in knowledge regarding the consequences of parental health for educational performance in offspring. Here we address that omission, asking how resolved parental infertility relates to children’s academic achievement. In a sample of all Swedish births between 1988 and 1995, we find that involuntary childlessness prior to either a first or a second birth is associated with lower academic achievement (both test scores and GPA) in children at age 16, even if the period of infertility was prior to a sibling’s birth rather than the child’s own. Our results support a conceptualization of infertility as a cumulative physical and social experience with effects extending well beyond the point at which a child is born, and emphasize the need to better understand how specific parental health conditions constrain children’s educational outcomes.

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Again: engaging with children while reading books to them gives their brain a cognitive “boost.”

It has been said & shown over and over again that reading books to kids is important. But simply speaking the words aloud may not be enough to improve cognitive development in preschoolers. A new study suggests – correlation warning – engaging with children while reading books is important. Can we now shout all together: no shit, Sherlock?

From the press release:

A new international study, published in the journal PLOS ONE and led by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, shows that engaging with children while reading books to them gives their brain a cognitive “boost.”

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found significantly greater brain activation in 4-year-old children who were more highly engaged during story listening, suggesting a novel improvement mechanism of engagement and understanding. The study reinforces the value of “dialogic reading,” where the child is encouraged to actively participate.

“The takeaway for parents in this study is that they should engage more when reading with their child, ask questions, have them turn the page, and interact with each other,” said John Hutton, MD, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s and lead author of the study. “In turn, this could fuel brain activation–or “turbocharge” the development of literacy skills, particularly comprehension, in preschool aged children.”

The study involved functional MRI scans of 22 girls, age 4, to explore the relationship between engagement and verbal interactivity during a mother-child reading observation and neural activation and connectivity during a story listening task. Children exhibiting greater interest in the narrative showed increased activation in right-sided cerebellar areas of the brain, thought to support cognitive skill acquisition and refinement via connection to language, association and executive function areas.

“Our findings underscore the importance of interventions explicitly addressing both parent and child reading engagement, including awareness and reduction of distractions such as cellphones, which were the most common preventable barrier that we observed,” said Hutton.

Hutton says long-term studies are needed beginning in infancy to better understand mother-child factors contributing to healthy brain development and literacy skills, as this current study does not establish causation.

Abstract of the study:

Expanding behavioral and neurobiological evidence affirms benefits of shared (especially parent-child) reading on cognitive development during early childhood. However, the majority of this evidence involves factors under caregiver control, the influence of those intrinsic to the child, such as interest or engagement in reading, largely indirect or unclear. The cerebellum is increasingly recognized as playing a “smoothing” role in higher-level cognitive processing and learning, via feedback loops with language, limbic and association cortices. We utilized functional MRI to explore the relationship between child engagement during a mother-child reading observation and neural activation and connectivity during a story listening task, in a sample of 4-year old girls. Children exhibiting greater interest and engagement in the narrative showed increased activation in right-sided cerebellar association areas during the task, and greater functional connectivity between this activation cluster and language and executive function areas. Our findings suggest a potential cerebellar “boost” mechanism responsive to child engagement level that may contribute to emergent literacy development during early childhood, and synergy between caregiver and child factors during story sharing.

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Low-income children and language learning: a double dose of disadvantage

The element of language learning and low-income children has been in the centre of attention for quite a while. Children born in affluent families hear 30 million more words than children born in low-income families. Now a recent study – specific looking at the United States – shows taht children from poor neighborhoods are less likely to have complex language building opportunities both in home and at school, putting them at a disadvantage in their kindergarten. Now I know from an earlier report I’ve written myself on early education, that there can be important regional effects (something that also can be found in this paper from last year by Slot et al.) Still this study has some interesting warning points.

From the press release (bold by me):

The findings, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, suggest that language learning should involve both families and teachers in order to overcome these early disadvantages and ensure learning opportunities for vulnerable students.

“Children may go from a home with limited physical and psychological resources for learning and language to a school with similar constraints, resulting in a double dose of disadvantage,” said Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author. “Our study suggests that neighborhoods matter and can have a powerful influence on nurturing success or failure.”

