Category Archives: Institute of Child Development

DePasquale helps Crisis Nursery measure success

Carrie DePasquale

Carrie DePasquale, a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Child Development, was featured in the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery Fall 2016 newsletterCribnotes

The Crisis Nursery works to end child neglect and abuse and help build healthier families. At the nursery, DePasquale is working to develop a behavioral measure that will help staff evaluate program offerings. 

“My goal is to help identify opportunities for improvement,” DePasquale says. “Whether that means adding programs, or potentially just finding different ways to help the kids deal with transitions. They’re not used to getting up and going about a normal day.”

Read more about DePasquale and her work with the Crisis Nursery.


ICD alumna examines how parental incarceration impacts children

headshot of Rebecca Shlafer
Rebecca Shlafer

Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., MPH, a professor and child psychologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School and an alumna of the Institute of Child Development, is leading a unique team of researchers that aims to determine how parental incarceration impacts children.

“In Minnesota alone, 76 percent of all incarcerated women are mothers with minor children,” Shlafer says. “And 66 percent of all incarcerated men are fathers with minor children.”

Data show that parental incarceration can increase a child’s risk for mental health problems, substance abuse, and delinquency. To examine the issue, Shlafer’s lab, which partners College of Liberal Arts undergraduates with medical school faculty, allows students to pursue many different research projects. For example, student projects have analyzed drawings by the children of incarcerated parents and the impact of developmentally-appropriate materials on conversations about incarceration between children and their caregivers.

“The fact that this is an understudied problem means that we can really have an impact,” Shlafer says. “I tell my students, ‘Pick any part of this problem and we can make a difference.'”

Learn more about Shlafer’s lab and research

ICD alumna receives faculty excellence award

Jessica Pleuss headshot
Jessica Pleuss

Jessica Pleuss, Ph.D., an alumna of the Institute of Child Development, recently received the Sharon Walker Faculty Excellence award from Morningside College. Pleuss is an assistant professor of psychology at the Sioux City, Iowa-based institution. The award is based on the educator’s accomplishments and academic excellence over the course of the previous academic year. The recipients of the Walker award are granted $10,000 honorarium and $2,000 to use for faculty development. 

Read more.

Elison is ‘charting the growing brain’: Here’s how

Dr. Jed Elison
Dr. Jed Elison

Jed Elison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Institute of Child Development, was featured in the University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover campaign for his research on brain development.

Elison, who specializes in developmental social neuroscience, structural brain development, and autism, recently won a $2.45 million grant from the National Institutes of Health called BRAINS (Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientists). Through the project, he aims to chart brain development in children between the ages of three and 24 months.

According to Elison, “understanding this developmental period in greater detail may ultimately allow us to improve the health and wellbeing of children.”

Learn more about Elison’s research.  

Masten offers MOOC on resilience in children exposed to trauma

Dr. Ann Masten
Dr. Ann Masten

Ann Masten, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development, leads a massive open online course (MOOC) through Coursera titled, “Resilience in Children Exposed to Trauma, Disaster and War: Global Perspectives.” Sessions begin every eight weeks, with participants joining from around the world.

Participants can join this MOOC for free or register for a fee ($49) to earn a Course Certificate.

Beginning this year, participants of the course may qualify for continuing education clock hours through the University of Minnesota. To earn clock hours, a participant must complete the course, earn a Course Certificate from Coursera, and apply for continuing education clock hours through the university. 

Below, Masten discusses the developmental effects of trauma and why now is a critical time to learn about the resilience of individuals and systems around the world.

How does trauma influence development?
Trauma can have profound effects on people at any age. Trauma strains the systems that keep us in balance and it can alter aspects of human interaction at all levels, from the biological level to the societal level.

Why is it important to focus on trauma now?
We live in a world that is threatened by trauma of many different kinds on a scale not seen since World War II. Globally, we face terrorism, war, pandemics, and more frequent natural disasters. There is international interest in resilience because we will continue to experience such catastrophes for the foreseeable future.

