These funds are awarded to students whose research proposals merit special recognition and display a strong potential to contribute to the field of child development. The purpose of the award is to fund the research costs and professional development of the proposed dissertation research project.
Chan’s research focuses on how things like play activities, visual contexts, and examiner’s actions affect children’s attention to numbers and interpretation of number words. Her dissertation tests how non-numerical skills such as language and executive function influence mathematical thinking and learning.
The event consisted of 3 days of research presentations and educator outreach, and featured speakers from the fields of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and educational psychology. The conference was followed by 2 days of workshops, which were attended by the U.S. delegation of eight graduate students and five faculty members.
During the post-conference workshops, Semenov and the U.S. delegation met with researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute. These workshops addressed research topics, such as new technologies, social and emotional determinants of learning, and multimedia learning. They also covered international collaboration and scientist/educator collaboration. Semenov presented his project on introducing structured family routines to Head Start and Early Head Start families as a way to improve executive function in children.
According to the blog, parents who participated in Project ADAPT reported feeling better about their parenting, which in turn leads to improvements in the child’s adjustment. The project has also reduced depression, PTSD symptoms, and thoughts of suicide for the parents involved.
Laura Reimann, a child psychology undergraduate student, shares why she chose to study child psychology and gives advice for other students pursuing the major.
How and why did you choose your major?
As a freshman, I did an internship at the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office, and it changed my entire outlook on mass incarceration and the effects it has on children and families. I heard devastating stories of separation, and of parents who knew their incarceration was impacting their children, but did not know how to mitigate those effects. They were scared and uncertain of where their children were and how they were doing. As I completed my internship I realized this was the area I wanted to try and help to change, but I knew that I did not want to be an attorney. So, I approached the child psychology advisor and asked for more information. He gave me some advice about how to choose a major and encouraged me to connect with Dr. Ann Masten. I read more about her research and about the classes in the major and knew this was where I wanted to be!
Please give a description (in your words) of your major including the things you learn, favorite classes, and any challenges you have faced.
The child psychology major is unique because it combines a lot of different class work with field work and research opportunities. During my time as a child psychology major, I have participated in a variety of activities, including field work at the University of Minnesota Child Development Center and have participated in research in the Masten Lab of Risk and Resilience and the Shlafer Lab, which studies the effects of mass incarceration on families.
What types of experiences outside of the classroom have you had relating to your major? (i.e. clubs, jobs, internships, volunteering, study abroad etc.)
I am involved as an officer in the Child Psychology Student Organization where we participate in various events which include community service, hosting guest speakers to talk about topics our members are interested in, and free food! During my first year, I had an internship at the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office where I got to see the court system in action and observe the effects of incarceration firsthand, which led to my involvement in research with Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, that systematically examines these effects. My research interests also led me to pursue an undergraduate research assistant position in the Masten Lab of Risk and Resilience, examining risk and protective factors in the lives of children experiencing homelessness and high mobility, under the direction of Dr. Ann Masten. Finally, I work on campus as a peer assistant at the University Honors Program.
In your opinion, what is one thing, or one piece of advice that other students pursuing your major should know?
Find something you are passionate about, get involved, and be assertive! The Institute of Child Development has so much to offer and it is so important to find an issue or area within the field that you are passionate about and find a way to work on it. Whether it is volunteering at a local school or spending your time in a lab doing research, make sure you love it. When you find something that you care about, be assertive and find a way to get involved. Even if you are nervous, approach professors doing research you care about and talk to them about what opportunities they know of that fall within your areas of interest. The undergraduate experience is what you make it, so pursue things you love and do not be afraid to try something new.
Ann S. Masten, Ph.D., Regents Professor and Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), was recently featured in an article appearing in the September 2017 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology.
The article, “Maximizing children’s resilience,” by Kirsten Weir, highlighted new research that examines how to foster resilience in children and adolescents and the importance of early intervention.
According to Masten, the field has shifted from focusing on traits of resilient individuals to looking at resilience from a systems perspective. For example, Masten, along with other researchers, have found that having supportive relationships, including with parents or primary caregivers, is important for healthy development.
“The resilience of an individual depends on drawing resources from many other systems,” Masten says. “A child is embedded in interactions with friends, family, community. The way those other systems are functioning plays a huge role in the capacity of that child to overcome adversity.”
Abigail Gewirtz, Lindahl Leadership professor in the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute for Translational Research, was interviewed by WCCO-TV and KSTP-TV about her research program, ADAPT, that supports military families reintegrating following deployment. The unique program provides tools and resources to support positive parenting. A U.S. Department of Defense grant is underwriting an online version of ADAPT to serve more military families.
Shlafer, who teaches an honors class titled, Incarceration and the Family, partnered with Diana Poch, a psychologist at Sandstone, to launch the project. Poch had noticed positive behavior changes in inmates who learned how to crochet and were teaching others the craft.
Last semester, Shlafer and her students collected a total of 350 pounds of yarn to provide to the inmates. With the yarn, the inmates crocheted animals for sick children at four Twin Cities Ronald McDonald Houses.
“It was so powerful for my students to learn how many consequences there are to sometimes very limited decisions,” Shlafer said. “They made an impact in a way that really challenged the students’ assumptions about who is in prison for what and why, raising questions around equity.”
Reimann plans to continue to raise awareness about Project Teddy Bear next semester as Shlafer’s teaching assistant. “People have a tremendous capacity to change if given the chance and the resources,” Reimann said. “They are creating something with another human in mind and giving something back to a community that thinks they are only taking.”
The Smith College Medal was established in 1962 to recognize alumnae who exemplify in their lives and work “the true purpose” of a liberal arts education. More than 200 Smith alumnae have received the award, including journalist and activist Gloria Steinem and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Masten was one of four alumnae to receive the medal this year.
Masten is a leading psychologist who focuses on competence, risk, and resilience in human development, especially in children and families threatened by adversity. The goal of her work is to inform science, practice, and policy around human adaptation and resilience.
Masten will receive the medal during Smith College’s Rally Day, which will take place on Feb. 21, 2018.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in being a part of the study!