CEHD News Institute of Child Development

CEHD News Institute of Child Development

Thompson helps build graduate student exchange with Korean university

CEHD’s Marina Aleixo (center-left) and ICD’s Ross Thompson (center-right) meet with staff at Seoul National University.

Ross Thompson, M.Ed., a lead teacher at the Shirley G. Moore Lab School in the Institute of Child Development, recently traveled to South Korea to build a graduate student exchange with Seoul National University (SNU). Thompson was joined by Marina Aleixo, Ph.D., program director of international initiatives and relations at the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD).

During their trip, Thompson and Aleixo visited the SNU lab school, a training site for graduate students, and met with teachers to exchange ideas on research and best practices for early childhood education. Thompson also gave a talk on big body play and integrating early childhood education.

“It was an amazing first meeting with the faculty and grad students at SNU,” Thompson said. “The level of dedication and eagerness to learn displayed by the students shows the workings of a great potential partnership. We look forward to continuing to cultivate our relationship with SNU and its Lab School.”

Koenig receives Sara Evans Woman Scholarship and Leadership Award

Melissa Koenig
Melissa Koenig, Ph.D.

Melissa Koenig, Ph.D., professor in the Institute of Child Development, is the recipient of a 2017 Sara Evans Faculty Woman Scholar/Leader Award.

The award is sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and the Women’s Center. It recognizes women faculty at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who have achieved significant scientific accomplishments, national and international reputations, and who contribute as leaders on campus.

Up to two awards are offered per year, one in science and engineering and one in humanities, arts, and social sciences. As a recipient of a 2017 award, Koenig will receive $5,000 to support her research.

Koenig will be honored during the Celebrating Changemakers 2017 awards program, which will take place on Oct. 19.

Williams Ridge discusses preschool nature education in CEHD Vision 2020 blog

Headshot of Sheila Williams Ridge
Sheila Williams Ridge

Sheila Williams Ridge, M.A., director of the Shirley G. Moore Laboratory School in the Institute of Child Development, recently penned a post for the CEHD Vision 2020 blog.

In her post, titled, “Get Kids Outdoors with Preschool Nature Education Tips for Teachers and Parents,” Williams Ridge discusses the benefits of nature education for preschoolers and how parents and teachers can enable children to have meaningful outdoor experiences.

ICD professor, graduate student present research on mindfulness in education

ICD Professor Philip D. Zelazo delivering a keynote address at the Mindfulness in Education Summer Institute.

Philip D. Zelazo, Ph.D., a Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), and Andrei Semenov, a child psychology doctoral student in ICD, recently presented at the Mindfulness in Education Summer Institute.

The summer institute is a community event hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. The 3-day event aimed to bring together teachers, researchers, clinicians, and practitioners to discuss mindfulness research and ways to promote practices that support wellbeing in school communities.

For the event, Zelazo delivered a keynote address that focused on how mindfulness practice has been shown to promote reflection and executive functions in children and adults.

Semenov’s presentation highlighted findings from curriculum evaluation conducted this past year. The novel curriculum, developed in collaboration with the Center for Spirituality and Healing, introduced mindfulness practice to a cohort of elementary school teachers in an effort to improve teacher wellbeing and promote mindful approaches to student-teacher interactions.

Now accepting applications: Third Annual Diversity in Psychology Program

The Institute of Child Development (ICD) and the Department of Educational Psychology are pleased to support the 3rd Annual Diversity in Psychology Program at the University of Minnesota (UMN).

The program is sponsored by the UMN Department of Psychology and the College of Liberal Arts with support from ICD and the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education and Human Development.

The Diversity in Psychology Program is designed for individuals who are historically under-represented in psychology graduate programs and who are interested in learning about graduate training in psychology, child psychology, and educational/school psychology at the University of Minnesota.

The program will feature a coordinated set of formal and informal experiences designed to familiarize participants with strategies for constructing successful graduate school applications, and to provide them with the opportunity to learn more about the experience of graduate education in UMN psychology departments.

To be eligible to apply, individuals must:

  • be enrolled in a college or university as a junior or senior, or who have graduated within the last two years (i.e., 2015 or thereafter). Individuals currently enrolled in a terminal masters-level graduate program in psychology are also eligible.
  • identify as a member of groups underrepresented in graduate training in psychology, including ethnic and racial minority groups, low-income backgrounds, persons with disability, LGBTQ+, military veterans, and first-generation college students or graduates.

Individuals must also meet one of the following criteria:

  • be committed to pursuing doctoral training in either child psychology or educational/school psychology. OR
  • be committed to pursuing doctoral training in psychology in one of the following programs of research offered by the Department of Psychology: clinical science and psychopathology; counseling psychology; cognitive and brain sciences; industrial/organizational psychology; personality, individual differences, and behavior genetics; quantitative psychology/psychometric methods; or social psychology.

Learn more about how to apply.

CEHD researchers use brain scans to predict autism in high-risk, 6-month-old infants

L-R: Jed Elison, Jason Wolff

College of Education and Human Development researchers contributed to a new study that suggests that patterns of brain activity in high-risk, 6-month-old babies may accurately predict which of them will develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age 2.