What is resilience and how does it help children succeed?
Resilience is the capacity to overcome serious threats to development and go on to lead a successful life. Resilience can also apply to any system, such as a family, the planet or the economy. Resilience of individuals depends on resilience of other systems they interact with. In the case of children, the younger the child is, the more dependent they are on the adults who are caring for them.

How would you describe your course to a potential participant?
This course highlights what we’ve learned about resilience in the past 50 years. I provide an overview of resilience theories, what we have learned from global studies, exciting new research directions, and how this knowledge is being applied in the real world to promote resilience.

What are the benefits of taking your course?
This MOOC provides a convenient and interesting way to learn about the science of resilience and how it can be applied to help children. It also is an opportunity to discuss resilience issues with a diverse set of professionals working around the world.

ICD faculty participate in U of M conversation on adverse childhood experiences

Dr. Ann Masten
Dr. Ann Masten
Dr. Kathleen Thomas
Dr. Canan Karatekin







Canan Karatekin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), Ann Masten, Ph.D., Irving D. Harris Professor of Child Development in ICD, and Kathleen Thomas, Ph.D., a professor in ICD, will participate in a one-day conference that will examine how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact student mental health.

ACEs are childhood experiences of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. Approximately two-thirds of University of Minnesota (U of M) students experience at least one ACE before entering college.

The conference, which will be hosted by the U of M on Friday, Dec. 2, aims to promote a deeper understanding of ACEs and discuss how universities can better support students and foster resilience.

Learn more about the event.

Sera and Koenig explore how children learn languages

Melissa Koenig
Melissa Koenig
Headshot of Professor Maria Sera
Maria D Sera

Maria Sera, Ph.D., a professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD) and Melissa Koenig, Ph.D., an associate professor in ICD, recently were featured in the University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover campaign.

In their research, Sera and Koenig examine how children learn languages and whether the process is different when a child is learning their native tongue or a new language. Sera and Koenig also are exploring methods for teaching a new language to English speakers. An estimated 40 percent of students in U.S. schools will be non-native English speakers by 2030.

“Before we began this work, we thought that young children learning a second language would learn it quickly, and we saw it wasn’t as quickly as we thought,” Sera says.

Sera and Koenig’s findings could inform how educators approach teaching English language learners. “When educators have kids in their classrooms with a minority-language status, you don’t want to ask them to lose that in favor of just focusing on the dominant language,” Koenig says. “You want a curriculum that supports their strengths. Keeping their native language strong will only support their acquisition of English.”

Learn more about Sera and Koenig’s research.

How ICD student Michelle Brown is working to close the opportunity gap

Headshot of Michelle Brown
Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown, a third year doctoral student at the Institute of Child Development, was featured in the University of Minnesota’s Driven to Discover campaign for her research on childhood adversity and resilience.

Experiencing negative events and living in a high-stress environment can inhibit a child’s brain development and lead to negative health consequences later in life. Through her research, Brown aims to uncover the factors that may help children overcome adversity and lead to positive long-term outcomes.

Brown is especially interested in research centered around children and their families. “Working with the entire family really opened my eyes to see why kids were acting in certain ways,” Brown says.

One of her goals is to inform researchers, advocates, and social support networks about the tools they can use to help victimized children and adolescents. “The experience that you have in childhood doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life. You can overcome it, and you can emerge resilient,” Brown says.

Learn more about Brown’s work.

Reuters interviews Gunnar about new study on early adverse experiences

Dr. Megan Gunnar
Dr. Megan Gunnar

Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Child Development, was interviewed by Reuters about how adverse experiences can impact a child’s health and development.

The article highlighted a new, small study in JAMA Pediatrics that examined the link between neighborhood factors – like liquor store density, domestic violence and violent crime rates – and stress in children.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Tulane University and included 85 children in New Orleans, found that children who lived near more liquor stores or crime, experienced high cortisol levels that were less likely to return to normal after a stress test.

Commenting on the findings, Gunnar said that “[e]arly adverse experiences do get under our skin to influence our biology,” noting that “children need safe places to live in order to grow into healthy and productive adults.”

