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, 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!

Upcoming Publication in Developmental Psychology Journal

by Megan Zhang

A paper by NEL’s Amanda Roy and Cybele Raver, along with Dana McCoy, has been published online! The article, titled “Instability Versus Quality: Residential Mobility,Neighborhood Poverty, and Children’s Self-Regulation,” discusses the effects of moving on children.

In the paper, Roy, Raver, and McCoy use data from the Chicago School Readiness Project to determine whether children had relocated or not in recent years. Previous research has found that moving has adverse effects on children’s development, but the paper takes a closer look at the specific relationship between relocation and children’s self-regulation. In a nutshell, the paper discusses the finding that moving out of a low-income neighborhood is actually protective–in other words, leaving a low-income neighborhood has a more positive effect on children than remaining in a low-income neighborhood. On the other hand, children who moved and ended up in high-poverty neighborhoods worsened in terms of self-regulation. All in all, not all relocations are created equal. The effects of moving on children depend on the origin neighborhoods and the destination neighborhoods.

Read the paper online here. Look out for the paper in an upcoming publication of Developmental Psychology later in 2014!


Dr. Blair Speaks at 2014 Brain Awareness Night

Image from the Urban Child Institute website

by Megan Zhang

Brain Awareness Night is held annually by the Urban Child Institute of Memphis, Tennessee each year highlighting different developmental psychologists who give talks on the developing brain. This year, NEL’s Dr. Clancy Blair spoke about the impacts of early brain development on success later in life. Things like emotional self-regulation during childhood have a strong impact on the child’s future well-being. For example, consistent activation of stress hormones early in life can wire the brain’s response to future experiences, making the brain less reflective and more reactive and impulsive over time.

What are the further implications of this? Watch the video of his talk or read the full transcript here to find out!

NEL Cited in ACF Article

by Megan Zhang

The Administration for Children and Families recently posted an article about toxic stress and adversity in children. ACF is using developmental research to better guide the approaches they use to aid vulnerable children and their families.

The article also cites the Buffering Toxic Stress Consortium, of which NEL’s ABC Project is a member, for evaluating the effectiveness of Early Head Start interventions. ACF’s goal is to improve outcomes for disadvantaged young children by figuring out what parents can do to aid children during times of adversity.

Read the full article here.

Universal Preschool Education: Fulfilling its Promise by Ensuring its Quality

by Clancy Blair

The move to introduce universal access to preschool — in NYC specifically and in the US generally — has added to the groundswell of interest in children’s development. The universal preschool movement builds on years of research indicating that young children who experience higher quality preschool are better prepared for school, have higher levels of achievement, are more likely to graduate high school, and generally have better life outcomes in terms of health, wealth, and happiness.  Research has shown that this is particularly the case for children living in poverty.

Within this overall positive framework on pre-k, however, it is important to ask what high quality is exactly? And if the goal of preschool is to help prepare children for kindergarten, what does it mean to be ready for school?

Experts in child development research have information with which to address these interrelated questions. With respect to high quality, there are some obvious aspects of quality, such as appropriate physical space, low caregiver to child ratio, caregivers who are warm and supportive and who provide children with appropriately complex and rich language stimulation within a well organized and orderly set of activities.  But more specifically, how does high quality help to prepare children for school and translate into better outcomes for children? To answer this, we have to consider the skills and abilities children need to acquire prior to going to kindergarten; and then ask how a high quality preschool environment can best support them?

A seemingly immediate and obvious answer is, of course, academic; such things as knowledge of letters and numbers, of how letters and sounds go together to make words and sentences and how numbers go together in order and in relation to one another.

A focus on academic readiness, however, is really secondary to what many experts consider the essential and most important objective of high quality preschool, namely to help children build self-regulation skills; the ability to focus attention, be emotionally expressive, not be impulsive, and to engage in purposeful and meaningful interactions with caregivers and other children. In short, the objective of high quality preschool education is to foster self-regulation that provides the foundation for school readiness. By fostering the development of self-regulation, high quality preschool assists children in making sense of and building on the academic information that they will increasingly be exposed to in kindergarten and the early elementary grades.  Too much of an academic focus in preschool without sufficient support for a strong foundation in self-regulation is ultimately self-defeating and likely to lead to worse not better school readiness outcomes for children.