Research shows that children’s academic achievement is predicted not only by their family’s socioeconomic status, but also by the socioeconomic status of their school. These two factors together have an impact on children’s access to learning resources, including adults who create language-rich opportunities when they speak with children.

“Children’s early exposure to a rich set of language practices can set in motion the processes that they use for learning to read, including the vocabulary and background knowledge necessary for language and reading comprehension,” Neuman said. “Consequently, children who have limited experience with these kinds of linguistic interactions may have fewer opportunities to engage in the higher-order exchanges valued in school.”

In this study, Neuman and her colleagues examined language-advancing resources in both the homes and schools of 70 children who recently made the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Half of the families lived in poor neighborhoods in Detroit, while the other half lived in more demographically diverse Michigan communities that were largely working class.

The researchers followed the children through their kindergarten year, conducting targeted observations in both home and school settings. During four hour-long home visits, the researchers observed the engagement between parents and their children to understand the degree of cognitive stimulation in the home and the quality of the interactions. They also conducted four half-day observations in kindergarten classrooms during which the teachers’ speaking was recorded. The researchers analyzed the language spoken by parents and teachers for both quantity (number of words spoken) and quality (using varied vocabulary and complex sentences).

These observations were combined with assessments of the children’s school readiness skills, including vocabulary knowledge and letter and word identification.

The researchers found that children in low-income neighborhoods had fewer supports for language and early literacy developments than did those in working class communities. In both settings, there were significant differences in the quality of language directed at children, but there was no difference in the quantity of language overall.

At home, parents in low-income neighborhoods used shorter sentences, fewer different words, and had lower reading comprehension than did parents from working class neighborhoods. In the classroom, children from the low-income communities attended kindergartens characterized by more limited language opportunities. Teachers used simpler sentences, less varied vocabulary, and fewer unique word types, potentially oversimplifying their language for students.

Children in all neighborhoods experienced learning across their kindergarten year, but children in the working class communities outpaced their counterparts from low-income communities, particularly in expressive vocabulary.

We found that the quality of one’s educational opportunities is highly dependent on the streets where you live. Tragically, the children who need the greater opportunity to learn appear to be the least likely to get it,” Neuman said.

The results suggest that no matter the strength of the early boost children receive in preschool, differences in later environmental influences can either support or undermine this early advantage.

“Too often we have focused on what happens within early childhood programs instead of the environmental supports that surround them. We need to account for the multiple contexts of home and school in our understanding of children’s early development,” Neuman said.

Abstract of the study:

There is a virtual consensus regarding the types of language processes, interactions, and material supports that are central for young children to become proficient readers and writers (Shanahan et al., 2008). In this study, we examine these supports in both home and school contexts during children’s critical transitional kindergarten year. Participants were 70 children living in 2 different communities: neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (i.e., poverty rates over 40%) and borderline neighborhoods (i.e., poverty rates of 20–40%). From an ecological perspective, our goal was to examine the quantity and quality of knowledge-building supports in these contexts, and their relationship to children’s school readiness outcomes. Interactive parent-child tasks were designed to elicit child-directed language in the home, while naturalistic observations in the kindergarten classrooms captured teachers’ child-directed language. Children living in concentrated poverty were more likely to experience language of more limited complexity and diversity in both home and kindergarten contexts as compared to children living in borderline communities. We argue that the “double dose of disadvantage” in the language supports children receive at home and at school may affect their school readiness in significant, yet distinct, ways.

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Please look up? Is your tech behavior causing your child to misbehave?

A new study by researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University suggests that even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are associated with greater child behavior problems.

About half of parents reported that technology interrupted time with their children three or more times on a typical day. Even in low amounts, interruptions to parent-child time caused by digital technology are associated with greater child behavior problems.

Feeling bad yet? I have some good news: you can argue that this study is rather small – it is. And in court the evidence would be called rather circumstantial (and correlational). Still, the study seems to be a nice starting point for further research.

Still, read the press release:

Those are often on the list of reasons parents mention if their child whines, has tantrums or acts out.

Researchers are now asking if such negative behaviors could be related to something else: parents spending too much time on their smartphones or tablets.

A small study from University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Illinois State University found that heavy digital technology use by parents could be associated with child behavior issues. The findings were published in the May 2017 online issue of Child Development.