Despite this, Gunnar said many children who experience adverse neighborhood factors will be resilient. “Identifying the protective factors that support that resilience and building on them, especially for children showing the effects of toxic exposures, is the appropriate response to the pediatric health issues revealed by this study.”

Zelazo featured in Vox article on lowering the voting age

Dr. Philip Zelazo
Dr. Philip Zelazo

Philip Zelazo, a professor in the Institute of Child Development, was featured in an article in Vox that discussed whether 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote. The article highlighted Zelazo’s research on executive function skills, which according to Zelazo, are “the brain-based attentional skills required for goal-directed problem solving [like voting].” Zelazo’s research suggests that the executive function skills used when voting are almost fully developed by age 15.

Chalkbeat Colorado interviews Carlson about importance of executive function

Stephanie Carlson

Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., a professor in the Institute of Child Development, was interviewed by Chalkbeat Colorado about the importance of executive function.

Executive function refers to a set of skills that helps individuals pay attention, control impulses and think flexibly. During the interview, Carlson explained how executive function is related to the achievement gap and offered suggestions for how parents, educators and policymakers can help children develop the skills they need to succeed in the classroom.

“Difficulties with executive function really set kids up to fail in school,” Carlson said, later adding, “I would like to encourage educators and parents to get involved in these issues. There’s no powerless figure: ‘There’s nothing I can do for my class or for my child that’s going to make any difference.’ You really can and it’s a collective form of empowerment.”

Learn more about Carlson’s research and her start-up Reflection Sciences.

Star Tribune interviews Susman-Stillman on changing role of play in kindergarten classrooms

Amy Susman-Stillman
Amy Susman-Stillman

Amy Susman-Stillman, Ph.D., director of applied research at the Center for Early Education and Development, was featured in a Star Tribune article that explored changes to the kindergarten curriculum in Minnesota.

Across the state, kindergarten curriculum has shifted from “learning-while-playing” to emphasizing reading and math in an effort to meet new standards.

According to the Star Tribune, Susman-Stillman said that in “the process, guided adult-supported playtime like sand and water play, dress-up corners and role-playing has largely vanished from kindergarten classrooms.”

The article noted that as the kindergarten curriculum has become more rigorous, teachers are working to balance academics and developmentally appropriate activities.

Gunnar, Elison awarded Grand Challenges Research grants

Dr. Megan Gunnar
Dr. Megan Gunnar
Dr. Jed Elison
Dr. Jed Elison

Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Child Development (ICD), and Jed Elison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in ICD, are recipients of Grand Challenges Research grants from the University of Minnesota (U of M).

The two-year grants, which were announced by U of M Provost Karen Hanson on Sept. 29, aim to support interdisciplinary collaborations that address local and global challenges. Overall, 29 teams of faculty were selected to receive Grand Challenges Research grants totaling $3.6 million.

Gunnar will be a co-principal investigator for an interdisciplinary work group collaboration, “Reminders for Readiness: E-communication to support parents in promoting early childhood development.” Amy Susman-Stillman, Ph.D., a research associate with ICD’s Center for Early Education and Development, also will be a member of the project team.

Reminders for Readiness (R4R) addresses the challenge of ensuring that parents have access to essential information and resources that will help them support their child’s growth. Specifically, R4R will develop, implement and evaluate the usefulness of a text messaging system for parents of infants and toddlers, focusing on reaching underserved parents.

Elison will be a co-principal investigator for the project “Cracking the speech code: A cross-linguistic neurobehavioral approach to language learning in typical and atypical populations.” The project represents a collaborative approach to identifying biomarkers of early emerging language processing deficits. Early identification could lead to more tailored interventions, increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes.

Three ICD faculty featured in U of M Driven to Discover campaign

Three Institute of Child Development (ICD) faculty members will be featured as part of the University of Minnesota (U of M) Driven to Discover campaign.

Dr. Megan Gunnar
Dr. Megan Gunnar

This year’s campaign emphasizes the U of M’s collective strengths in tackling big challenges in four key areas, including abolishing hunger, closing the opportunity gap, ending addiction and protecting human rights.

For the campaign, ICD faculty Megan Gunnar, Philip Zelazo and Jed Elison shared how their research is helping to close the opportunity gap.

