Category Archives: At home

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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Interesting: how the 2 languages develop in the minds of young bilingual children

Bilingualism keeps me fascinated. This new study shows that the 2 languages of young bilingual children develop simultaneously but independently from each other. But there is more: the study also shows Spanish is vulnerable to being taken over by English, but English is not vulnerable to being taken over by Spanish.

Btw, the study has also a video-abstract:

From the press release:

A new study of Spanish-English bilingual children by researchers at Florida Atlantic University published in the journal Developmental Science finds that when children learn two languages from birth each language proceeds on its own independent course, at a rate that reflects the quality of the children’s exposure to each language.

In addition, the study finds that Spanish skills become vulnerable as children’s English skills develop, but English is not vulnerable to being taken over by Spanish. In their longitudinal data, the researchers found evidence that as the children developed stronger skills in English, their rates of Spanish growth declined. Spanish skills did not cause English growth to slow, so it’s not a matter of necessary trade-offs between two languages.

“One well established fact about monolingual development is that the size of children’s vocabularies and the grammatical complexity of their speech are strongly related. It turns out that this is true for each language in bilingual children,” said Erika Hoff, Ph.D., lead author of the study, a psychology professor in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and director of the Language Development Lab. “But vocabulary and grammar in one language are not related to vocabulary or grammar in the other language.”

For the study, Hoff and her collaborators David Giguere, a graduate research assistant at FAU and Jamie M. Quinn, a graduate research assistant at Florida State University, used longitudinal data on children who spoke English and Spanish as first languages and who were exposed to both languages from birth. They wanted to know if the relationship between grammar and vocabulary were specific to a language or more language general. They measured the vocabulary and level of grammatical development in these children in six-month intervals between the ages of 2 and a half to 4 years.

The researchers explored a number of possibilities during the study. They thought it might be something internal to the child that causes vocabulary and grammar to develop on the same timetable or that there might be dependencies in the process of language development itself. They also considered that children might need certain vocabulary to start learning grammar and that vocabulary provides the foundation for grammar or that grammar helps children learn vocabulary. One final possibility they explored is that it may be an external factor that drives both vocabulary development and grammatical development.

“If it’s something internal that paces language development then it shouldn’t matter if it’s English or Spanish, everything should be related to everything,” said Hoff. “On the other hand, if it’s dependencies within a language of vocabulary and grammar or vice versa then the relations should be language specific and one should predict the other. That is a child’s level of grammar should predict his or her future growth in vocabulary or vice versa.”

Turns out, the data were consistent only with the final possibility — that the rate of vocabulary and grammar development are a function of something external to the child and that exerts separate influences on growth in English and Spanish. Hoff and her collaborators suggest that the most cogent explanation would be in the properties of children’s input or their language exposure.

“Children may hear very rich language use in Spanish and less rich use in English, for example, if their parents are more proficient in Spanish than in English,” said Hoff. “If language growth were just a matter of some children being better at language learning than others, then growth in English and growth in Spanish would be more related than they are.”

Detailed results of the study are described in the article, “What Explains the Correlation between Growth in Vocabulary and Grammar? New Evidence from Latent Change Score Analyses of Simultaneous Bilingual Development.”

“There is something about differences among the children and the quality of English they hear that make some children acquire vocabulary and grammar more rapidly in English and other children develop more slowly,” said Hoff. “I think the key takeaway from our study is that it’s not the quantity of what the children are hearing; it’s the quality of their language exposure that matters. They need to experience a rich environment.”

Abstract of the study:

A close relationship between children’s vocabulary size and the grammatical complexity of their speech is well attested but not well understood. The present study used latent change score modeling to examine the dynamic relationships between vocabulary and grammar growth within and across languages in longitudinal data from 90 simultaneous Spanish–English bilingual children who were assessed at 6-month intervals between 30 and 48 months. Slopes of vocabulary and grammar growth were strongly correlated within each language and showed moderate or nonsignificant relationships across languages. There was no evidence that vocabulary level predicted subsequent grammar growth or that the level of grammatical development predicted subsequent vocabulary growth. We propose that a common influence of properties of input on vocabulary and grammatical development is the source of their correlated but uncoupled growth. An unanticipated across-language finding was a negative relationship between level of English skill and subsequent Spanish growth. We propose that the cultural context of Spanish–English bilingualism in the US is the reason that strong English skills jeopardize Spanish language growth, while Spanish skills do not affect English growth.

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Best Evidence in Brief: What are the effects of a four-day school week?

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this time I already discussed several of the studies mentioned in this great news letter on this blog. But this study was new to me, and quite interesting:

A Brookings report by Paul T. Hill and Georgia Heyward examines the four-day school week in rural Idaho. According to the report, four-day weeks have been implemented in approximately 42 of Idaho’s 115 school districts, with a primary goal of cost savings (e.g., savings on transportation, heating, janitorial, and clerical costs). The revised schedule adds roughly 30 to 90 minutes to each day that students are in school, and then on the fifth day (usually Friday), the goal is to assign projects and encourage parent and community groups to organize study halls and enrichment activities.
The authors collected data by interviewing district and school leaders in Idaho communities that had moved to the four-day week. Key findings included:
  • Though cost cutting was the original motivation for the four-day week, savings have been elusive in most localities. This is because so many costs are fixed (e.g., teacher and administrator salaries).
  • Teachers reported difficulty restarting instruction and focusing children’s attention after a three-day weekend.
  • Teachers in many places now consider the fifth day an amenity, and some superintendents reported that the four-day week made the locality more attractive to teacher candidates.
  • Working parents found the longer hours in school more convenient as it meant that children’s days more nearly matched their own workdays. However, the fifth day presented new problems of child care and planning for positive uses of children’s time.
  • No district that had adopted the four-day week had rigorously assessed the effects on student achievement. Several district leaders said student and teacher attendance had improved in the first year of the four-day week, but they had not assessed whether these results persisted over time.
The authors discuss the limits of their evidence, and note that the long-term effects for rural students’ education are unknown.

