Lab Member Highlight: Meet Regula Neuenschwander!

by Megan Zhang

Regula Neuenschwander is a visiting scholar and post-doctoral research associate at the Neuroscience and Education Lab. Her research focuses on the development of self-regulatory processes and children’s successful adaptation to preschool and early school contexts. Read on for more about what she’s working on at NEL.

What has your research taught you in terms of how children’s self-regulation develops?

In my work I have focused mainly on early childhood. During this period, children’s self-regulatory abilities appear to develop very fast, which makes this period especially interesting to study. In our two-year longitudinal study looking at 5- to 9-year-olds’ executive function development, we found impressive changes in all three components of executive function. We looked closely at children’s ability to inhibit a predominant response, to remember crucial information while working with it, and to flexibly direct and control attention. We found that children were increasingly able to perform tasks measuring these higher order cognitive processes faster and also more accurately.

I have been also interested in the role that children’s environment plays in shaping their self-regulation. During my graduate studies in Switzerland I was involved in two interventions for 5- and 6-year-olds aiming to improve executive function. In one study we trained children individually on a series of games aiming to foster executive functions and in the other study we played all sorts of different games with small groups of children. Furthermore, we tested the efficacy of a specific school context in promoting school readiness in general and executive function in particular. Our findings indicate that children’s self-regulatory skills are – at least to a certain extent – influenced by children’s environment and the experience they have navigating within them.

More recently, I also became interested in the development of children’s delay of gratification. I look at children’s behavior during a delay of gratification task to better understand how effortful and motivational processes interact with each other to promote goal-directed and adaptive behavior.

What factors contribute to children’s successful adaptation to preschool?

On the basis of robust research findings showing that “cool” executive functions are a powerful predictor for young children’s adaption to school, I explored the possibility that temperamentally based aspects of self-regulation in association with cool executive function may additionally contribute to children’s adaptation to school. Indeed, we found differential patterns of these two aspects of self-regulation when predicting children’s adaptation to school in terms of learning-related behavior in classrooms, school grades, and performance in standardized achievement tests. Our findings suggest that it is important to consider different aspects of self-regulation for a broader understanding of how children make the transition to school and adapt to classrooms.

In another study, conceptualizing children’s emerging personality as stable inter-individual differences in self-regulation, I was interested if certain Big Five personality factors predict academic performance in addition to the contribution of executive function. Only Extraversion and Openness uniquely contributed to academic performance of first and second graders over and above their executive function. Interestingly, both personality factors had stronger effects on grades than on standardized achievement tests, whereas the opposite was true for executive function.

Can teacher stress influence children’s executive functions?

While only recent studies have related classroom quality to executive function, little is known about how teacher’s social-emotional competence and well-being relates to children’s self-regulation. In their Prosocial Classroom model, Jennings and Greenberg (2009) suggest that teachers’ own social-emotional competence and well-being, which can include stress, may be associated with both child learning outcomes and classroom quality. We hypothesized that teacher stress is negatively related to child executive function and that potential mechanisms of this relation can be found in classroom quality. Furthermore, working with young, low-income children can be particularly stressful as these children are at risk for behavioral and academic difficulties. Thus, we asked the question whether the relation between teacher stress and child executive function is more pronounced in high poverty schools. We found that teacher stress was only marginally related to executive function while controlling for baseline executive function. However, we found that when school poverty level was included into the models, teacher stress and school poverty level were significantly related to child executive function and the interaction was marginally significant. Interestingly, classroom quality did not mediate these effects. These findings provide insight into factors within classrooms that impose stress or that provide opportunities to master stress for young children.

Where do you hope your research will lead you in 5 years?

I hope to be in a place where I can conduct research that helps children to live better lives. I am committed to conducting research that has the potential to provide insights into adaptive developmental trajectories and maybe even into children’s flourishing – which describes a state of optimal human function. I also hope to collaborate in the future with my colleagues at NEL!