The new study was published in Science Translational Medicine and led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Jed Elison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Institute of Child Development, and Jason Wolff, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, were study co-authors. The study was conducted by the IBIS Network and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Approximately one out of 68 school-aged children in the U.S. has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, and their younger siblings are at a higher risk of developing the condition. “These findings need to be replicated, but that said, we are very excited about the potential to leverage cutting edge technology to advance the search for the earliest signs of autism,” Elison said.

For the study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the brain’s functional connectivity – or how different brain regions work together – in high-risk, 6-month-old infants. The infants were considered high-risk because they have an older sibling with autism. Overall, 59 high-risk infants were included in the study. Eleven of the infants were diagnosed with ASD at 2 years old and 48 were not.

The researchers applied machine learning algorithms to the infants’ brain scans to identify patterns that separated them into the two groups. They then applied the algorithm to each of the infants to predict which infants would later be diagnosed with ASD. The algorithm correctly predicted nine of the 11 infants who were later diagnosed with ASD and all 48 of the infants who were not later diagnosed with the condition.

According to the researchers, if replicated, the results could provide a clinically valuable tool for detecting ASD in high-risk infants before symptoms set in. This in turn would allow researchers to test the effectiveness of interventions on a population of high-risk infants who have been identified as having a greater risk of ASD based on their brain scan at 6 months of age.

“The researchers will now try to confirm their findings in larger groups of children. But they already have provided proof of principle that it’s possible to detect ASD long before children show the first visible signs of the condition,” NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., wrote in a blog about the study. “The findings could pave the way for developing more cost-effective mobile neuroimaging tools, which might be used in early ASD screening.”

In February 2017, Elison and Wolff contributed to a separate study that used MRI scans of high-risk infants conducted at 6 and 12 months of age to accurately predict which infants would later meet criteria for ASD at age 2. The method used in the new study would only require one scan at 6 months of age.

“This is really interdisciplinary science at its very best, and I anticipate it will eventually lead to improved outcomes for children and families,” Wolff said. “The ability to predict autism in infancy opens the door for something that has long been improbable: pre-symptomatic intervention.”

Palmer awarded summer fellowship to research children’s mental health

Alyssa Palmer, a Ph.D. child psychology student in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), was awarded a 2017 Translational Summer Research Fellowship by the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health (ITR).

ITR’s primary mission is to bridge the gap between research and practice in children’s mental health.

The fellowship aims to help graduate students pursue collaborative research projects on the development or expansion of evidence-based prevention or treatment interventions in children’s mental health. Palmer is one of four graduate students who was awarded a fellowship this year.

Palmer’s research will focus on parent self-regulation, parenting quality, and child behavioral outcomes in homeless families.


Greetings from Professor Megan Gunnar

The Gunnar Lab research team continues to study the impact of early experiences through our work with families formed through international adoption and Minnesota-born families. Much of our work over the past year focused on the development of children, teens and also young adults. I am especially grateful for the work
of Professor Rich Lee and his students in the Familee Lab who work with young adults who were adopted from Korea. Rich’s work helps us understand the experience of international adoption as it relates to identity and the experience of discrimination.

The overall goal of the Gunnar Lab’s research is to study stress and the experiences that shape how the body deals with stress. In this newsletter issue, you can read more about our latest research studies examining stress during pregnancy and its effect on the developing fetus, stress during the transition to adolescence, a very challenging time of life, and stress encountered in social situations where children attempt to meet and work with new peers.

Much of our stress work is taking a medical turn as we evaluate the health and physical development consequences of starting our life in harsh and stressful conditions as is the case for many children adopted internationally from orphanages.

Thank you to all the families who have taken part in our research.

~ Regents Professor Megan Gunnar

Puberty Study: Growth and Pubertal Development

By Brie Reid

Throughout evolution, humans have experienced periods of feast and famine. Growing evidence suggests that adversity and height growth stunting early in childhood increases risk for early onset puberty (in girls), obesity, and poorer mental health later in life. Researchers think that this is the case because in the first 1,000 days after conception, our very young, growing bodies determine whether the environment we are growing up in has a lot of resources or has little resources. In this way, our bodies “calibrate” to the environment we expect to grow up in. However, researchers think that early physical adaptations to harsh environments with very little resources may increase later risks of obesity, early onset puberty in girls and metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, because our bodies do not anticipate a shift from resource-poor to resource-rich environments.

We tested this hypothesis with 283 youth aged 7-14 years who participated in the first year of the Puberty Study. We looked at data collected from adopted children’s first medical clinic visit post-adoption and we also looked at data collected from the nurse’s exam, see Figure 1, in the Puberty Study.


Figure 1. Nurses measure participant’s growth using different methods.

On average, adopted youth were shorter (by ~1.6”) and had lower BMI-for-age than their non-adopted peers. Adopted youth also tended to have lower numbers of body fat percentage. On average, both groups of youth were within normal ranges of height, weight, and body fat. There were no differences in waist-to-hip ratios or waist-to-height ratios between groups. A key finding was that there were very few overweight or obese youth in either the adopted or the non-adopted group, which surprised us because nearly one in three children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese in America.

Pubertal Development

Two graphs comparing BMI for age for adopted and non-adopted youth.

Figure 2. No group difference between adoptees and MN born participants.

