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!

CSRP Releases Video

The Neuroscience and Education Lab’s Chicago School Readiness Project, or CSRP, is a federally-funded randomized control-trial intervention led by Dr. C. Cybele Raver. The project’s goal is to improve low-income, preschool-aged children’s chances of academic success. CSRP targets young children’s emotional and behavioral adjustment through a comprehensive, classroom-based intervention in Head Start.

Watch our new video here!

Lab Member Highlight: Meet Michael Masucci!

by: Megan Zhang

Michael Masucci recently joined the Neuroscience and Education Lab as a research assistant. Currently in his final year of NYU’s General Psychology graduate program, Michael is completing a master’s thesis about the relationship between psychopathology, motivation, and aesthetic experience.

Why did you decide to join the Neuroscience and Education Lab?

With a background in cognitive psychology, I’d never done policy-oriented research. After reading about the findings coming from NEL and their community impact, I became very excited to do research that would contribute to positive change in social policy.

What are some of your responsibilities here?

I’m a research assistant for the Chicago School Readiness Project, and I help in a few ways. My main responsibility is preparing for the NYC pilot study we are doing in April to test some of our new measures before implementing them with the sample in Chicago. My current focus is on recruiting up to 120 students from private and community organizations to participate in the pilot. To lighten the load of the assessors as they have to keep track of students, I am programming all of our measures in Inquisit and Qualtrics so they can be run with as little input from the assessor as possible. In addition, I clean and aggregate CSRP data as needed for researchers in and outside of the lab.

What are some areas of developmental research that you’d really like to explore?

The influence of cognitive function on identity formation is one of my areas of interest. Many personality disorders are characterized by impulsivity and attention/memory dysfunction. I think it is worthwhile to look at the specific cognitive mechanisms that lead to certain personality patterns, and how similar deficits can yield different personalities under the influence of different sociocultural variables. I’d also like to investigate how early performance on executive function tasks can predict and inform the diagnosis of psychopathology.

You received a double-major bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy. How has your philosophy major tied into or influenced your psychology career?

One of my favorite parts about psychology is that many domains of research involve testing philosophical ideas empirically. My study in philosophy focused mainly on philosophy of mind and how people come to know the world. These are the areas I am also trying to pursue in psychology by looking at how people distinguish fantasy from reality, and how they come up with radically different narratives despite exposure to similar experiences. In a philosophical vein, I also love to analyze the assumptions underlying psychometrics, psychotherapy and diagnosis.

Tell us a little about your master’s thesis about the relationship among psychopathology, motivation, and aesthetic experience.

Historically, there have been quite a few ideas of what aesthetic experience is, and we’re just now developing the tools to test these philosophical conceptions. My thesis looked at the idea that being extremely moved by the beauty of artwork puts one in a state of “Disinterested Interest,” a view proposed by Kant, where art is appreciated without regard to its survival benefits. In cognitive terms, this would mean that art produces a state of “liking” without “wanting,” and this is the hypothesis I tested with Dr. Edward Vessel & NYU ArtLab. We had participants from clinical and non-clinical samples view art images and rate how much they were moved, as well as work to view them by pressing keys. We found that, against the disinterested interest hypothesis, people’s tendency to rate art as moving and to work to view it were both affected by their willingness to work (as measured by the BIS-BAS scales), while their ratings should have been more influenced by their hedonic capacity (as measured by the TEPS scales). This means that motivation plays some role in aesthetic experience, and that experimental measures of hedonic capacity need to be reevaluated. We had quite a few other findings, and I hope to present on them soon!

Where do you hope to be 5 years down the road?

I recently completed my applications to doctoral programs in clinical psychology, and I would be thrilled to be defending my dissertation 5 years from now. Ideally, I will be researching how sociocultural variables, especially religious involvement, affect schizophrenia-prone individuals, and ways to identify and prevent psychosis in a religious context.

Lab Member Highlight: Meet Jessica Burdick!

by: Megan Zhang

Jessica Burdick is a project coordinator at the lab and an important fixture in the lab’s day-to-day proceedings. Read below to see what she had to say!

Tell us about what you do at NEL.

I am a Project Coordinator at NEL, specifically on Dr. Raver’s Chicago School Readiness Project. My job is to facilitate the administrative and grant management responsibilities of the project with the university. I handle things like IRB submissions, tracking the budget, arranging payments, organizing meetings, and coordinating data collection.

What lab accomplishments from the past few months are you most proud of?

We recently submitted a rather large IRB proposal as well as several impressive grant proposals this year, which are always busy but exciting projects that enable us to think about the bigger picture. I’m also proud to have recently joined the team on Dr. Raver and Dr. Pamela Morris’s Universal Preschool Project, which will be studying New York City’s huge pre-k expansion this year.

What do you think is one of the most pressing issues or questions in developmental psychology today?

I think one of the most pressing issues in developmental psychology is converting what we’ve learned from research into real-world practice.  We know poverty can disproportionately affect children’s developmental outcomes, but it is very hard to implement effective interventions and policy changes that can close the gap on a large scale.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

I really enjoy working in a lab with a bunch of talented researchers and great projects, so I hope to continue to work on research teams or at universities in some capacity in the future.


Further Discussion of Tools of the Mind

Blair and Raver’s Tools of the Mind findings were discussed today at NYU Steinhardt’s Education Policy Breakfast Series. Ajay Chaudry, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Services Policy, US Department of Health and Human Services; Steven Dow, Executive Director, CAP Tulsa Head Start; and Hiro Yoshikawa, NYU Professor emphasized the role of high-quality early educational experiences in giving low-income children a “fair shot” at later academic success. The series further discussed how early childhood education may be the “magic bullet” that closes the achievement gap.

