Founded in 2014 by Institute of Child Development professors Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., and Phil Zelazo, Ph.D., Reflection Sciences provides professional development, training, and tools for assessing and improving executive function skills. Executive function is the set of neurocognitive functions that help the brain organize and act on information. These functions help us pay attention, control behavior, and think flexibly – skills that are key for school readiness.
Through the new collaboration, researchers will be able to track the development of executive function skills over the course of childhood and beyond using Reflection Sciences’ Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS™) App. The MEFS App is a scientifically valid and reliable game-like tablet measure of executive function for ages 2 and up.
“The research literature clearly points to the critical role that early executive function plays in children’s academic and social success, so we need to make sure the study effectively captures children’s skills in this area,” said co-principal investigator Stephanie Jones, Ph.D., a professor of education at Harvard. “MEFS combines the strength of a trusted measure of executive function with the power of big data, allowing us to view the findings from our study within the context of the thousands of other children who have used the app.”
For the Early Learning Study at Harvard, which is supported by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative and led by Jones and Nonie Lesaux, Ph.D., researchers will follow a sample of 5,000 randomly selected families with children ages 3 and 4 years from more than 100 communities throughout Massachusetts. An estimated 40 percent of the children are in an informal childcare setting, such as family care; the other 60 percent are enrolled in a formal setting, such as an early childhood education center. Across four years, researchers will document each child’s early learning experiences and measure outcomes including language, executive function, and academic and social-emotional skills.
This study aims to address important questions about how formal and informal early learning environments impact learning outcomes and developmental gains. The researchers hope to achieve a better understanding of which early education features have the greatest benefits for children, which models of Pre-K work best, why they work, for whom they work, and under what conditions. The team hopes their findings will inform public policy efforts and decisions regarding opportunities and challenges facing early childhood education.
“The Early Learning Study at Harvard is setting the standard for research on early childhood education practices and we are delighted to be able to help them achieve results using our measure,” Carlson said.
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.”
On June 20 and 21, roughly 500 of Minnesota’s education leaders, researchers, policy makers, and nonprofit organizations gathered at Educational Equity in Action II. This was the second convening hosted by the University of Minnesota. Its focus: improving educational equity by “Working across schools and communities to enhance social emotional learning.”
Dr. Martin Brokenleg, Co-author of the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future and co-developer of the Circle of Courage model,explained that trauma from oppression, like that experienced by the American Indian community, can span generations.
“Our culture is plagued by intergenerational trauma,” said Brokenleg, whose mother’s family was among those imprisoned at Fort Snelling. He cited the incredibly high suicide rate among Native people, especially in the 18-30 age group, and among people in Ireland and Scotland after generations of oppression by the British, whose methods not coincidentally were adopted by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. “We’ve had a normal human reaction to an abnormal history.”
Brokenleg described his Circle of Courage model which supports character building or “teaching the heart” through generosity, belonging, independence, and mastery. Brokenleg finished his talk with practical strategies from Circle of Courage attendees could take back to their schools and communities to help young people—especially those suffering from intergenerational trauma—learn and grow.
Dr. Michael Rodriguez, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, Jim and Carmen Campbell Leadership Chair in Education and Human Development, and co-director of the Educational Equity Resource Center and the covening, led a plenary discussion on the results of the Minnesota Student Survey (MSS).
Rodriguez explained, although at a high-level the MSS tells a positive story about the developmental skills and supports of Minnesota youth, a closer look at the data demonstrates the reality of the inequities some students experience in Minnesota’s education system. This is particularly apparent for students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB); students who skip school; students who receive disciplinary action in school; and students who have experienced trauma.
“Ninety-nine percent of our youth say their goal is to graduate from high school—and 65 to 85 percent across demographic groups also want to go to college,” said Rodriguez. “That’s a lot higher than our state’s high school graduation goal for them, which is now about 90 percent by 2020!”
He emphasized that students’ own goals are higher than those we’ve set as a state.
Following the plenary, students in Rodriguez’s Minnesota Youth Development Research Group (MYDRG) led detailed discussions on the MSS results for some of these groups, including: American Indian students, Hmong students, students in special education, LGB students, and students experiencing trauma.
Throughout the convening, participants selected from 28 smaller group breakout sessions on social-emotional learning led by University of Minnesota researchers, youth engagement groups, school districts, the Minneapolis Department of Education, and more. Several sessions included youth as presenters and/or focused on youth participatory action research projects.