We found that pubertal status was determined by being older and being heavier for your age. This is just what is expected as bodies typically put on fat to support the pubertal changes in growth. What surprised us is that we found no evidence that the internationally adopted children, many of whom had experienced relatively harsh conditions in orphanages prior to adoption, were going through puberty earlier than the children born into their Minnesota family as seen in Figure 2. We did not see this for either boys or girls.

Previously Height Stunted Adopted Youth Results

Previously height-stunted youth adopted internationally, though still shorter on average, were not found to be at greater risk for high BMI and were also less likely to be in later puberty stages.

Our conclusion?

Early life adversity and height-growth stunting early in life do not always lead to early puberty or obesity in later childhood or adolescence!

Early removal from adversity or later contexts of highly-resourced homes could protect children from long-term impacts on their BMI and the timing of puberty. Subsequent waves of longitudinal data collection will provide a window into pubertal timing across three years to determine if adopted and previously height-stunted youth experience a different pubertal development tempo than non-adopted peers. This tempo could also impact body fat as our sample of participants get older.

Multiple years of follow-up and more precise measures of where children store fat on their bodies and metabolic health are our next steps to ensure we understand the full picture of growth and pubertal development in the context of early challenging life conditions.

New Study Opportunity: Early Stress, Growth, and Metabolic Health Study

New research suggests that early life stress and early height stunting can contribute to later health by impacting the growth, body fat composition, and cardiovascular health. This may mean that experiences in childhood influence our health in adulthood. If we can identify these changes early on, then we can develop interventions to hopefully prevent later health problems.

In the Puberty Study, we did not find that children who were growth-stunted at adoption were becoming overweight as they approached adolescence, so the question for heart health is actually where does the body put its fat. Deep visceral (belly) fat is a risk factor for Type II diabetes and heart disease. You can be normal weight and yet still be at risk by packing fat in deep belly areas.

To be sure that children who were short for their age at adoption and then grew quickly are also heart and body composition healthy, we will be conducting a study using cutting-edge measures of body fat composition and cardiovascular health measures. Personalized results will be given to the parents of each participant and these can be taken to their pediatrician.

For this study we are looking for children and teenagers (ages 8 through 17 years) who were adopted internationally from orphanages or similar institutions.

In addition to personalized results, participants will be compensated for 1 visit to the University of Minnesota to have a full-body DXA scan of body composition, their cardiovascular health assessed, have blood drawn, and answer questionnaires.

If you would like more information about this study, please feel free to email Brie at reidx189@umn.edu

Recalibrating with a Physiological Cup o’ Joe

By Keira Leneman

While we all may experience varying degrees of struggle in getting out of bed and starting the day, our body helps do some of the work for us. Shortly before our eyes open and in the minutes following, a stress hormone called cortisol influences this routine process. The body releases cortisol in response to stressful events, but also regularly throughout the day in a circadian rhythm cycle. Levels are highest early in the morning and then drop throughout the day to the lowest levels in the first half of the night. The cortisol awakening response (CAR) is superimposed on top of the day-night rhythm of cortisol. It consists of a spike in cortisol levels within the first 30-45 minutes after awakening and is considered by some to be a type of preparation for the day, like a cup of coffee. Using saliva samples collected by families in their homes, we are able to gather information about how stress systems might function differently on an everyday basis in children who spent some of their early months living in orphanages before being adopted compared to children born into their Minnesota families.

Figure 3. Group differences in Cortisol Awakening Response
Figure 3. Group differences in Cortisol Awakening Response

A few years ago our research group examined children at the transition to adolescence and found that early in puberty, children adopted from orphanages had more blunted CARs (less pronounced rise in the morning) than non-adopted children. However, when older and farther along in puberty, the adolescents adopted at a younger age had CAR patterns similar to the non-adopted group—they were no longer blunted. This data suggested that puberty might provide a period for recalibration of physiological stress systems, especially when early life adversity was experienced for only a short period of time.

In the Puberty Study, we again collected saliva samples in the time right after waking up. We have only looked at the data from the first year of our study, but are seeing some hints at similar patterns. We have found that as children progress in puberty they show larger “spikes” in cortisol when they wake up. We then examined whether spending your early life in an orphanage affected this cortisol response to awakening. As we had seen before in previous studies, Figure 3 shows that children adopted later (16 months or older) had a smaller spike in cortisol after awakening than children adopted earlier in life (before 16 months) or those born into their families in Minnesota.

So far we have not seen a cortisol awakening response change with puberty, but it is still a possibility as the children in this study get older and are more advanced in pubertal development. As we begin to analyze data from year 2 and year 3, we will be able to look at a wider range of pubertal status to get a better sense whether these patterns are changing throughout this developmental period. Year 2 is almost complete, so we should be able to begin the next level of these analyses shortly.

Investigating the Brain’s Response to Stress

By Max Herzberg

We often take it for granted that different people respond to stress in unique ways. How adolescent’s brains and bodies react to social stress, however, is not yet well understood. When we experience stressful circumstances our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol that helps us to respond appropriately to the source of stress. Research in adults has shown that only about 60% of people produce more cortisol in response to social stress, while the other 40% do not. These researchers have suggested that these differences are related to different patterns of activation in the brain. We are interested in finding out if patterns of brain activation are different in youth who produce a cortisol response compared to those who do not.