Read the full study here.

Media Coverage for Tools of the Mind Study

The Neuroscience and Education Lab is proud to showcase the many media outlets that have picked up the Tools of the Mind study (published in PLOS ONE), spawning articles, interviews, and other coverage.

The Tools of the Mind technique trains teachers to promote structured play among kindergarteners, and the results of the study reveal that improvements in children’s skills in reading, vocabulary, and math last beyond kindergarten. The goal of the technique is encouraging children to practice cognitive skills that are essential for learning.

Here’s a selection of some of the coverage that has stemmed from our study.

Huffington Post

Science Daily
Yahoo News
Education Week


NYU NEL Researchers Publish Paper in PLOS ONE

Drs. Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver  published results from their evaluation of an innovative kindergarten curriculum, the Tools of the Mind program, in the journal PLOS ONE. Read more about the study here.

The research, a randomized controlled trial involving 759 children in 29 schools in 12 school districts in Massachusetts, compared the effects of the Tools of the Mind program with typical kindergarten curricula on children’s educational and executive functions outcomes. Tools of the Mind embeds practice on executive functions into classroom routines, activities in literacy, math, and science aligned with the Common Core, and uses socio-dramatic play as a vehicle to build executive function skills.

When compared with children in Control classrooms, the study found that children in Tools of the Mind were better at focusing attention in the face of distractions and had better working memory; core aspects of executive functions, the neurological basis of self-regulation. These differences were even more pronounced in high poverty schools. Furthermore, these gains were associated with gains in achievement that carried into first grade, where students from Tools of the Mind classrooms achieved in reading and vocabulary at a faster rate than children from Control classrooms.

See the NYU press release here.

NYU To Support Pre-K For All in NYC

New York University’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change (IHDSC) is partnering with the New York City Department of Education and the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity to provide educators with the tools they need to monitor and support the quality of universal pre-K programs.

In September, New York City launched an ambitious expansion of pre-K, with 51,500 children registered to attend full-day pre-K programs, more than double the 20,000 children who attended last year. This milestone was the first stage of a two-year effort to bring full-day pre-K to all eligible 4-year-olds.

Prior research in other cities has demonstrated the benefits of large-scale public pre-K programs for children, including gains in language, reading, and math. However, education leaders need the tools to support the effectiveness of their programs. Given the rapid expansion of pre-K in New York City, the data architecture – or means of gathering data, analyzing it, and linking it with existing information – for these programs is still being built.

To read the rest of this press release, click here.

Media Coverage for Dr. Raver’s Paper, “Poverty, Household Chaos, and Interparental Aggression Predict Children’s Ability to Recognize and Modulate Negative Emotions”

by Megan Zhang

Cybele Raver’s paper, “Poverty, Household Chaos, and Interparental Aggression
Predict Children’s Ability to Recognize and Modulate Negative Emotions” has officially been published in the psychology journal Development and Psychopathology. See the press release here.

The paper has garnered much interest in the international psychology community, with citations and mentions in such widely read publications as PsychCentral and University Herald. Dr. Raver has also been interviewed by various media outlets, including ThinkProgress and Southern California’s KCSN Radio.

For some of the other coverage that Dr. Raver’s paper has garnered, see below.



Lab Member Highlight: Meet Paula Daneri!

by Megan Zhang

Paula Daneri is a doctoral student whose research focuses on cognitive and language development in early childhood. Keep reading for our interview with Paula!

What does your research focus on?

Broadly speaking I’m interested in the relation between language and executive function. Specifically, I’m interested in the development of executive function in dual language learners, children who learn a second language in early childhood. Dual language learners are a growing part of the population in the United States, but we don’t know much about their development. They are an interesting group because even though they have a salient common feature – speaking two languages – they come from many diverse backgrounds.

In your research, what have you found about dual language learners’ early executive function development?

Past research shows that dual language learners from middle-income homes develop certain executive function skills faster than their monolingual peers. We also know that growing up in poverty is associated with lower executive function skills. What we don’t yet know is how executive function develops in children who might get a boost in executive function development from bilingual experience, but are also vulnerable to developing lower executive function skills in a less advantaged environment. Currently, Clancy is a principal investigator on a project that explores executive function development in dual language learners from disadvantaged homes, so we are aiming to answer some of these questions once data collection is complete.

Prior to coming to NYU, I worked at a lab at my undergraduate institution where we examined related questions about the development of dual language learners. There, we were interested in examining how much exposure to the second language was necessary for bilingualism to yield benefits in executive function. At that lab, I participated in a project exploring executive function development in children of diverse socio-economic backgrounds attending either a dual immersion program, where they received half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English, or English-only education. We found that children in the dual immersion program outperformed children in the English-only program in executive function tasks, revealing that learning a second language during the elementary school years might yield benefits in executive function development.

What further questions regarding children’s language development do you hope to answer?

Under Clancy’s guidance, I have become very interested in how the relation between language and executive function develops in the first five years, both in dual language learners and monolingual children. This is a really exciting time period to study these two skills because they change very rapidly. We know that throughout this early time period dual language learners develop executive function skills faster than monolinguals, but we don’t yet know how this occurs. So in my research I would like to focus on the relation between language and executive function in early years to understand why speaking a second language is associated with a different rate of executive function development.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I’m still at the beginning of my graduate career, so my career goals are still developing. Right now I would say that ultimately I hope to become a professor and continue to elaborate on a research program that explores the cognitive and language development of dual language learners and provides policy makers, educators, and parents answers about how to best support the development of children who speak more than one language. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about how the lab works so that if I ever get to lead one, it can be as amazing as NEL!