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What triggers a high-school student to suddenly drop out?

Leaving school without a degree can for a happy few be a great thing (cfr the typical mentions of Gates, Jobs or Zuckerberg), but for the biggest part of the dropouts it still means bad luck. But what causes high-school students to suddenly drop out? A new UdeM study shows that this could be divorcing parents, a car accident, a job layoff or any other major stressful event can provoke adolescents to quit their studies.

From the press release:

What pushes a teenager to suddenly drop out of high school? The answer: any number of very stressful “trigger” events that occur in their final few months in class, researchers at Université de Montréal’s Public Health Research Institute have found.

In fact, adolescents exposed to severe stressors are more than twice as likely to drop out in the following few months compared to similar schoolmates who are not exposed, says the study led by UdeM pyschoeducation professor Véronique Dupéré.

The stressors are not always school-related. In fact, most occur away from school and can involve family members (divorcing parents, for example), conflicts with peers, work issues (being laid off), health issues (a car accident) and legal issues.

Previous studies of high-school dropouts have concentrated on individual triggers, such as teen pregnancy. The UdeM study, published in late March in Child Development, looked at a wide array of severe events across the spectrum of adolescent experience, in and away from school.

“That’s how we were able to show for the first time that the prevalence of these events is quite high in the months preceding a student dropping out of school,” Dupéré said. “It happens quite frequently, and it’s not just one type of event they’re exposed to; there are many.”

Dropping out is usually seen as the result of vulnerabilities a student has exhibited in school over a long period, including learning problems at an early age. What is less well-understood is why students with no history of difficulty in school quit suddenly, or why vulnerable students who quit do so at different times, some earlier than others.

The UdeM study looked at 545 adolescents of about 16 years of age at 12 public high schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in and around Montreal between 2012 and 2015, where the average dropout rate was 36 per cent, more than twice the Quebec average. The students were interviewed at length about stressors in their life over the previous year. One third of the participants had just dropped out, another third were schoolmates with a similar academic profile and family background, and a final third were average, not-at-risk students.

The interviews focused on two types of stressors: “discrete” events (e.g., the relapse of a bipolar parent) and chronic difficulties lasting at least a month (e.g., incapacitation due to a concussion). Adolescents were asked about stressors in school, at work, in housing, with money, involving criminal or legal issues, accidents or health problems, personal relationships (with friends, family and romantic partners), and more. Specific questions then honed in on areas such as education: course failures, program or school changes, conflicts with teachers, suspensions and such.

The study found significant differences between dropouts and the two other groups in their exposure to severe stressors in the three months before the interview. In those three months, exposure to at least one severe stressor spiked among dropouts and reached nearly 40 per cent, more than twice as high as that of at-risk and average students (18% and 16.8 %, respectively). Moreover, the results showed that exposure to two or more severe events was 12 times higher among dropouts (6%) than among at-risk (0.5%) and average (0.6%) schoolmates.

About one-third of the severe difficulties that dropouts faced were school-related (23% involved protracted course failure, 6% involved chronic conflicts with school personnel), whereas one-quarter (25%) involved recurring family conflicts. Chronic health problems made up 18% of the overall total, distributed about evenly between the participants themselves and their significant others. Problems with peers and romantic relationships accounted for 16%, recurring criminal or legal problems were rare (2%), and the final 10% were miscellaneous problems.

Other studies have suggested that disruptive events like pregnancies, arrest, hospitalization or changing schools are associated with increased chances of dropping out. The UdeM study goes further, showing that about two out of every five dropouts are exposed to some kind of significant stressful event several months before quitting school. In other words, recent stressors are quite common among dropouts, more so than previously thought. The new study also clarifies when stressors matter for dropping out: in the few months following exposure.

“These findings show that the risk of high school dropout is not predetermined over the long run,” Dupéré said. “Rather, it fluctuates and becomes higher when adolescents have to deal with challenging situations in their lives. School personnel thus need to be aware of their students’ changing needs in and out of school to provide them with the right kind of support at the right time.”

Abstract of the study:

Adolescents who drop out of high school experience enduring negative consequences across many domains. Yet, the circumstances triggering their departure are poorly understood. This study examined the precipitating role of recent psychosocial stressors by comparing three groups of Canadian high school students (52% boys; Mage = 16.3 years; = 545): recent dropouts, matched at-risk students who remain in school, and average students. Results indicate that in comparison with the two other groups, dropouts were over three times more likely to have experienced recent acute stressors rated as severe by independent coders. These stressors occurred across a variety of domains. Considering the circumstances in which youth decide to drop out has implications for future research and for policy and practice.

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