Recently our research group has begun a project to answer this question and investigate the differences between adolescents who produce cortisol in response to stress and adolescents who do not. We developed a new social stress test to be used in an MRI scanner. To ensure that the social stress tasks will work in the scanner, we completed
a preliminary study in an MRI simulator. Twenty-two adolescents, ages 11-14 years old, came to the University to participate in our preliminary study. Some of the youths gave a speech about themselves to a pair of judges and then solved math problems out loud, while other youths completed the speech and then answered multiple choice math problems on a screen in the simulator.

Our results indicate that, like adults, not all adolescents produce cortisol in response to giving a speech and doing some math. As expected, approximately 60% of the participants we tested displayed a cortisol response, while the other 40% did not. We call these groups “Responders” and “Non-Responders,” respectively. Figure 4 shows the group-level cortisol response to our social stress test, with both the Responder and Non-Responder groups represented. To follow up on these results we will be starting a full-scale neuroimaging study to investigate differences in brain activation between Responders and Non-Responders this summer.

Figure 4. Group cortisol concentrations across the session. Approximately 60% of participants belong to the Responder group. The gray rectangle represents the time period during which participants delivered their speech and completed the math task.

We will investigate whether brain activity during stress tasks can explain differences between individual’s responses or if patterns of brain activity before and after stress better explain individual differences. Another possible use of our new imaging test will be to investigate whether or not having the support of a parent, friend, or stranger changes the response of the brain and body to stress. This project, and possible future studies, is our first attempt to discover the brain activation in response to stress in adolescents, so we have a lot to learn about the future applications of our findings and how they will inform our understanding of the developing stress system.

To help us learn more about adolescent’s brain response to stress, we encourage families with children 11-14 years old to participate in the Minnesota Imaging Stress Test in Children (MISTiC) Study. Please contact Max Herzberg at mistic.umn@gmail.com.

Update from the Peer Competence Follow-up of the Transition into the Family Study

By Carrie DePasquale

As we have reported to you in previous newsletters, we found that some of the children adopted internationally in the Transition into the Family had “underactive” stress-regulatory system functioning for their first few years after adoption. This was based on activity of the stress-response system that produces cortisol. We also reported in previous newsletters that those children with more “hypoactive” stress-regulation were also more likely to have difficulty with peers when they were in kindergarten according to their teachers. Here we are following up this finding when the children are 8-11 years old. We invite each child to our research lab and pair them with a child of the same age and sex who was not in the Transition into the Family Study. We then have the children play games together to examine their competence with new peers.

igure 5. Average behavior scores during a social interaction with a new peer for children adopted internationally (PI) and non-adopted children (NA).
Figure 5. Average behavior scores during a social interaction with a new peer for children adopted internationally (PI) and non-adopted children (NA).

Thirty-two pairs of children have participated in the study so far. Figure 5 shows their average scores on a scale from 1-5 (higher scores representing higher interaction quality, more positive affect, and more conflict, respectively). We were pleased to discover that children adopted internationally (the “PI” group) interacted just as well, showed just as much positive affect, and had just as little conflict as their non-adopted peers (the “NA” group). Additionally, underactive stress-regulation in the first few years after adoption did not predict any differences in peer competence in this study. However, this may be due to their underlying cortisol regulation.

Figure 6. Cortisol patterns over the course of the social interactions for children adopted internationally (PI) and non-adopted children (NA).
Figure 6. Cortisol patterns over the course of the social interactions for children adopted internationally (PI) and non-adopted children (NA).

During this same interaction, we collected three saliva samples to measure cortisol over the course of the interaction. Figure 6 shows that children adopted internationally have almost identical patterns of cortisol compared to their non-adopted peers, however in the middle of the session they show slightly higher levels. One possible explanation is that, although internationally adopted children show similar behaviors during social interactions, it takes more of their hormonal “resources” to achieve this.

We feel it is very important to gather more participants in order to ensure that this pattern is the true pattern, so please contact us at 732-864-7953 or depas010@umn.edu if you are interested in being a part of the study!

Parenting Results from Transition Study

Mother lifting baby into the air and smiling


By Kalsea Koss and Jamie Lawler

Parents are the most important people in young children’s lives. They comfort them, care for them, and help them learn and grow. Lots of research has shown how parenting affects kids raised in their families of origin, but we wanted to look in particular at parenting in internationally adopting families. We wanted to see how it may be similar or different than other families and to see how parenting affects the recovery children make following adoption. Our team was especially interested in which aspects of parenting might help adopted kids learn to control their behavior and emotions. We also know that parenting is a hard job (maybe the hardest job of all!) and we were curious whether it was more challenging to parent a child who had tougher experiences before adoption. Finally, we wanted to see whether the consistency of family routines, such as meal times and bedtimes, helped children learn better self-control.

What we did:

We examined parenting and the family environment as part of the Transition into the Family Study. If you remember from past newsletters, the Transition Study was a multi-year project following children adopted from institutions, seeing them every eight months for the first several years that they were in their families. These initial years are a period of rapid recovery from pre-adoption deprivation for children who lived in orphanages or other institutions. To look at parenting, we asked families to come to our research lab to participate in a number of different activities four times over the first two years post-adoption. Activities included playing normally as they would at home, structured play activities (like making a scene using Playdoh), and cleaning up toys together. We also asked parents to complete several daily diaries to get a sense of the typical day for the children at home. To measure how well children recovered following adoption, we looked at how well they could regulate their behavior when asked to transition between tasks at the four laboratory visits, how children performed on a number of tasks designed to challenge their attention and self-control, and asked parents and the child’s kindergarten teachers to complete a number of questionnaires about their behavior and functioning.

