Lab Member Highlights: Meet Eric Finegood!

by Megan Zhang

Prior to moving to New York, Eric received his bachelor’s degree from the program for Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science at the University of Michigan.  After graduating, he worked in a neuroimaging laboratory at the University of Michigan and investigated brain changes that occur in response to attachment-based parenting interventions provided to economically disadvantaged families. Eric is now a doctoral student doing research with the Neuroscience and Education Lab. Read on for a Q&A with Eric!

As a doctoral student, what are some of your main research questions?

Eric: Generally, I am very interested in socioeconomic disparities in health.  I’m interested in the ways in which psychological and biological processes are affected by, and interact with, one’s socioeconomic context to influence behaviors, emotions, and cognition in humans and non-human animals.

In addition, I am interested in development not only across one’s lifespan, but also across generations.  For instance, research with humans and non-human animals has shown that stress is transmitted inter-generationally, from parents to their offspring.  From this research, parents have been conceptualized as conduits through which information about the environment is transmitted via parenting behaviors to offspring in order that offspring develop and learn to effectively navigate within their specific environmental context.  Parenting, then, may be one mechanism through which socioeconomic conditions affect health.

Can you briefly explain what you’ve discovered in terms of how biology influences parenting strategies?

Eric: There is a lot of previous work showing that there are several hormonal and neural systems in our bodies that regulate parenting behaviors.  In a paper that I am currently writing with others, we are investigating how poverty-related stressors are associated with alterations in a hormonal system called the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a well-studied system involved in responding to physical and psychological stress.  Additionally, we are investigating the ways in which stress-related alterations in the HPA axis are correlated with parenting behaviors in human mothers.

What is an example of a good parenting strategy that would lead to positive cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes in children?

Eric: I would say first that parenting must always be understood with respect to context; it is very difficult to define parenting practices as “good” or “bad”.  In a similar way, “positive” cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes in children must also be defined within context.  As an example, high and sustained physiological and/or emotional reactivity in children may be labeled as “negative” in a context that does not necessitate such hyper arousal.  Take the same phenotype of high reactivity and situate it now within a highly disadvantaged and violent context, and one could argue that this phenotype holds a “positive” or adaptive quality within that environment, in that highly reactive children may be better prepared to respond to danger or threats in their environment than less reactive children.  Thus, what designates an outcome as positive is context-dependent.

Given these distinctions, I would say that a good parenting strategy would be one that prepares children for optimal development within their own environmental context and to move flexibly between different future contexts.

What first made you interested in developmental research?

Eric: I suppose it was my own upbringing that first got me interested in contexts of development.  I grew up in an economically advantaged suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  My grandfather, with whom I was very close, lived downtown in the city of Detroit and I think it was through my experiences with him in the city at an early age that I was first made aware of the large socioeconomic disparities that exist. Especially striking was, and still is, the relatively small amount of geographic space that separates the socioeconomically advantaged from the very disadvantaged in Detroit metropolitan area.

Where do you see your career headed five years down the road?

Eric: In five years I hope to be in the process of completing a post-doc and applying for faculty positions at a research university.

Thanks for sharing your story, Eric. Keep doing awesome work at NEL!

The Effects of Stress, Temperament, and Age on Executive Functions

by Megan Zhang

Stressful situations are often unavoidable, even for children. But every child reacts slightly different to stress–factors such as a child’s age and temperament may affect how the stress impacts the child. Thus, the same stressful situation may have widely varying impacts on various children. Some children may have highly impaired executive functions (cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and planning) when placed in stress-arousing environments, while other children may not. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, performance is curvilinearly related to arousal–in other words, very low and very high levels of arousal or stress can both impair executive functions, while a moderate level of arousal can actually improve them.

In the paper “Being Optimally Aroused Matters: Effects of a Weak Stress Manipulation on Children’s Executive Functions Are Moderated by Temperament and Age,” Neuenschwander et al explore the relation among age, temperament, emotional arousal, and performance on executive function tasks in children around the time that they transition to school. In the study, stress was induced in half of the subjects by imposing a mild social-evaluative threat. The children’s temperaments were also assessed as a potential moderator that may affect outcomes.

