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New IPR Research: May 2023

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This month’s new research from IPR faculty investigates how pre-pregnancy maternal mental health impacts children, federal agencies with substantial personnel change in the Trump era, and a new tool to assess school communities. It also examines how educators can encourage academic achievement and college completion, how young women think about sexual assault at fraternity parities and solutions to sexual violence, and whether a strong versus a weak commitment device helps Ugandan children and their families save for education.

Social Disparities and Health

Pre-Pregnancy Maternal Mental Health Impact on Children 

What impact do pre-pregnancy posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and symptoms of depression among mothers have on the cortisol levels of their young children? Cortisol levels are indicative of stress, and flatter daily cortisol slopes point to adverse mental, physical, and behavioral outcomes for children. In Developmental Psychobiology, IPR developmental psychologist Emma Adam and her colleagues study 85 mother-child pairs participating in research of the Community Child Health Network (CCHN). Before becoming pregnant, women rated their levels of stress and mental health using the PTSD Checklist–Civilian Version, the Perceived Stress Scale, and Postnatal Depression Scale. Then, their children provided saliva samples at the ages of four and five years, which were used to measure cortisol levels three times across the day. The study found that PTSD symptoms in mothers were significantly associated with cortisol levels in their children that were flatter than normal, a pattern which is associated with poor mental and physical outcomes. However, mothers’ pre-pregnancy symptoms of depression and stress did not have an apparent effect on the cortisol levels of their children. Additionally, cortisol awakening responses (CARs) were tested for in children, but were found to have no correlation with pre-pregnancy mental health for mothers. Based on these findings, the researchers suggest women be screened for PTSD allowing for treatment prior to the start of pregnancy to improve maternal and child mental health.

Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy

Identifying Federal Agencies with Substantial Personnel Change in the Trump Era

U.S. presidents and federal government agencies often have an adversarial relationship, but it’s unclear how the Trump administration, plagued by tension between President Trump and members of the civil service, impacted the federal workforce. In PLOS One, IPR political scientist Brian Libgober and Mark Richardson of Georgetown University explore the Trump administration’s approach to personnel politics. Using federal employment records from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), they examine rates of entry and exit at agencies and bureaus across the executive branch during President Trump’s term. Because some bureaus have fewer employees than others, they used a Bayesian hierarchical model, which considers differences and similarities in groups, to analyze employment changes and account for the different size of each bureau. They find that across the bureaus, employment rates by the end of the Trump administration in 2021 were not significantly different from the rates in January 2017. However, certain bureaus, such as immigration and veteran-affairs bureaus, grew substantially, while others like civil-rights focused bureaus showed signs of stress and lost employees. Compared to the first terms of President George W. Bush and President Obama, the Trump administration lost more employees across most agencies. While the media and members of Congress reported that agencies like the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency were in crisis during the Trump administration, these findings show that other bureaus also suffered a large loss of staff during President Trump’s term.

Education Policy

A New Tool to Assess School Communities

preschool-boy-stockResearch on early childhood education experiences and quality has largely focused on the characteristics within school walls. In AERA Open, IPR developmental psychologist Terri Sabol and her colleagues introduce a new social observation tool that makes use of Google StreetView to document the physical features of children’s school communities. The internet-based School Neighborhood Assessment Protocol (iSNAP) quantifies  care, resources, and order of  preschool grounds and the surrounding neighborhoods where research coders take a virtual “walk” around preschools. Coders measure characteristics such as the presence of a playground, welcoming entrance, degree of litter and educational murals. The researchers compared iSNAP outcomes to neighborhood structural measures, such as poverty and crime, and learning outcomes, such as language and literacy, self-regulation, and approaches to learning, of 1,230 low-income students in 291 U.S. preschools. They did not find school community physical characteristics to be predictive of child outcomes; however, they did see a positive association between resources for outdoor play on school grounds and child performance on self-regulation tasks. They also found that children at schools whose grounds and surrounding neighborhoods scored highly in overall care and resources showed greater approaches to learning, including motivation and attention. The iSNAP holds promise as a tool to enable researchers to better characterize the experiences of preschools outside school walls.

How Educators can Encourage Academic Achievement and College Completion

How students think about themselves in the future can be a motivating factor for higher academic achievement, yet it has been understudied at less selective colleges and online institutions. In Frontiers in Education, IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin and his colleagues identify whether psychological support, grounded in appealing to people’s identities, can improve students’ academic performance and motivate them to stay in college. The researchers focused on an understudied body of institutions—online colleges and universities—using two studies. In the first study, out of a group of 1,042 students enrolled in an online math class, 429 were given the opportunity to reflect about their futures as potential college graduates. All the students later completed a survey, and the researchers collected final course outcomes. The second study used the same strategy. However, the researchers sampled 2,515 students across several introductory courses and included surveys at multiple time points. The results of the studies showed that having the opportunity to meaningfully reflect about the significance of graduating college improved grades and persistence in college the next semester. The findings indicate that encouraging college students to intentionally imagine their future selves can support student motivation and success.

Strong Versus Weak Commitments to Save for Education in Uganda

Commitment devices that limit people’s behavior in the present, such as savings accounts with restrictions, may help them achieve long-term goals. In a working paper, economist and IPR associate Dean Karlan and Leigh Linden of the University of Texas at Austin test whether a strong versus a weaker commitment device helps Ugandan children and their families save, spend more on educational expenses, and achieve higher test scores. In coordination with a local non-profit, Private Education Development Network (PEDN), the researchers randomly assigned students in 136 primary schools to one of three groups to save for educational expenses: a strong commitment savings account where funds were available at the end of the term and could only be use on educational items with a voucher, a weak commitment savings account where funds could be withdrawn at the end of the term, but were available in cash to spend on anything, and a control group. At the end of each trimester, students could use their vouchers or cash to purchase school supplies at a fair. Halfway through the program, half of the parents in the treatment groups attended a workshop explaining the value of saving the money early enough to impact their child’s behavior. The other half attended the workshop too late to influence their behavior. The researchers find that when their parents attended the workshop, children save more under a weaker commitment savings account than a stricter commitment, and they spend the money on school supplies. Children in this group also had better academic scores, suggesting that financial constraints play an important role in academic outcomes.

Women’s Accounts of Navigating the Risk of Party Rape in Greek Life at an Elite College

The risk of being sexually assaulted is a pervasive problem for women in historically White Greek life, yetwoman-on-campus-stock research before 2010 shows women rarely held institutions responsible for these incidents and instead engaged in victim-blaming. In Sociology of Education, IPR sociologist Simone Ispa-Landa and Northwestern postdoctoral student Sara Thomas investigate how women at an elite college think about sexual assault at fraternity parities and solutions to sexual violence. Between 2017 and 2019, the researchers conducted 121 interviews with 68 college-aged women in historically White sororities. The interviews revealed that these women were highly invested in maintaining the historically white Greek party scene. Unlike women from past studies, they did not blame women who were assaulted; instead, they blamed institutions for failing to keep them safe from sexual assault and creating reporting mechanisms that retraumatized survivors. The women also talked about trying to protect themselves and other women at parties by designating someone as a “sober sister” to monitor behavior or share the names of men who had or might perpetrate sexual assault. Future research on women’s responses to sexual assault in Greek life could look at less selective institutions, include observations of women’s behavior at parties, and look at non-cisgender perspectives on prevention strategies.

Photo credits: Shutterstock and iStock

Published: May 22, 2023.