Who participated:

145 families, including 93 families who had adopted a child internationally from an orphanage or other institution were part of this portion of the study. We also followed children adopted internationally from foster care situations, but these children and their families are not a part of this analysis.

What we found:

First, we looked at the quality of parenting received by children adopted out of institutions compared with children reared in their birth families. We found that parenting did not differ between the groups on either sensitivity (the parent’s ability to respond effectively to the child’s cues in a way that supports the child, encourages emotional development, and promotes the child’s confidence that their needs will be met) or structure/limit-setting (the parent’s ability to produce predictable experiences and expectations for the child as well as structure the child’s behavior). We also found that both groups demonstrated above average parenting.

Second, we wanted to see whether children’s pre-adoptive care would predict the parenting they received after adoption. We found that children adopted from higher quality pre-adoptive care received higher rates of sensitivity and more effective structure/limit-setting from adoptive parents. This may be because these children were able to provide clearer signals of their needs and wants. We were also curious how child behavior and parenting would affect one another in the first year following adoption and found that child behavior soon after adoption does NOT predict later parenting, but a parent’s ability to provide structure and set limits soon after adoption predicts how children are able to regulate their behavior 8 months later.

Next, we wanted to look past the first year after adoption and see how parenting affects children’s self-control in kindergarten. We found that better parent structure/limit-setting predicted children’s self-control on several different tasks. Children who had received more effective structure and limit-setting from parents were better able to control their impulses when asked to use their words rather than their hands to select a toy prize. They also did better on a computer game that asked them to pay attention to certain things and ignore others. These children also showed better ability to regulate their emotions in kindergarten.

Finally, children who receive poorer preadoption care are more likely to have lasting problems in impulse control and attention regulation. Because of this, we were interested in whether parenting might affect the connection between poor pre-adoptive care and later child functioning. We found that children who received high quality parenting did not show the same lasting effects of poor early care as children who received less ideal parenting. Because parents in our study generally displayed “better than average” parenting, this finding suggests that children who experienced more adversity before adoption needed really good, not just good parenting in order to recover. For example, children whose parents scored really high in their ability to structure the environment and set limits showed good emotion regulation regardless of their pre-adoptive adversity, whereas children whose parents scored in the average range on these aspects of parenting struggled more in regulating their emotions if they had experienced more pre-adoption adversity. Additionally, children in families with very consistent daily routines (for example, the same meal times and bed times each day) who had experienced poor care before adoption showed better ability to wait for a surprise and showed fewer ADHD symptoms than children adopted from similar circumstances whose families had less consistency in routines. Consistent routines did not seem to help with indiscriminate friendliness. In fact, for children adopted from more adverse pre-adoption conditions, greater consistency in routines predicted more indiscriminate friendliness. We are not sure why this might be the case, but it does suggest that stability in routines may help some aspects of recovery from pre-adoption condition but slow others.

Women and Infants Study of Health, Emotions, and Stress (WISHES)

By Colleen Doyle

Midwife Ann Forster Page, a collaborator of the WISHES research project, examines a patient at the Women’s Health Specialists Clinic.

What makes us who we are? Historically, great debate has surrounded this question. Some have said it’s the genes we inherit at conception. Others have pointed to the environment we experience in childhood. Today, there is growing evidence that many of our individual characteristics—including our temperaments, our intelligence, and our mental and physical health—may be influenced by the interplay of our genes and the prenatal environment that we experience before birth. The goal of our new WISHES study (the Women and Infants Study of Health, Emotions, and Stress) is to learn more about how women’s experiences during pregnancy may “get under the skin” of their developing children to influence their brain development, behavior, and health.

Why are we studying prenatal experiences? All women experience some amount of stress and mood swings during pregnancy. However, a growing body of research has linked different levels of these “prenatal stress” experiences to both positive and negative outcomes for women and their developing children. For example, mild levels of prenatal stress have been linked to enhanced motor and cognitive development in infancy. In contrast, more intense or chronic experiences of prenatal stress have been associated with increased risk for an earlier birth, as well as problems with learning and controlling emotions during childhood. The mechanisms that link women’s experiences during pregnancy to long-term child outcomes are complicated and not completely understood. The goal of the WISHES study is to increase our understanding in this area. We think our study has the potential to make important contributions to how parents, pediatricians, and policy makers can help set up lifelong trajectories of health and well-being by supporting women’s health during pregnancy.

 What is prenatal stress? Prenatal stress is a complex umbrella term that encompasses many experiences – from frustration with daily hassles, to mental health concerns related to anxiety or depression, to life circumstances that are difficult or impossible for women to control, such as significant financial concerns, the death of a loved one, or a disaster like flooding.

Additionally, a woman’s perception of whether something is stressful contributes to how she may experience prenatal stress. This means factors like a woman’s personality, her outlook on life, and whether she views her world as safe or unsafe can come into play.