Small group discussions
Before the final keynote, attendees participated in a process called TRIZ. They met in small groups—dividing themselves up based on the different developmental skills and supports students need to be successful (identified in Rodriguez’s work). Participants started with the unusual task of listing actions communities might take to destroy the skill being discussed in youth. Then, they shared opportunities they had to remove some of these destructive activities and developed action plans for their schools, communities, and organizations.
Dr. Muhammad Khalifa, associate professor in Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, closed out the convening by challenging the group to practice culturally responsive school leadership (CRSL). He asked that school leaders promote schooling that addresses the specific cultural and learning needs of students by focusing on the perspectives of parents, students, and community members.
“Change in schools can be promoted and fostered by ‘leaders,’ but culturally responsive school leadership is practiced by all stakeholders,” said Khalifa. “Community-based based knowledge informs good leadership practice.”
In this statement, Khalifa connected his keynote to Rodriguez’ and Brokenleg’s work. Each of the speakers stressed the importance of listening to all members of our community to improve educational equity.
Khalifa ended his talk by sharing strategies to help attendees to achieve CRSL in their own schools, organizations, and communities.
The fellowship will support Smolinski’s summer research project, which will examine differences in how mothers imagine their unborn child and their relationship with the child, as well as how family planning may be associated with these differences. The project will leverage data from the Women and Infants Study of Health, Emotions, and Stress (WISHES), a study led by ICD doctoral student Colleen Doyle. Smolinski will be mentored by Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., director of the Institute.
This year, ASF awarded three pre-doctoral and six post-doctoral fellowship grants to student and mentor teams conducting research in deep brain stimulation, gene and environmental interactions, epigenetics, pain response, neurobiology, and sex differences in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“Each of the projects selected for funding has the potential to improve the lives of people with autism,” said Autism Science Foundation President Alison Singer. “We are pleased to support the work of this impressive group of young scientists and look forward to the progress that will be made as a result of their efforts.”
For her research, Sharer will examine the female protective effect in infants with ASD. Four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism, and evidence suggests a “female protective effect” as one explanation for the sex bias.
Sharer’s study will be the first study to investigate the female protective effect in infants who show behaviors of concern, compared with those who develop typically and those who are later diagnosed with ASD. Sharer will be mentored by ICD Assistant Professor Jed Elison, Ph.D.
C&NN aims to connect children, families, and communities to nature through innovative ideas and evidence-based resources. The theme for the 2017 conference was, “Kids Need Nature, Nature Needs Kids.”
During the conference, Williams Ridge spoke about tailoring outdoor learning opportunities to children’s specific developmental needs, depending on their age. She also moderated a panel about best practices for nature-based learning in the early childhood field.
A recent article in CE+HD Connect magazine discussed research by the Center for Early Education and Development that is examining the effectiveness of a children’s theater program. The story is one of three articles about play that appear in the magazine’s Spring/Summer 2017 issue.
Early Bridges is a preschool theater arts outreach program developed by the Minneapolis-based Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). Early Bridges aims to build early literacy through interactive storytelling and theater arts.
Through a research collaboration with CTC, CEED evaluates Early Bridges’ impact, such as whether students show improvement in certain areas. CEED also has helped develop new measures and rubrics for the program, which incorporate both theater arts and child development theory.
The Shirley G. Moore Lab School in the Institute of Child Development was profiled in a recent article in CE+HD Connect magazine, which highlighted the school’s focus on play-based learning. The story is one of three articles about play that appear in the magazine’s Spring/Summer 2017 issue.
Psychology Day at the UN is an annual event that highlights how psychological science and practice contribute to the UN agenda. It’s attended by UN staff, ambassadors and diplomats, non-governmental organizations, members of the public and private sectors, and other stakeholders.
This year’s theme was “Promoting Well-being in the 21st Century: Psychological Contributions for Social, Economic, and Environmental Challenges.” The topic was chosen to align with the inclusion of well-being in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in 2015 and outlines the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In her remarks, Masten addressed the economic pillar by discussing her research on competence, risk, and resilience in development.
Brenda Hartman (M.S.W. ’89), a St. Paul therapist who provides counseling to adolescents, adults, and couples, was named a 2017 Bush Fellow this week.
She and 23 other people were selected from nearly 650 applications for the fellowships. Applicants described their leadership vision and how a Bush Fellowship would both help them achieve their goals and make their community better. Each Fellow will receive up to $100,000 to pursue the education and experiences they believe will help them become more effective leaders.