Dr. Philip Zelazo
Dr. Philip Zelazo

Gunnar, director of the institute, Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University Professor, discussed the importance of investing in early childhood and promoting healthy development for all children.

Zelazo, a Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor, highlighted his research on executive function, which can help predict kindergarten readiness and academic success.

Dr. Jed Elison
Dr. Jed Elison

Elison, an assistant professor, discussed how he is working to detect autism earlier to help children and families access interventions and achieve better outcomes.

The campaign, which launched in TV, print, digital, and social media on Sept. 26, will feature Gunnar, Zelazo and Elison throughout Fall 2016.

ICD’s Dalrymple featured in BBC article on perception

Kirsten Dalrymple, Ph.D.
Kirsten Dalrymple, Ph.D.

Kirsten Dalrymple, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute of Child Development’s ELAB was interviewed for a BBC article that examined how individuals perceive the world.

The article profiled a woman who was diagnosed with the neurological disorder simultanagnosia, or the inability to see more than one object at a time.

As part of the article, Dalrymple discussed examples of how the brain processes information unconsciously, including blindsight, when a blind individual can navigate an obstacle course more accurately than chance alone, and “attentional windows,” or what an individual is aware of around them at a given time.

Shirley G. Moore Lab School welcomes students for first day of 2016-17 school year

The Lab School staff welcome students on the first day of class for 2016-17.
The Lab School staff welcome students on the first day of class for 2016-17.

The Shirley G. Moore Lab School on Sept. 19 held their first day of class for the 2016-17 school year.

The Lab School, which is sponsored by the Institute of Child Development (ICD), opened in 1925 and is one of the oldest laboratory schools in the United States. Through its programs, The Lab School aims to demonstrate exemplary early childhood education practices and serve as an active center for child study and research.

The Lab School also trains teachers of young children, including teacher candidates who are undergraduates in ICD’s Early Childhood Education Foundations Program and graduate students in the Early Childhood Education Teacher Licensure Program.

ICD and The Lab School staff would like to extend a warm welcome to all students and families!

Live Science interviews Koenig on talking to children about the tooth fairy

Melissa Koenig
Melissa Koenig, Ph.D.

Melissa Koenig, Ph.D., associate professor in the Institute of Child Development, was featured in a Live Science article that explored how parents should handle stories about the tooth fairy and other mythical beings.

For the article, Koenig commented on a method used by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who encouraged his daughter to be skeptical of the story and to conduct an experiment to determine whether the tooth fairy was real.

According to Koenig, “in certain families, people go a good distance, meaning they really put in a good effort, to protect a child’s misconception.”

Gunnar appointed to governor’s Early Learning Council

Dr. Megan Gunnar
Dr. Megan Gunnar

Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, and director of the Institute of Child Development, has been appointed to Gov. Mark Dayton’s Early Learning Council.

The council aims to ensure that all children are school-ready by 2020. Council members “make recommendations to the governor and legislature on how to create a high-quality early childhood system in Minnesota that will help improve educational outcomes for all children.”

Dr. Gunnar’s term runs from Sept. 19, 2016, to April 7, 2019.

CEED convenes advisory council to support early education in Minnesota communities

The Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) on Sept. 12 brought together community leaders to discuss ways to support and promote professional development in early education and human development.

CEED, a unit within the Institute of Child Development (ICD), aims to advance practices and policies that support all young children, their families, and the professionals who serve them through research, professional development and community engagement.

The CEED Advisory Council will meet regularly across the next several months with the goals of enhancing CEED’s current programming and identifying new ways to engage early childhood professionals in Minnesota and surrounding states.

Council members include:

Andre Dukes, Chair, Northside Achievement Zone
Barb Fabre, White Earth Nation
Barbara Hahn, Minnesota Children’s Museum
Kamyala Howard, People Serving People
Nancy Jost, West Central Initiative
Jane Kretzmann, Elders for Infants
Denise Mayotte, Sheltering Arms
Kelly Monson, Governor’s Children’s Cabinet

Dr. Megan Gunnar
Dr. Megan Gunnar

“Early life is a critical time for children to build trusting relationships that will help them thrive,” says Megan Gunnar, PhD, interim director of CEED and director of ICD. “We’re thrilled to work with leaders in the Minnesota early education and development community in an effort to better support those who serve young children and their families every day.”