Finally, prenatal stress is not exclusive to the prenatal period. Research shows that women who report feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed during pregnancy also report feeling this way through at least the first two years of their child’s life. This is important to remember, because this means there are potentially many opportunities to support women and their children.

Although the “prenatal stress recipe” can be different for every woman, we might think about the ingredients as being the sort of things that drive us “N.U.T.S.”, in that these things are Novel, Unpredictable, Threatening to our survival or our sense of self, and they foster a Sense of lacking control. This acronym isn’t meant to make light of prenatal stress, but rather to help us remember that prenatal stress occurs when a woman has more things coming at her than she can manage.

How does prenatal stress influence child development? Recent research suggests that experiences of prenatal stress might influence child outcomes by impacting brain development before birth. What we are learning is that prenatal stress can affect a woman’s health during pregnancy in two ways, which in turn can influence her child’s development. First, prenatal stress can affect behaviors that are important to maintaining good health during pregnancy (e.g., getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, and getting good prenatal care). Second, prenatal stress can affect a woman’s biological functioning during pregnancy, including her hormones, blood pressure, and immune system. The placenta, which regulates the prenatal environment, likely plays a major role here.

What’s involved in the WISHES study? So far, we have very strong evidence from animal research that supports the hypothesis that prenatal stress influences offspring brain development before birth. To study this question in humans, the WISHES study is following women and their children from early in pregnancy through the first two years of life. Women enroll in the study between 8-12 weeks of pregnancy, and complete questionnaires on stress, emotions, and health behaviors 5 times during pregnancy. At 4 time points during pregnancy, women also complete fetal monitoring sessions, which involve placing electrodes on the woman’s belly to measure her baby’s resting heart rate. We look at fetal heart rate because it is a “downstream” marker of fetal brain maturation; as central nervous system development unfolds during pregnancy the brain increasingly controls the heart, and in turn resting heart rate patterns show expected patterns of organization and change. Therefore, by measuring changes in resting fetal heart rate during pregnancy we are able to understand how prenatal experiences may play a role in setting up different trajectories of brain development. At 3 time points during pregnancy, women also provide a small hair sample, which allows us to measure cortisol production during pregnancy. Cortisol is a hormone that helps our body cope and respond in challenging situations. During pregnancy, cortisol also helps mature fetal tissues, such as the lungs, and may impact the development of the central nervous system and brain. Finally, at 1 time point women complete a short computer game while we track their eye-movements, in order to understand how differences in attentional styles may play a role in whether or how women experience stress during pregnancy.

Following delivery, at 3, 6, 9, 12, and 24 months, children complete behavioral assessments and MRI brain scans, and parents complete questionnaires on their own experiences and their child’s development. We use MRI for this study because unlike other imaging methods it does not involve any radiation, making it completely safe for use with infants. Also, all scans are conducted in the evenings during children’s natural sleep, without the use of any sedation. Finally, a staff member is in the scanner with the child throughout the scan, so the scan can be discontinued immediately when children wake up.

Join us for the WISHES study. Every day we are learning more about how experiences during pregnancy may play a role in a child’s growth and development. However, we have much more to learn. This WISHES study will be the first to connect the dots between prenatal experiences, brain development across pregnancy, and brain and behavioral development during the first two years of life. This will allow us to significantly advance our understanding of how prenatal experiences may play a role in setting up different trajectories of brain and behavioral development.

Women and families will be compensated up to $560 for participating and will receive a small gift featuring pictures of their child’s brain. For many of the prenatal visits we are able to meet with women at their homes. For all visits held at the U of M, we provide free parking and child care for older siblings. For more information on the study please email us at doyle291@umn.edu.

Survey to Guide Adoption Research

By Samantha Lee and Bao Moua

Over the past year, the International Adoption Project Registry has been working to expand its research to include not just children and adolescents, but also adults who were adopted in childhood. Through two similar surveys we have been seeking input from adults who were adopted as children and their adoptive parents. The goal of the surveys was to find out what is important and what kind of topics were of interest to individuals and their families who have experienced international adoption.

To date we have received about 260 responses from the parents and about 100 responses from the adult adoptees. While we continue to welcome more responses on both surveys, what we are seeing so far from the Parent Survey is that 69% reported they are very much interested in learning more about the mental health of adults who were internationally adopted as children (or the implications of international adoption on mental health).

Other popular topics amongst parents were relationships with the adoptive family (42% very much interested), experiences of adversity or abuse (40% very much interested), dating, romantic partners and marriages and searching (or not) for birth family, foster family or people from pre-adoption past (both 39% very much interested). Parents had an opportunity to write down what other topics were of interest to them. Recurring topics included experiences of transitioning from teens into adulthood, post-adoption services, counseling and mental health services for adult adoptees and their families, discussion about prejudice and race in a multi-racial family, and adult adoptee’s experiences of self-identity.

Mental health was also a high interest topic among the adult adoptees (57%). Other popular topics included relationships with friends (52% very much interested), relationships with adoptive family and being a parent and/or raising children (both 50% very much interested), and genetic testing and/or ancestry testing (49% very much interested). Participants also had a chance to write in other topic of interests to them. Recurring topics includes adoption among adoptees, self- identity development, integration of birth and adoptive cultures, and experiences of racism when you don’t look like your adoptive parents. Figure 7 shows the different topics parents and adoptees rated their interest on.

