Lab Member Highlights: Meet Rachel McKinnon!

by Megan Zhang

Rachel McKinnon is a doctoral student at the Neuroscience and Education Lab.

You’re currently a doctoral student. What projects are you involved in at NEL?

I’m currently working on three projects. I work with Dr. Blair on the Family Life Project looking at executive function as it relates to children’s relationships with teachers and school readiness skills in preschool and kindergarten. Second, I work with Dr. Raver on the CSRP project looking at children’s stress reactivity as it relates to the quality of their friendships in elementary school. Lastly, I work with Dr. Blair and a collaborator, Dr. Michael Willoughby, on a project validating the use of touch screen computers to measure children’s levels of executive function among 3 to 5 year olds.

In your research, what have you found about the extent to which the
social relationships in the classroom are related to children’s
self-regulation?

We have seen that children’s executive function is interrelated with the relationships they have with the people around them. Most recently, we looked at executive function at age 4 as a predictor of closeness and conflict between teachers and students from preschool to second grade. We hypothesized that the skills associated with executive function would translate to social relationships.  In other words, just like when children take in multiple pieces of information to solve a math problem, reorganize those pieces of information, and make a plan with that information to solve the problem, we expected that children who are better at taking-in and thinking about pieces of information about social interactions (e.g., the teacher is making a strange expression, she must be frustrated, it might be a good idea for me to follow her directions) might have better quality relationships with teachers. We saw that there was a significant association between executive function and both closeness and conflict between teachers and children. The relation between executive function and conflict held even when we took into account children’s verbal intelligence, academic performance in the classroom, and behavior problems.

How do economic disadvantages impact children’s school readiness?

Prior research has shown us that children from low-income families are not starting kindergarten with the same levels of skills important to school success than children from higher-income families. These differences continue to persist through to high school, with few opportunities for children from low-income families to catch up to their peers.

What do you think is the ultimate goal of developmental research on
children’s self-regulation?

I understand the ultimate goal of developmental research on children’s self-regulation to lead to a better understanding of the ways in which we can provide opportunities for children from low-income families to succeed in school at the same rates as their higher-income peers. We know that self-regulation is related to success in the classroom, but we need to know more about how so we can either capitalize on the existing self-regulation abilities children bring into the classroom or implement interventions that improve children’s self-regulation abilities, in the anticipation of long-term academic success.