With her Bush Fellowship, Hartman will study end-of-life practices from different cultures, religions, and spiritual traditions, and grow her leadership skills through coursework and consultation.
She has lived nearly three decades longer than expected after receiving a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Over those years, she has devoted herself to addressing the social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the cancer experience. She sees a strong need to promote a cultural shift in society’s response to death. She wants to introduce a narrative that counters fear and denial with a view of death as a healing process. She seeks new ways to incorporate end-of-life planning into training for healthcare professionals.
As a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Carlson will receive a $100,000 grant for research and scholarly activities, and carry the title throughout her University career. Carlson is one of six University professors receiving the award in 2017. Three CEHD professors have earned the award previously, including Frank Symons of educational psychology, and Megan Gunnar and Ann Masten, both in the Institute of Child Development.
Through her research, Carlson has developed innovative ways of measuring executive function – or the set of skills that helps individuals pay attention, control impulses and think flexibly – in very young children. She has also made discoveries about the role of executive function in other aspects of human development, including decision-making and creativity.
Her accomplishments include co-developing the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS), a testing app that measures executive function and early learning readiness in children. The MEFS is the only early learning readiness assessment measuring executive function that can be used with children as young as two years old. To help put the tool in the hands of early educators, she co-founded the tech start-up Reflection Sciences and now serves as its CEO.
“Stephanie Carlson not only has conducted ground-breaking research that has advanced the field of cognitive development, but she also has developed practical tools for early educators,” said CEHD Dean Jean Quam. “She is an engaged professor, researcher and mentor to her students, and an outstanding asset to the college.”
Carlson and the other winners of this year’s Distinguished McKnight University Professorships will be recognized at the May Board of Regents meeting and honored at a celebratory dinner.
Along with an inscribed plaque, Low will receive a scholarship of $500 and up to $250 in travel/ research funds. Below, Low discusses how she developed an interest in child psychology and her post-graduation plans.
What made you want to study child psychology?
I came across the child psychology major by chance. While applying to transfer to the University of Minnesota, I was unsure of what I wanted to major in and as I was filling out my application, I chanced upon the major. I knew that I wanted to continue pursuing something related to the field of psychology or the social sciences and that I wanted to work with children. Looking back, this decision has been one filled with great reward and tremendous challenge, but it is something that I don’t regret.
What kind of research are you involved in?
As an undergraduate research assistant in the CDN Lab, I investigated the role of early experience in brain development. As part of an independent study, I have developed a coding scheme, with the assistance of Dr. Thomas, to examine attentional strategies used by preschool children to regulate their emotions. I also have worked with ICD Associate Professor Melissa Koenig, Ph.D., in the Early Language and Experience Lab (ELEL), where I examined how preschool children reason about the intentions and actions of people. Currently, I am assisting Dr. Thomas in a separate study examining social and emotional development in children who have had a hemipherectomy (half of their brain removed).
What do you find most interesting about child development?
You can never have two children who are exactly alike. Child development is continuously affected by biological factors, environmental factors, and even an amalgamation and interaction of both. I find it interesting how even under similar conditions, two children will be different from one another, especially in the research area I am interested in, emotional development, whereby children may use similar strategies for regulation.
What are your plans after graduation?
My coursework, clinical experience and research experiences have inspired me to attend graduate school in developmental psychology. I have received numerous opportunities to study cognitive development in children, but still continue to find it intriguing, especially in its relation to emotional development. Ultimately, I hope to attend graduate school to attain the skills necessary for a career as a qualified and inquisitive developmental researcher and to continue to contribute and create greater awareness and understanding of child development.
Maria D. Sera, Ph.D., professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Institute of Child Development, contributed to a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on promoting the educational success of children and youth who are learning English.
Sera served on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that examined how research on the development of English learners could inform policy and improve educational outcomes. Sera’s research focuses on the relation between language and cognitive development and on the learning of second languages by children and adults.
The committee’s report, which was released on Feb. 28, highlighted key research, identified effective practices for educators, and made recommendations for how policymakers can support children and youth who are learning English. It looked at two groups of children and youth: dual language learners, or children ages birth to 5 who are learning two languages and are not enrolled in school, and English learners, who are enrolled in the pre-K-12 education system and are learning English as a second language. Most English learners are born in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens.