Survey Results from Parents and Adoptees

We are hoping to use the survey responses to guide us in conducting more extensive research on areas of interest and to also identify a pool of possible research participants. Many of the participants who took the Adult Adoptee Survey volunteered to join the IAP’s Adult Registry. In joining the IAP Adult Registry, members are allowing us to contact them in the future as research opportunities arise to provide knowledge of their experiences of international adoption.

To learn more about the IAP Adult Registry or register, visit our website.

Understanding the Diaspora Experiences of Internationally Adopted Youth

By Adam Kim, Xiang Zhou, and Richard Lee

Scholars often refer to international adoption as the “quiet migration” because it is not viewed alongside more visible patterns of migration, such as voluntary immigrants, refugees, and international exchanges. But a common experience across all these forms of migration is the physical and psychological sense of displacement from one’s homeland – otherwise known as diaspora. The dispersion of the Jewish people around the world is a classic example of a diaspora, and more recent diasporas include Hmong and Somali refugees – many of whom now call Minnesota home. In our community outreach and qualitative studies with adopted youth and young adults, this diaspora feeling of displacement and loss is commonly described among international
adoptees as well.

We therefore set out to understand the diaspora experiences of internationally adopted individuals and other international migrants. We worked to create a way to understand the impact of this displacement on an individual’s identity, culminating in the development of the Diaspora Identity Scale. In our working model, diaspora identity consists of two distinct features – homeland yearning and co-ethnic solidarity. In the case of our work with adopted Koreans, homeland yearning refers to a real and imagined wish to return to Korea and psychologically feeling more complete living or traveling to the homeland. Co-ethnic solidarity refers to a belief that Koreans around the world should work together as compatriots.

In 2014, we surveyed over one hundred adoptive families – parents and adolescent children – using this newly constructed scale. We found initial support for these two features of diaspora: homeland yearning and co-ethnic solidarity. We also found diaspora identity is related to but distinct from ethnic-racial identity (i.e., a sense of identity that is built around membership to an ethnic-racial group), adoptive identity (i.e., a sense of identity that is built around being adopted) and thoughts about birth family (i.e., wondering whether you are similar to your birth parents). We have also surveyed other Korean populations, such as Korean immigrants in New Zealand and Korean international students in the United States and found similar support for diaspora identity. These findings are currently being written up for publication.

We are continuing to develop both our measure of diaspora identity and our understanding of the role of displacement on the identity development of internationally adopted youth. It is only with help from the International Adoption Project and families like you, that we were able to pursue this project, so we greatly appreciate your contribution to our research and that of the many other researchers involved.

Does Emotion Regulation Moderate the Discrimination-Adjustment Link for Adopted Korean American Adolescents?

By Yekun Qin, Adam Kim, Jenny Su, Alison Hu, and Richard M Lee

Growing up in a White family does not necessarily protect internationally adopted Korean Americans from the harmful effects of racial/ethnic discrimination on adjustment. Previous studies have found that experiences of discrimination are related to worse adjustment among transracial adoptees. To cope with these negative effects, transracial Korean adoptees may use different combinations of emotion regulation strategies, such as cognitive reappraisal (i.e., reframing the discrimination situation in a less negative way) and emotional suppression (i.e., inhibiting on-going emotion expression). However, there is limited research on how transracially adopted Korean American adolescents’ emotion regulations may moderate the link between discrimination and adjustment.

To address this gap in the literature, we surveyed 120 parents of Korean adopted children (ages 5-12) in 2007 and followed up with these parents and their now adolescent aged children (ages 13-19) again in 2014. As part of the survey, parents reported the behavioral adjustment of the children in 2007 and 2014. Adolescents also reported their typical emotion regulation strategies and their experiences with discrimination in the 2014 survey. We first identified different emotional regulation strategies profiles employed by the adolescents. We then examined the discrimination-adjustment link (using 2014 adolescent reports) controlling for their childhood behavioral adjustment scores from 2007. Finally, we examined whether different combinations of emotion regulation strategies changed (e.g., increased, decreased) the effect of discrimination on adjustment.

Figure 8. Adopted Korean American adolescents’ emotion regulation profiles.
Figure 8. Adopted Korean American adolescents’ emotion regulation profiles.

As illustrated in Figure 8, Korean adoptees displayed three distinct emotion regulation profiles. A relatively high score on reappraisal and a very low score on suppression characterized the High Reappraisal/Low Suppression (HR/LS) group. A relatively high score on reappraisal and a moderate score on suppression characterized the High Reappraisal/Moderate Suppression (HR/MS) group. A moderate score on both reappraisal and suppression with the suppression score being higher than the reappraisal score characterized the Moderate Reappraisal/Moderate Suppression (MR/MS) group. After taking into account the behavioral adjustment of the adoptees in childhood, discrimination was still related to poor adjustment in adolescence. Finally, the three different emotion regulation profiles did not change the impact of discrimination on adjustment. However, adopted Korean adolescents with the HR/LS profile reported the best adjustment in general.

Overall, these finding provide further support for the strong negative effects of discrimination to adolescent adjustment. Although the emotion regulation profiles did not change the pernicious effects of discrimination, adoptees who are able to re-appraise stressful situations and not suppress their emotions showed the best behavioral adjustment.