Neuenschwander et al found that the effects of stress on children’s performance on executive function tasks were moderated by age and temperament. Interestingly enough, the younger children (four-year-olds) who had high inhibitory control and high attentional focusing were most negatively affected by the stressor. This was a surprising finding, as the hypothesis had originally predicted that adverse effects of the stressor would be stronger in children high in emotional reactivity and low in self-regulation.

The findings were interpreted as evidence of the Yerkes-Dodson law. The inverted U-shape of the relationship between executive functions and emotional arousal suggests that a moderate amount of arousal can be energizing, while too much or too little arousal may result in deteriorating executive functions.

This paper was published in the Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology in April 2014 and is available online here.

Regula Neuenschwander is a visiting post-doctoral research associate at the Neuroscience and Education Lab. To read more of her publications, click here.

Lab Member Highlights: Meet Emily Pressler!

 

Emily Pressler, postdoctoral research scholar at the Neuroscience and Education Lab

by Megan Zhang

Emily Pressler, a postdoctoral research scholar at the Neuroscience and Education Lab, earned her PhD in Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests surround improving the school success of low-income students and exploring how out-of-school environments may support or thwart the well-being of children and their families. I spoke with Emily to learn more about her findings and her research goals.

 

As a postdoctoral research scholar, what underlying theme drives your research?

Emily: Globally speaking, I am interested in the ways in which poverty impacts child development and well-being. I hope that my research will contribute to the poverty-related literature by examining the processes and people that impact children living in poverty (for better or for worse). My research is conducted via more dynamic measures and methods for understanding risk and its impact on child development over time.

 

How might a negative out-of-school environment manifest itself in children’s academic and socio-emotional outcomes?

Emily: Currently we know a lot about the ways that the home or neighborhood environment may negatively impact children’s academic and socio-emotional functioning across many contexts. We know that children living in poverty are often exposed to more dangerous and physically toxic environments than their higher-income peers, and sadly the health care that low-income women and children need is often inconsistent or non-existent. So low-income children may be absent more from school, have problems getting to school, may arrive at school hungry, or may be less cognitively and behaviorally equipped  to keep up the with the demands of the school day than than their higher-income peers. Living in poverty is also stressful for both parents and their children. Often the stress of making ends meet may alter the ways in which parents to interact with their children, or even remove a parent almost entirely from the household, as low-income parents often work multiple jobs or non-standard work hours. Low-income households may also lack the resources to provide cognitively engaging or enriching materials and activities for their children to support their interests, as family funds are channeled to meeting basic needs like food and rent. Single parents, who are their children’s only caretaker, may often be emotionally overwhelmed or distant. Alternatively, older siblings may be thrust into a care-taker role to help mom or dad, and may then miss days of school to care for an elderly family member, or arrive to school late after dropping off younger siblings. Long story short, even in less extreme cases of neglect, abuse, and violence, what happens outside of school can alter the way in which children feel, act, and think inside school.

What factors or parenting strategies might help buffer or protect children from the adverse effects of poverty?

Emily: I think we can never underestimate the positive impacts that an involved, caring, and warm adult can have on the life outcomes of low-income children. Whether these individuals are parents, family members, teachers, or neighbors, much research has found that the presence of an engaged and active adult can have many positive lasting impacts on children’s academic, emotional, and behavioral well-being. Sometimes children and adolescents start getting off track when they encounter seemingly normal bumps in the road; having someone around to encourage them to keep trying at math, ask how their day was, or help them make a new plan to overcome problem X, can make a big difference.

Do you have an ultimate career goal that you hope to achieve?

Emily: In five years I see myself continuing a program of research aimed at improving the school outcomes of low-income children. I hope that ultimately I become as methodologically and conceptually savvy as my colleagues at NEL.

Thank you for sitting down to chat, Emily, and for your ongoing contributions to NEL!