Researchers analyzed surveys completed separately by both mothers and fathers from 170 two-parent households. Mothers and fathers were asked about their use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other technology — and how the devices disrupted family time (a disturbance that lead author Brandon T. McDaniel coins ‘technoference.’) Interruptions could be as simple as checking phone messages during mealtime, playtime and routine activities or conversations with their children.

Might a few stolen moments used to check a couple text messages have a deeper effect?

While more research is needed, the study suggests it might: Even low or seemingly normal amounts of tech-related interruption were associated with greater child behavior problems, such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity and whining.

“This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t assume a direct connection between parents’ technology use and child behavior but these findings help us better understand the relationship,” says senior author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at Mott. “It’s also possible that parents of children with behavioral difficulties are more likely to withdraw or de-stress with technology during times with their child.”

But she adds “We know that parents’ responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children. It’s really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time.”

McDaniel, who designed and carried out the study, says researchers hope to learn more about the impact of increasing digital technology use on families and children.

“Research on the potential impact of this exposure lags far behind,” says McDaniel, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University.

“It’s too early to draw implications that could be used in clinical practice but our findings contribute to growing literature showing an association between greater digital technology use and potential relationship dysfunction between parents and their children.”

Parents in the study were asked to rate how problematic their personal device use was based on how difficult it was for them to resist checking new messages, how frequently they worried about calls and texts and if they thought they used their phones too much.

Participants also were asked how often phones, tablets, computers and other devices diverted their attention when otherwise engaged with their children.

On average, mothers and fathers both perceived about two devices interfering in their interactions with their child at least once or more on a typical day. Mothers, however, seemed to perceive their phone use as more problematic than fathers did.

About half (48 percent) of parents reported technology interruptions three or more times on a typical day while 17 percent said it occurred once and 24 percent said it happened twice a day. Only 11 percent said no interruptions occurred.

Parents then rated child behavior issues within the past two months by answering questions about how often their children whined, sulked, easily got frustrated, had tantrums or showed signs of hyperactivity or restlessness.

The researchers controlled for multiple factors, such as parenting stress, depressive symptoms, income, parent education as well as co-parenting quality (how supportive partners were of each other in parenting their child), which has been shown to predict child behavior.

The study joins other research and advocacy groups contributing to a larger debate about technology and its effect on child development.

Some professional societies, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Zero to Three, recommend “unplugged” family time. But they haven’t tested whether lessening or changing digital technology use during parent-child activities is associated with improved child behavior.

McDaniel and Radesky advise parents to try to carve out designated times to put away the devices and focus all attention on their kids.

Reserving certain times of the day or locations as being technology-free — such as mealtime or playtime right after work — may help ease family tensions caused by the modern blurring of outside worlds with home life, they say.

“Parents may find great benefits from being connected to the outside world through mobile technology, whether that’s work, social lives or keeping up with the news. It may not be realistic, nor is it necessary, to ban technology use all together at home,” Radesky says. “But setting boundaries can help parents keep smartphones and other mobile technology from interrupting quality time with their kids.”

Abstract of the study:

 Heavy parent digital technology use has been associated with suboptimal parent–child interactions, but no studies examine associations with child behavior. This study investigates whether parental problematic technology use is associated with technology-based interruptions in parent–child interactions, termed “technoference,” and whether technoference is associated with child behavior problems. Parent reports from 170 U.S. families (child Mage = 3.04 years) and actor–partner interdependence modeling showed that maternal and paternal problematic digital technology use predicted greater technoference in mother–child and father–child interactions; then, maternal technoference predicted both mothers’ and fathers’ reports of child externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Results suggest that technological interruptions are associated with child problem behaviors, but directionality and transactional processes should be examined in future longitudinal studies.

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How do kids and parents worry about privacy with internet-connected toys

Your daughters’ Barbie can be hacked to spy on your children. So, got you worried? Researchers have now conducted a new study that explores the attitudes and concerns of both parents and children who play with internet-connected toys. Through a series of in-depth interviews and observations, the researchers found that kids didn’t know their toys were recording their conversations, and parents generally worried about their children’s privacy when they played with the toys.

From the press release:

University of Washington researchers have conducted a new study that explores the attitudes and concerns of both parents and children who play with internet-connected toys. Through a series of in-depth interviews and observations, the researchers found that kids didn’t know their toys were recording their conversations, and parents generally worried about their children’s privacy when they played with the toys.