The report found that English learners, who account for more than 9 percent of K-12 enrollment in the U.S., face barriers to academic success, as schools often do not provide adequate instruction or resources to support acquiring English proficiency. According to the report, early care and education providers, teachers, and administrators do not receive appropriate training to foster desired educational outcomes for children and youth learning English.
The report also discussed capacities and influences on language development, including that children have the capacity to learn two languages from birth if they are given adequate input in each. It noted that speaking to children in a different language at home will not hurt a child’s ability to learn English and that having strong skills in a home language can help children learn a second language.
Overall, the report made 10 recommendations to government agencies at all levels to improve educational outcomes. For example, the report recommended that agencies that oversee early care and education programs provide specific evidence-based program guidance for serving dual language learners and their families. The report also recommended that agencies conduct marketing campaigns to provide information about the capacity of children to learn more than one language.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the Foundation for Child Development, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in infants with older siblings with autism, researchers from around the country, including the University of Minnesota (UMN), were able to predict which infants would later meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at two years of age, with 80 percent accuracy.
“The findings lay the foundation for the field to move toward attempting to implement interventions before the symptoms that define autism consolidate into a diagnosis,” said study co-author Jed Elison, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UMN Institute of Child Development.
“Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months,” said senior author Joseph Piven, M.D., the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In addition to the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the College of Charleston, and New York University (see ibisnetwork.org for more information.)
For this study, published today in Nature, the team of researchers conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12 and 24 months of age. They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age. Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life. Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.
The researchers then took these data – MRIs of brain volume, surface area, cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age, and sex of the infants – and used a computer program to identify a way to classify babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age. The computer program developed the best algorithm to accomplish this, and the researchers applied the algorithm to a separate set of study participants.
The researchers found that brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism correctly predicted eight out of 10 infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age in comparison to those infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.
According to the researchers, the findings may have implications for early detection and intervention in children who have older siblings with autism before a diagnosis is typically established. Diagnosis of ASD typically occurs after 24 months of age, the earliest time when behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed. Intervening early could lead to improved outcomes, as the brain is more malleable in the first years of life compared with later in childhood.
“This area of research is incredibly exciting because it provides an opportunity to understand how autism unfolds early in life,” said Jason Wolff, Ph.D., an assistant professor in educational psychology at UMN and a study co-author. “It provides new clues about the timing and specific mechanisms of brain development that precede a diagnosis. It also offers the unprecedented possibility of predicting whether or not a child will develop autism based on neurobiological data.”
“These findings not only are significant for the field of autism, but they also could inform the broader field of psychiatry and prevention science as it relates to various psychiatric conditions,” Elison said. “This research highlights the best of contemporary science. It’s collaborative, and informed by technology and multiple areas of expertise, with the common goal of helping families.”
The National Institutes of Health funded this study.
While peer-reviewed, the article was invited as part of a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, by James J. Gibson, one of the foundational statements of the Ecological Approach to Perception and Action.
Dr. Mantel is on the faculty at the University of Caen, while Dr. Bardy is on the faculty at the University of Montpellier, both in France.
The MAP Center was recently awarded a five year grant by the U.S. Department of Education to assist with desegregation and other civil rights issues in public schools in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Sullivan will contribute to the development of MAP products and services to facilitate implementation of culturally appropriate multitier systems of support for students’ academic, social-emotional, and behavioral development.
“I’m excited to partner with the MAP Center to support schools’ efforts to create equitable systems and support the learning and wellbeing of all learners,” she says. “This is as important now as it’s ever been and with the MAP center, we have a great opportunity to develop tools tailored to our local communities.”
The Master’s of Arts (M.A.) in Applied Child and Adolescent Development program aims to equip students with a foundation in development science that can be applied in advocacy, community, and health care settings. Through the program, students will gain knowledge in cognitive and biological development, social and emotional development, research methods and ethics. The program is entirely online, allowing students to learn from where they are.
“Children are our future — the nation’s future. At this critical time, we must ensure that children and adolescents receive the support they need to develop and grow into healthy, thriving adults,” says Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., director of ICD. “Our new master’s degree seeks to do just that by helping students build a foundation in development science that they can use in real-world situations.”
The M.A. is intended for individuals who would like to build a career working with children or adolescents or creating and implementing practices and policies that support their well-being and development. The M.A. also is ideal for professionals working in fields that serve children who are seeking to advance their career. The program currently is accepting applications for Fall 2017.