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Childhood Programs & Development

Connecting Language and Concepts 

How do infants make a connection between how an object is named and the concept—or representation—of the object? IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman and her colleagues investigate these questions in new research in Scientific Reports. Building on their earlier in-person work with infants, the researchers conducted two online studies, one with 55 12-month-olds and one with 48 7-month-olds. In both studies, pictures of stuffed animals were shown to the babies who heard made-up names, like “vep,” spoken for each animal. For half of the babies, each of these animals was given a unique name; the other half heard the same name applied to all four animals. Next, babies viewed the very same animals, this time paired with a new animal and presented in silence.  The researchers found that when each animal had received a unique name, infants successfully recognized the animal and distinguished it from others. But when all animals had been given the same name, babies failed to recognize even the most recently seen animal. Both the older and younger babies showed the same pattern, although 7-month-olds could remember fewer objects. The studies show that even before infants know many words, they form a precise, conceptual link between object naming and representation. As they grow older, their capacity to distinguish unique examples within categories improves. The researchers conclude that infants as young as 7 months can connect language and concepts. Waxman is Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology.  

How Listening to Language Boosts Infant Cognition

Even before infants can roll over in their cribs, research has shown that listening to language boosts their child listening to mothercognition. In a study published in Developmental Science, IPR research specialist Kali Woodruff Carr, IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman, and their colleagues provide the first evidence of the underlying neural mechanisms that support infants’ acquisition of this unique human language-cognition link. They identified developmental changes in 4- and 6-month-old infants’ neural responses to human speech and lemur calls, providing new insight into how the link to cognition becomes so rapidly attuned to human speech. The researchers used  electroencephalography (EEG) to measure infants’ neural responses as they listened to human speech and lemur calls. They discovered emerging differences in infants’ neural activity. Human speech and calls from lemurs, who are some of humans’ closest evolutionary relatives, each engage early neural components of infants’ attention by the time they are 6 months old but in distinct ways. Between 4 and 6 months, infants’ neural attention while listening to speech is enhanced, but their attention while listening to lemur calls is suppressed. These results offer novel insights into how listening to language supports early cognition. They also illuminate the rapid organization of cortical networks in the infant brain for processing speech and language. Waxman holds the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology.

'I See What You Are Saying:' Hearing Infants’ Visual Attention and Social Engagement in Response to Spoken and Sign Language

Do infants exposed to sign language pay attention and engage in the same ways as infants learning spoken language?  IPR psychologist Sandra Waxman and her colleagues investigate this topic in their study published in Frontiers in Psychology by comparing how hearing infants, with no exposure to sign language, deploy their attention to either spoken or sign language. The researchers observed 45 infants between the ages of four and six months, none of whom had been exposed to sign language. All infants viewed a collection of colorful toy objects on a screen. What varied was how these objects were labeled. Infants in the sign language condition (22) observed as a woman labeled them in sign language (American Sign Language), and infants in the spoken language condition (23) observed as the woman labeled them in spoken language (English). The researchers measured infants’ visual attention and their spontaneous vocalizations during the task. All infants were highly engaged and vocalized equally during the task. Still, infants’ visual attention was higher in the spoken than in the sign language condition (devoting 92% vs. 80% of the available time looking in the spoken and sign conditions, respectively). These results establish that infants as young as 4- and 6-months old engage well with communicative partners using either the spoken or signed modality. This new work has implications for theories of language acquisition and should shed light on optimizing learning in deaf and hearing infants.

A Limit on the Range of Vocalizations That Support Infant Cognition

A study published in PLOS One finds that although human and non-human primate vocalizations facilitate cognitive processes in very young human infants, birdsong does not. The researchers, who include Woodruff Carr and Waxman, provide new evidence documenting that not all naturally produced vocalizations support cognition in infants. Ample evidence documents that infants as young as 3 and 4 months old have begun to link the language they hear to the objects that surround them. Listening to their native language boosts their success in forming categories of objects, for instance, dog. Object categorization, the ability to identify commonalities among objects—for example, Fido or Spot—is a fundamental building block of cognition. “This new evidence brings us closer to identifying which vocalizations initially support infant cognition,” Waxman said.

Prenatal WIC Improves Children’s Outcomes

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) became a permanent federal program in 1975, and eight million people received WIC in 2015. A large body of research has demonstrated the program’s positive effects on birth outcomes such as weight and size for gestational age. Additional research has shown a connection between health at birth and the child’s future outcomes. Does WIC affect later outcomes for babies whose mothers participated in WIC when pregnant? Economist and IPR associate Anna Chorniy, with Janet Currie of Princeton University and Lyudmyla Sonchak of Susquehanna University, explore this question in the American Journal of Health Economics. Using South Carolina birth, Medicaid, and school records for all children born between 2004 and 2009, they confirm the prenatal health benefits to babies born to mothers on WIC after comparing them to their siblings who were not. Not only were these babies larger at birth, but they had fewer chronic medical conditions even at 6–11 years of age. They were 5% less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 5.1% less likely to be diagnosed with common childhood mental health conditions, and nearly 8% less likely to repeat a grade than their siblings who did not experience prenatal WIC. The study demonstrates that a “WIC start” results in long-lasting improvements in children’s lives.