“These toys that can record and transmit are coming into a place that’s historically legally very well-protected ? the home,” said co-lead author Emily McReynolds, associate director of the UW’s Tech Policy Lab. “People have different perspectives about their own privacy, but it’s crystalized when you give a toy to a child.”

The researchers presented their paper May 10 at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Though internet-connected toys have taken off commercially, their growth in the market has not been without security breaches and public scrutiny. VTech, a company that produces tablets for children, was storing personal data of more than 200,000 children when its database was hacked in 2015. Earlier this year, Germany banned the Cayla toy over fears that personal data could be stolen.

It’s within this landscape that the UW team sought to understand the privacy concerns and expectations kids and parents have for these types of toys.

The researchers conducted interviews with nine parent-child pairs, asking each of them questions ? ranging from whether a child liked the toy and would tell it a secret to whether a parent would buy the toy or share what their child said to it on social media.

They also observed the children, all aged 6 to 10, playing with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino. These toys were chosen for the study because they are among the industry leaders for their stated privacy measures. Hello Barbie, for example, has an extensive permissions process for parents when setting up the toy, and it has been complimented for its strong encryption practices.

The resulting paper highlights a wide selection of comments from kids and parents, then makes recommendations for toy designers and policymakers.

Most of the children participating in the study did not know the toys were recording their conversations. Additionally, the toys’ lifelike exteriors probably fueled the perception that they are trustworthy, the researchers said, whereas kids might not have the tendency to share secrets and personal information when communicating with similar tools not intended as toys, such as Siri and Alexa.

“The toys are a social agent where you might feel compelled to disclose things that you wouldn’t otherwise to a computer or cell phone. A toy has that social exterior which might fool you into being less secure on what you tell it,” said co-lead author Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor at the Allen School. “We have this concern for adults, and with children, they’re even more vulnerable.”

Some kids were troubled by the idea of their conversations being recorded. When one parent explained how the child’s conversation with the doll could end up being shared widely on the computer, the child responded: “That’s pretty scary.”

At minimum, toy designers should create a way for the devices to notify children when they are recording, the researchers said. Designers could consider recording notifications that are more humanlike, such as having Hello Barbie say, “I’ll remember everything you say to me” instead of a red recording light that might not make sense to a child in that context.

The study found that most parents were concerned about their child’s privacy when playing with the toys. They universally wanted parental controls such as the ability to disconnect Barbie from the internet or control the types of questions to which the toys will respond. The researchers recommend toy designers delete recordings after a week’s time, or give parents the ability to delete conversations permanently.

A recent UW study demonstrated that video recordings that are filtered to preserve privacy can still allow a tele-operated robot to perform useful tasks, such as organize objects on a table. This study also revealed that people are much less concerned about privacy ? even for sensitive items that could reveal financial or medical information ? when such filters are in place. Speech recordings on connected toys could similarly be filtered to remove identity information and encode the content of speech in less human-interpretable formats to preserve privacy, while still allowing the toy to respond intelligibly.

The researchers hope this initial look into the privacy concerns of parents and kids will continue to inform both privacy laws and toy designers, given that such devices will only continue to fill the market and home.

“It’s inevitable that kids’ toys, as with everything else in society, will have computers in them, so it’s important to design them with security measures in mind,” said co-lead author Franziska Roesner, a UW assistant professor at the Allen School. “I hope the security research community continues to study these specific user groups, like children, that we don’t necessarily study in-depth.”

Abstract of the study:

Hello Barbie, CogniToys Dino, and Amazon Echo are part of a new wave of connected toys and gadgets for the home that listen. Unlike the smartphone, these devices are always on, blending into the background until needed. We conducted interviews with parent-child pairs in which they interacted with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino, shedding light on children’s expectations of the toys’ “intelligence” and parents’ privacy concerns and expectations for parental controls. We find that children were often unaware that others might be able to hear what was said to the toy, and that some parents draw connections between the toys and similar tools not intended as toys (e.g., Siri, Alexa) with which their children already interact. Our findings illuminate people’s mental models and experiences with these emerging technologies and will help inform the future designs of interactive, connected toys and gadgets. We conclude with recommendations for designers and policy makers.

