Michael Wald Visits NEL

by Megan Zhang

The Neuroscience and Education Lab was honored to host Stanford Law School’s Michael Wald, a distinguished national authority on children’s rights and welfare. As an academic researcher, Wald has led a career deeply devoted to integrating research and policy for at-risk children. He served as deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration, and he is the current chair of the San Francisco Youth Council.

Wald led a seminar at the Institute of Human Development and Social Change at NYU Steinhardt last Wednesday, September 17. The talk, “Beyond Child Maltreatment: The Role of the State in Influencing Parenting,” focused on how policy changes can improve parenting and buffer children from the negative effects of poverty.

During his visit at NEL, Wald discussed his research and involvement in the Early Head Start program, and provided feedback regarding NEL’s ongoing research. Wald tells a compelling, policy-driven story about the most at-risk children, who struggle on a day-to-day basis. Children living in poverty tend to have a much higher rate of missed school days, self-regulation difficulties, and problems with paying attention. Wald has been championing the fact that more funding should be provided for programs like Early Head Start, which organizes parenting interventions to promote children’s academic success. While lots of funding has been provided for non-family institutions that promote other aspects of children’s development, the parenting side of things often goes ignored.

NEL is honored to work together with Michael Wald and look forward to hosting him again in the future.

For more information about Michael Wald’s career, visit his Stanford faculty page here: https://www.law.stanford.edu/profile/michael-s-wald.

For more information about NEL’s studies, visit our Steinhardt page here: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/ihdsc/neuroscience_lab/current.

Lab Member Highlights: Meet Alicia Wang!

by Megan Zhang

Alicia Wang is an NYU graduate student and research intern at the Neuroscience and Education Lab. We sat down to chat about her experiences at NEL.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I’m a second-year master student from the Human Development
and Social Intervention program under the Department of Applied Psychology
in NYU Steinhardt. I graduated from the China University of Political Science
and Law in 2013. Although I majored in law in college, I have always been
attracted to psychology for its practical uses, so I choose this program.

As a research intern at NEL, what do your responsibilities include?

I help with different projects in NEL. I do micro-analytical coding of
visual attention, extracting data from videos, and cleaning data from the
Chicago School Readiness Project. Since last October, I have been working on the team led by Dr. Michael Sulik, and editing heart rate data. I also work with Dr. Regula
Neuenschwander, doing on-site data collection. For the Chicago School
Readiness Project, I ‘m doing geographical information coding.  Aside from all this, I’m writing my master thesis, on Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia.

What has been the most rewarding or educational aspect of interning at NEL?

There are so many great people and rewarding projects in this lab, and my experiences have taught me more about what science and research really mean. My mentor Dr. Sulik has a rigorous and passionate attitude towards science and is great at explaining
complicated theories; my supervisor Jessica is super efficient and
careful with work. I’ve never seen an unread email in her inbox!

What do you think is a pressing question in developmental psychology today?

It’s well known that poverty has a profound impact on the development
of children. So I think it’s important to know the mechanisms of this
impact and to work out effective interventions to buffer this
negative effect.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I hope to work as a research assistant in research-related fields for
a few years to gain more experience.

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

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.

Paper Accepted for Publication by Development and Psychopathology

by Megan Zhang

How are young children affected when their parents frequently fight verbally and/or physically? Does being faced with chronically threatening conditions at home disrupt children’s ability to manage emotions such as fear and anxiety? The Neuroscience & Education Lab’s Cybele Raver and Clancy Blair sought to answer these questions in a recent study. The paper, titled “Poverty, Household Chaos, and Interparental Aggression Predict Children’s Ability to Recognize and Modulate Negative Emotions,” was recently accepted for publication by the psychology journal Development and Psychopathology.

Many developmental studies have concluded over the years that prolonged exposure to interparental fighting and violence in the home can lead children to become hyper-vigilant to negative emotional cues that signal fear or danger. On the other hand, other studies have pointed to the idea that children exposed to parental harshness and aggression have deficits in processing and encoding emotional information, such that they become less capable of making accurate attributions and conclusions about their own emotions, as well as that of others.

For this longitudinal study, Drs. Raver and Blair sought to examine whether aggression between parents is in fact positively or negatively associated with children’s ability to recognize emotional cues and to modulate negative emotions in the face of fear-inducing or threatening situations. 1025 children were followed from 6 to 58 months of age. Exposure to chronic poverty, and multiple measures of household chaos, were included to separate the effects of interparental conflict from the socioeconomic factors that sometimes accompany it. Greater exposure to chronic poverty, household chaos, and interparental conflict were all empirically distinguished as key contributors to 58-month-olds’ ability to perceive and modulate negative emotions.

To read more, look for this paper in an upcoming publication of Development and Psychopathology!

NEL Speaks at the New York Hall of Science

Members of the Neuroscience and Education Lab stopped by the New York Hall of Science yesterday, July 11, to speak to staff and parents about opportunities to participate in lab studies. NEL’s PreK EF (executive function) study uses fun computer games to study children’s working memory and inhibitory control.

Would you like to participate? Researchers are open to participants between the ages of three and five, of all races and ethnicities. Teachers or directors will distribute consent forms to parents on behalf of the lab, and the forms must then be returned to the school. Once NEL receives the forms, a lab member will call you for a short interview to determine whether your child is eligible to participate, based on demographic characteristics. Once a child is found to be eligible to participate, we will contact the school director to schedule a time to see the child at school. The visit will last approximately 45 minutes.

Participation is completely voluntary, so if at any point the child no longer wishes to play the games, he or she will promptly be returned to class. Parents will receive a $25 gift card, as a sincere thank you from the lab, after the child is assessed.

If you’d like to participate, simply email us at nyu.nel.lab@gmail.com with your name, phone number, children’s name, and children’s birthdays. Reach out to us if you have any questions!

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!