Supporting the Economic Stability of Families of Children with Special Healthcare Needs

Having a child with special healthcare needs can be challenging with more time-consuming childcare and doctors’ visits. The child’s caregiver may cut hours at work or stop working, undercutting their economic stability. In Pediatrics, IPR associates Anna Chorniy, a health economist, and Nia Heard-Garris, a pediatrician, and their colleagues evaluate how earnings drop when family members stop working or reduce hours to care for their child’s health, as well as common characteristics among families who report forgone work. The researchers used the 2016–2017 National Survey of Children’s Health to study14,050 children with special healthcare needs with caregivers previously employed, supplemented with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data to estimate lost earnings. They find that 14.5% of families reported forgone employment, and each family’s average estimated lost income was $18,000 per year. Families with disproportionately high forgone employment were more likely to be Hispanic, have public insurance, and have a child five years or younger. The caregivers were mostly younger, female, living in poverty, participating in a government assistance program, and spent more than $5,000 a year in out-of-pocket healthcare expenses. The researchers discuss several policies to support the economic stability of families of children with special healthcare needs, including expanding paid family leave for chronic health conditions, diverse childcare options, and improving funding for pediatric home healthcare services.

A Meta-Analysis of Early Childhood Obesity Interventions

Child on computerEarly childhood obesity interventions effectively reduce BMI in preschool children over time, according to a study in Childhood Obesity by IPR education researcher and statistician Larry Hedges and his co-authors. The interdisciplinary researchers conducted a novel meta-analysis of 51 childhood obesity intervention studies with a taxonomic approach to identify components in each study. The analysis included 58 interventions with 29,085 children. The results suggest 54% of the children participating in an obesity intervention had a lower BMI at the immediate follow-up, and 58% had a lower BMI at the final assessment. Hedges and his co-authors also found three components effectively reduced childhood obesity—giving caregivers praise and encouragement for positive health-related behavior, educating caregivers about the importance of less screen time, and engaging pediatricians and healthcare providers in the intervention content. One concerning finding is that interventions do not appear as effective with children from low-income backgrounds. The authors note healthy changes can be difficult for families experiencing financial challenges or living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Additionally, other reviews of multiple studies found that implementing intervention programs in schools was successful. However, this study did not, which underscores the role parents and caregivers play in reducing childhood obesity. The findings suggest designing interventions that support parents and caregivers, especially those who find it challenging to limit screen time. Hedges is Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics and Education and Social Policy.

The Role of Empathy in Chinese Adolescences' Preventative Health Behavior During COVID-19

Previous research has shown that empathy can be an effective tool at encouraging adolescents to assist others and act for the good of society. In the Journal of Adolescent Health, developmental psychologist and IPR associate Yang Qu and his colleagues explore the role of empathy in adolescents’ preventive health behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers asked 442 Chinese seventh graders, who were on average 13 years old, to complete two surveys in July and September 2020. In the first survey, they reported their empathic concern and perspective taking by answering questions such as “I am often quite touched by things that I see happen” and “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective,” along with their concern for their personal health. In both the first and second survey, the adolescents reported their preventive health behavior (e.g., practicing social distance and wearing a mask when going outside) and COVID-related worry. The results reveal that adolescents who reported greater empathetic concern in the first survey were more worried about COVID-19 and engaged in more preventive health behavior. This suggests that higher levels of empathic concern in adolescents were predictive of more frequent preventive health behavior motivated by their desire to help others. Future studies looking at the connection between empathy and health behaviors can examine participants over longer periods and explore how other factors may influence behavior.

The Threats Facing Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program

Healthcare economist and IPR associate Anna Chorniy and Princeton economist Janet Currie review how Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) have improved both children’s access to healthcare and their future lives in Academic Pediatrics. Since the 1990s, research has shown that Medicaid and CHIP have bettered poor children’s health and led to broader antipoverty effects on lifespan, education, and economic security. The authors examine Medicaid enrollment data, U.S. Census data, and state health data. While Medicaid benefits are not considered part of official poverty measures, the authors calculate that, in 2014, Medicaid and CHIP reduced the number of children in poverty by 22%. Despite this significant reduction, Chorniy and Currie find that the number of children enrolled in the programs began to decline in 2016 in many states—after rising for decades—increasing the number of children without health insurance. They identify the causes of the drop in children’s coverage as changes in states’ administration of the programs that made enrollment and continuation more difficult and federal administrative changes that discouraged immigrants from enrolling, compounded by anti-immigrant rhetoric. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment in child Medicaid and CHIP grew over 5% between February and August 2020, and the 2020 federal CARES Act prevented states from ending Medicaid benefits. The authors recommend that public health insurance be measured as part of anti-poverty measures to better understand its role and eliminating administrative obstacles to accessing the programs. Further, they urge making Medicaid reimbursements comparable to those of private insurance and giving states additional emergency funding for Medicaid and CHIP during the pandemic.