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Educational apps for kids? Interactivity can either help or hinder learning.

It’s funny how I received a question today from someone in the audience and in the way back home I discover a new study on the same topic. This new study looks at the influence of touchscreens for learning, more specific for toddlers. And it’s a bit more complicated than iPads are good or bad. This study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that Educational apps for kids can be valuable learning tools, but there’s still a lot left to understand about how to best design them.

From the press release:

“Our experiments are a reminder that just because touchscreens allow for physical interaction, it doesn’t mean that it’s always beneficial,” says Dr. Colleen Russo-Johnson, lead author of the study and who completed this work as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University.

Smartphones and tablets have become so pervasive that, even in lower-income households, 90% of American children have used a touchscreen by the age of 2. Eighty percent of educational apps in the iTunes store are designed for children–especially toddlers and preschoolers. But recent research has shown that sometimes all those chimes and animations hinder learning, prompting the question, how well do we understand what it takes to make a truly beneficial learning app?

“Children interact with touch screens and the embedded media content in vastly different ways and this impacts their ability to learn from the content,” says Russo-Johnson. “Our experiment focused on how children interacted with touchscreen devices–on a more basic level–by stripping away fancy design features that vary from app to app and that are not always beneficial.”

Using a custom-made, streamlined learning app, Russo-Johnson and her colleagues showed that children as young as 2 could use the app to learn new words such as the fictional names of a variety of newly-introduced toys (designed specifically for the study). Unsurprisingly, slightly older children (age 4 to 5) were able to learn more than the younger ones (age 2 to 3) and they were also able to follow directions better–such as only tapping when instructed to do so.

The researchers went on to show that the excessive tapping by younger children seemed to go hand-in-hand with lower scores of a trait called self-regulation. As in this study, self-regulation is commonly measured by seeing how long children can keep themselves from eating a cracker that is placed in front of them–after they’ve been told to wait until they hear a signal that it’s ok to eat the cracker.

To complement this first study (which included 77 children), Russo-Johnson and her colleagues designed a second app to see which interactions–tapping, dragging, or simply watching–were better for learning new words.

Somewhat surprisingly, across this next group of 170 2- to 4-year olds, no single type of interaction proved to consistently be the best. But there were differences depending on age, gender, and the extent of prior exposure to touchscreens at home. Boys appeared to benefit more from watching, whereas dragging seemed best for girls and children with the most touchscreen experience.

These results complement the growing body of research on identifying effective interactive features, as well as providing insight into how apps might be tailored to fit the learning needs of different children.

“I hope that this research will inform academics and app developers alike,” says Russo-Johnson. “Educational app developers should be mindful of utilizing interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t distract from the intended educational benefits, and, when possible, allow for customization so parents and educators can determine the best settings for their children.”

This study is part of a broader Frontiers collection of articles on the influence of touch screen tablets on children’s lives.

Abstract of the report:

Touchscreen devices differ from passive screen media in promoting physical interaction with events on the screen. Two studies examined how young children’s screen-directed actions related to self-regulation (Study 1) and word learning (Study 2). In Study 1, 30 2-year-old children’s tapping behaviors during game play were related to their self-regulation, measured using Carlson’s snack task: girls and children with high self-regulation tapped significantly less during instruction portions of an app (including object labeling events) than did boys and children with low self-regulation. Older preschoolers (N = 47, aged 4–6 years) tapped significantly less during instruction than 2-year-olds did. Study 2 explored whether the particular way in which 170 children (2–4 years of age) interacted with a touchscreen app affected their learning of novel object labels. Conditions in which children tapped or dragged a named object to move it across the screen required different amounts of effort and focus, compared to a non-interactive (watching) condition. Age by sex interactions revealed a particular benefit of dragging (a motorically challenging behavior) for preschool girls’ learning compared to that of boys, especially for girls older than age 2. Boys benefited more from watching than dragging. Children from low socioeconomic status families learned more object names when dragging objects versus tapping them, possibly because tapping is a prepotent response that does not require thoughtful attention. Parents and industry experts should consider age, sex, self-regulation, and the physical requirements of children’s engagement with touchscreens when designing and using educational content.

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