Around 30 per cent of British children fail to meet expected targets in reading or maths at age 11. These children face a future of continuing difficulties in education, as well as poorer mental health and employment success. Understanding why some kids struggle – and providing them with tailored support as early as possible – is clearly vital. Some will be diagnosed with a specific disorder, such as Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder or dyslexia, and get targeted help. But many will not. And even many conventional diagnostic labels may be misleading, and fail to capture the true picture of a child’s problems, according to new work by a team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, which has come up with a radical, alternative approach.
Every child is born into a world far more complex than the womb it departed. Physically it’s made up of objects, distances, heights, which we know new-born infants are already oriented to read and make sense of. But their new world is also a social one, chock-full of agents with needs and intentions, and past findings show that infants are surprisingly quick to recognise much of this too.New research in PNAS adds to this literature, investigating the ability to make an important social distinction – between those who hold power due to respect and those who impose it through force – and finds that already by the time they are toddlers, infants can do this too.
According to the Mindset Theory, if you tell a child repeatedly that they’re smart, it makes them less willing to push themselves when they get stuck on an intellectual challenge, presumably because failure would threaten their self-image of being a “smart kid”. For this reason, effort-based praise – rewarding kids for “working hard” rather than “being smart” – is widely recommended (though it’s not the same for adults). But does a similar effect occur in the social sphere? What if you ask a child – as so many parents and surely teachers do – to “be a helper” as if it’s a category that you either belong to or you don’t?
Earlier research has found that young kids are more likely to try to help others when they are asked to “be helpers” instead of “to help”. But as Emily Foster-Hanson and her fellow researchers at New York University note, “Setbacks and difficulties are common features of children’s experience throughout development and into adulthood,” so it’s important to examine the effects of category labelling – like “being smart” or “being a helper” – when things go wrong for the child. And in their new paper, published in Child Development, they find that setbacks are more detrimental to a child labelled “a helper” than a child asked “to help”.
With an increasing number of young children transitioning socially to the gender opposite to their birth sex, and with rates of bullying and discrimination against transgender youth known to be high, researchers say it is important that we begin to understand more about how cisgender children (those whose gender identity matches their biological sex at birth) view their transgender peers. A new paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development is the first to explore the issue.
In our culture we like to speculate about the effects of different parenting styles on children. A lot of this debate is wasted breath. Twin studies – that compare similarities in outcomes between genetically identical and non-identical twins raised by their biological or adopted parents – have already shown us that parental influence is far more modest than we usually assume. Now a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science goes further, using the twin approach to reveal how it is mistaken to see the parent-child dynamic as a one-way relationship. “Given the current evidence … it is more accurate to conceptualise parenting as a transactional process in which both parents and children exert simultaneous and continuous influence on each other,” write Mona Ayoub at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleagues.
Studies of identical and non-identical twins indicate that our self-esteem is influenced by the genes we inherited from our parents, but also, and perhaps slightly more so, by environmental factors. And according to a new study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, these environmental influences started playing a lasting role very early in life.
Ulrich Orth at the University of Bern has reported evidence that, on average, the higher the quality of a person’s home environment when they were aged between 0 and 6 years – based on warm and responsive parenting; cognitive stimulation; and a safe, organised physical environment – the higher their self-esteem many years later in adulthood.
When my kids were toddlers, there were caches of easily-accessible toys in most rooms of our house. But perhaps I should have kept most of them stored away, and brought just a few out at a time, on rotation – because the results of a new study in Infant Behaviour and Development suggest that a toddler with few toy options not only spends longer playing with each one – presumably developing their attentional skills – but is also more creative in their play.
The US psychologist Walter Mischel famously tested children’s ability – aged four to six – to delay immediate gratification with his “Marshmallow Experiment”. It’s become a classic, not least because the children who were better at resisting one marshmallow now, for the promise of two if they waited, went on to enjoy more success in adult life. Mischel also showed that children with stronger willpower used better distraction strategies, such as looking away or covering their eyes. Now a group of Polish psychologists have extended this line of inquiry to toddlers.
The findings, published in Infant Behaviour and Development, show that individual differences in self-control are already apparent at the tender age of 18 months. The study also reveals how self-control develops through the second year of life, and it shows the kind of toddler behaviours that were correlated with stronger willpower.
Finger counting by young kids has traditionally been frowned upon because it’s seen as babyish and a deterrent to using mental calculations. However, a new Swiss study in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has found that six-year-olds who finger counted performed better at simple addition, especially if they used an efficient finger counting strategy. What’s more, it was the children with higher working memory ability – who you would expect to have less need for using their fingers – who were more inclined to finger count, and to do so in an efficient way. “Our study advocates for the promotion of finger use in arithmetic tasks during the first years of schooling,” said the researchers Justine Dupont-Boime and Catherine Thevenot at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne.