Lab Member Highlights: Meet Michael Sulik!

Michael Sulik, assistant research scientist at the Neuroscience and Education Lab

by Megan Zhang

Prior to joining the Neuroscience and Education Lab in 2013 as an assistant research scientist, Michael Sulik received his Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Arizona State University. Michael’s research focuses on investigating the relationship between parenting and the development of self-regulation and behavioral problems in children. Michael currently collaborates with Dr. Clancy Blair on a study of the effects of toxic stress on early childhood. I caught up with Michael to talk about his research, and some of the interesting highlights of his findings.

As an assistant research scientist, what do you research most at NEL?

Michael: My research in the Neuroscience and Education Lab is mainly focused on the development of behavior problems and self-regulation using data from the Family Life Project http://flp.fpg.unc.edu/, a study of child development in the context of rural poverty.

Are there any specific characteristics you have found in parents or children that could make children more or less susceptible to environmental influences?

Michael: Usually, people view parents as influencing their children. However, children can theoretically influence parents’ behavior as well. For example, highly disruptive children could potentially elicit harsh discipline from parents, who feel like they can’t control their child with more gentle disciplinary methods. In our study, sensitive parenting and children’s conduct problems were already related at age 3. Although parenting continued to predict subsequent changes in children’s conduct problems, children’s conduct problems were unrelated to changes in parenting.

Furthermore, I found that sensitive parenting predicts increases in self-regulation, which in turn predicts lower conduct problems. This research is important because it informs our understanding of how parenting gets translated into behavior problems. The results suggest parenting indirectly, rather than directly, influences children’s conduct problems. Sensitive parenting might help to improve children’s capacity for self-regulation, which children could then use to control their behavior and emotions like anger that are associated with conduct problems.

Are children rated differently on behavior depending on the environment they are in at the time–for example, at school or at home?

Michael: Because parents mostly see behavior at home and teachers see behavior at school, differences in children’s behavior across contexts can contribute to disagreement between parents’ and teachers’ reports of children’s conduct problems. I want to know how much parents and teachers can agree about whether children’s conduct problems are increasing or decreasing, and whether we can predict differences between parents’ and teachers’ ratings of child conduct problems. Prior research has indicated that parents who are depressed tend to rate their children more negatively, but we don’t know much about other possible influences on disagreement such as family socioeconomic status or child characteristics such as age, race, and sex.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Michael: My position at the Neuroscience and Education Lab is only for one more year, so I will be applying for jobs this fall. My career goal is to be a professor at a research university. Hopefully next year I will be setting up my own lab!

Best of luck to Michael in his career endeavors. Click here to read Michael’s bio and papers, or to get to know some of our other lab members!