Brain scan research promises new insights on child development with $4 million NIH grant

Researchers at the University of Minnesota (UMN) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) have been awarded a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to launch the Baby Connectome Project (BCP).

The BCP aims to provide scientists with unprecedented information about how the human brain develops from birth through early childhood and will uncover factors contributing to healthy brain development.

Jed Elison

“The UMN/UNC team is uniquely suited to perform this challenging, but critical task, and we expect the data collected and results that come from the BCP to have broad implications for understanding the most dynamic period of human brain development,” said Jed Elison, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator of the BCP and UMN assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Institute of Child Development (ICD). Elison, a McKnight Land-Grant Professor, and Kamil Ugurbil, a McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair Professor, are leading the effort together at UMN.

The BCP is a four-year research initiative of NIH, supported by Wyeth Nutrition through a gift to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH).

Kamil Ugurbil
Kamil Ugurbil

The collaboration brings together ICD and the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) at UMN, and the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC) at UNC, both of which include substantial expertise in infant/pediatric neuroimaging and behavioral assessment.

The project will characterize human brain connectivity and map patterns of structural and functional connectivity to important behavioral skills from infancy to early childhood. Additional biological (e.g., genetic markers) and environmental measures (e.g., family demographics) will also be collected and examined to provide a more comprehensive picture of the factors that affect brain development.  Findings from this study will provide other scientists with a definitive foundation to inform new questions about typical and atypical brain and behavioral development. Additionally, this study promises to inform policy decisions that could directly or indirectly affect healthy brain development during early childhood.

“This is an unprecedented effort to map the development of brain circuitries during a stage when our brains undergo highly dynamic changes that have life-long impacts on cognitive development.  We are thrilled to have the opportunity to carry out this exciting project,” said Weili Lin, Ph.D., Dixie Soo Distinguished Professor in Neurological Medicine, director of BRIC, and co-principal investigator of the BCP.

“Wyeth Nutrition is excited to support research at UMN and UNC through our partnership with the FNIH,” said CEO of Wyeth Nutrition Mike Russomano. “This innovative research — led by two institutions at the forefront of studying brain development in children — will add to a better understanding of what is needed to support the brain development and overall health of infants and children in the critical first years of life.”

For the project, researchers at UMN and UNC will perform safe and non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of 500 typically developing children, ages 0-5 years, over the course of 4 years. Of these 500 children, 175 will come from two other brain imaging studies already underway, one from UNC (“Early Brain Development in 1 and 2 Year Olds”, led by John Gilmore, M.D.) and one from UMN (“Infant Brain and Behavioral Signatures of Later Emerging Risk for Psychopathology,” led by Elison). All of the data collected will be shared with the broader scientific community to accelerate discovery.

The project will include longitudinal groups, where children will be scanned four to six times at different ages, and cross-sectional groups, where children will be scanned once at distinct points in their development. In addition to the imaging data collected, researchers will also obtain parent reports and direct assessment cognitive and behavioral development in the participating children.  All of the collected information will inform a more comprehensive picture of how emerging patterns of brain connectivity shape behavioral development in children under the age of 5.

UMN and UNC will leverage technological innovations developed through the original Human Connectome Project (HCP), a scientific endeavor funded by the NIH to create a map of the circuitry within the human brain, to investigate the structural and functional changes that occur during typical development. This project will be part of the Lifespan Human Connectome Project (LHCP), which aims to extend the HCP to map connectivity in the developing, adult, and aging human brain. (See the UMN role in the LHCP.) It is funded by the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, a collaborative framework through which 15 NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices jointly support neuroscience-related research, with the aim of accelerating discoveries and reducing the burden of nervous system disorders.

Researchers from UMN include Jed Elison, Kamil Ugurbil, Essa Yacoub, and Jason Wolff.