Toddlers and Parents & Toddler Attention Studies

By Shanna Mliner

We are honored to be part of the JPB Research Network on Toxic Stress and Health. This is a pioneering national network of developmental scientists, community leaders, and primary care practices that are working together to better understand how difficult life circumstances influences development and health, and develop best practices in early assessment and intervention to transform pediatric practice. The ultimate goal is the prevention of lifelong impairments in mental health and chronic disease due to over triggering of the body’s stress responses early in life. Through this network, we are running two research projects at pediatric clinics within Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota: the Toddlers and Parents Study and the Toddler Attention Study. The purpose of these studies is to help develop measures that identify evidence of over triggering of stress systems to create a set of measures that doctors can collect during well-child visits to identify families who could use extra help in supporting the development of their children.

We all know that stress is a part of life. Learning how to cope with stress is an important part of a child’s healthy development, whether it’s the stress of meeting new people for shy children or the second-hand stress of watching parents dealing with food insecurity, concerns about paying the rent or living in a dangerous neighborhood. There is a range of physiological responses to stress such as increased heart rate and fluctuations in cortisol stress hormone levels. When stress occurs to a young child within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is a healthy stress response system. For larger stressors — such as the death or serious illness of a loved one, a frightening injury, the divorce of one’s parents, or a natural disaster — these physiological responses are sustained for a longer period of time. But still, the buffering effects of supportive adult relationships allow the brain to recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects. It’s when situations of extreme stress are prolonged and unrelenting, in the absence of supportive adults, that a child is affected by toxic stress. These situations can include extreme poverty, physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, severe maternal depression, substance abuse, or family violence. Without the support of a caring network of adults, stress can alter brain architecture and lead to stress management systems that respond at relatively lower thresholds, thereby increasing the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness.

Previous research we conducted almost 20 years ago demonstrated the profound importance of what we call “parental social buffering”.  That is, once the child has formed a secure attachment relationship with the parent when the parent is present, the child can experience things that are very distressing but the body is buffered from showing a cortisol stress hormone response. There is a powerful parental stress-protective mechanism. Importantly, children who are insecurely attached or where the attachment relationship is disordered do not have this same stress protection.  Showing cortisol elevations even when the parent is present might be an important index of toxic stress vulnerability that we can include in our stress battery.

In the Toddlers and Parents Study, we followed 12 to 18 month-olds as they came in for their well-baby checkup with inoculations. We went with the parent and toddler throughout the visit, parents completed questionnaires, we took saliva samples in the waiting room, before shots were given, and 20 minutes after the shots. We had a highly trained observer watch how the child used the parent throughout the visit as a source of security. We recruited 190 families for this study and just recently completed data collection. We are waiting for the cortisol stress hormone analysis, but so far we’ve seen in the data that we do have a range of both life stressors and attachment security. In families with low stress indicators, 80% of the toddlers were securely attached to the parent. In families with higher stress indicators, only about 50% of the children were securely attached. But this still means that 50% of those children in high stressed families were securely attached. Soon we will be able to analyze the saliva samples to determine cortisol response levels to test the buffering role of secure relationships.

We are also just beginning the second Toddler Attention Study to assess the development of attention skills of children 9 to 17 months old as they go through their well-baby exams in the clinic. Good attention skills rely on areas of the brain that are very sensitive to stress. We will be showing children simple videos and tracking their eye-movements to see how they are processing the information on the screen. The little videos test aspect of attention regulation. This is work being done in collaboration with two other colleagues, Philip Zelazo and Jed Elison. Our goal is to see whether delays in the early development of attention can be detected in 9- to 17-month old children while they visit the doctor for their regular check-ups. Detecting delays this early would allow plenty of opportunity to strengthen the brain circuits that help children control their attention and their behavior.

Questions about the Toddlers and Parent Study or the Toddler Attention Study can be directed to Shanna Mliner at newma039@umn.edu or 612-624-4351.

Smiling toddler

Suárez awarded the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Sarah SuárezSarah Suárez, a fourth year doctoral student in the Institute of Child Development, has been awarded the National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship for the 2017 academic year.

The $27,500 fellowship supports individuals whose research may advance the field of education. Suárez is one of 35 researchers to receive the fellowship this year out of more than 400 applicants.

Suárez’s dissertation focuses on how children develop an understanding of knowledge and how it relates to critical thinking, social learning, and self-control.

Fenoglio receives Women’s Philanthropic Leadership Circle award

Angela Fenoglio, a Ph.D. candidate in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), recently received an award from the College of Education and Human Development’s Women’s Philanthropic Leadership Circle (WPLC).

Founded in 2002, WPLC aims to raise visibility of women leaders in education and human development and provide financial support to women in educational leadership positions. Each year, WPLC makes several awards of up to $2,500 to graduate students to honor their achievement and leadership.

Fenoglio is currently a doctoral candidate working with ICD faculty Jed Elison, Ph.D., and Michael Georgieff, M.D. Her research focuses on the development of the “social brain.” In her work, she examines how atypical early experiences, such as premature birth, might affect the development of brain circuits involved in social skills like following a caregiver’s gaze or thinking about the beliefs and desires of others. The long-term goal of her research is to contribute to strategic prevention and intervention in pre-term infants and other populations at an increased risk of mental illness.