How to interweave the focus on self-regulation development with a focus on academic knowledge is the pressing question for research in early childhood education.  The current research available to address this question, how high quality preschool supports self-regulation development, and why high quality preschool is most important for and effective with children growing up in poverty and other disadvantageous circumstances are our next topics. The important thing is to act on what we know to ensure productive and meaningful preschool experiences for children.

Dr. Raver Cited in Washington Post!

by Megan Zhang

NEL’s Dr. Cybele Raver was quoted in a Washington Post blog in an article titled “The New War on Poverty: Tackling Two Generations at Once,” written by Brigid Schulte and published on May 7th.

For the past several decades, America has been fighting a losing battle in the War on Poverty. Most initiatives designed to pull people up from poverty are geared towards children or toward adults, to little success. Even when children receive high-quality early education, they cannot escape the high amounts of stress, insecurity, and chaos that often accompany poverty. So in recent years, anti-poverty programs have been taking a different route: helping parents and children at the same time. This new approach helps parents gain stable footing in new professions while helping children deal with toxic stress and prepare for early schooling. Moreover, instead of focusing primarily on children’s education, these new “two-generation” programs help ensure children’s psychological health and cognitive functions.

The article cites Dr. Raver:  “This approach is absolutely the wave of the future…Ten years ago, we didn’t have the extraordinary research that we do now. The research has really been a turning point.”

Dr. Raver is a principal investgiator on NEL’s ABC Project, which collaborates with the Early Head Start program to aid parents and protect children from the adverse effects of toxic stress. Read more about the ABC Project here.

Increasing the Social Impact of Our Research by “Putting Science to Work”

by C. Cybele Raver 

As social scientists, we’ve been trained to focus on the academic impact of our work: that is, how much does our work change the way that other scientists fundamentally define or approach a scholarly problem? How much does our work break open new ground? This standard is clearly articulated at every step along the path to tenure. Earlier in my career, I was asked during in a fellowship interview whether I hoped to change the field or change the world: I answered that my goal was to “change the field, first,” hoping to take on the challenge of changing the world, afterwards–my answer, though tepid in its commitment to social change, was clearly aligned with the review panel’s perspective: I was awarded the prestigious fellowship.

Now tenured, I can push myself and my work harder to maximize social impact. One example is through our partnership with agencies and organizations at the city and state level. This week, I worked with key administrators at a fantastic non-profit organization, the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, to restructure their intake interview for families. We focused on inserting a few, valuable questions into one simple form that would help agency personnel to better understand the financial strains that families face. This included questions about not having enough money to make ends meet, families experiences of having to “double up” in their rental housing, and not being able to pay bills on time. We also inserted a few items to capture parents’ experiences of conflict and stress within the household.  These items will help the Lenox Hill staff to track whether and how their services may substantially alleviate the psychological burdens as well as material hardships faced by the families that use their legal advocacy, child care, Head Start, and after school programs. Later in the week, Clancy and I traveled to Baltimore to serve as technical advisors to Maryland and Ohio efforts to assess children’s school readiness at kindergarten entry. Our consultation to that group has led to the inclusion of behaviorally anchored teacher report of children’s self-regulation, including their attention and persistence, as part of state standards. In both cases, the impact on our scholarship may be low, but the potential for making a real difference in the world is within reach. 

What did this involve on my part? It involved setting aside the pressure to maximize academic impact and to really listen to the needs and institutional constraints faced by our policy and practitioner partners. It involved allocating time that I would have otherwise been devoted to statistical analyses or manuscript writing, to provide consultation and support to deeply dedicated colleagues so that they could better help children and families. This opportunity to deploy my skills as a social scientist to to strengthen “front line” services for families facing poverty and income inequality has been the best part of my job.

Look Out for an Upcoming Publication in the Annual Review of Psychology!

by Megan Zhang

NEL’s principal investigators Drs. Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver’s paper, titled “School readiness and self-regulation: A developmental psychobiological approach” is soon to be published in the Annual Review of Psychology.

The article focuses on the concept of self-regulation, as it is the underlying foundation for school readiness. Self-regulation allows children to transition smoothly to school life and to stay focused and engaged during learning. The article also discusses research indicating that self-regulatory abilities often set the stage for school readiness and that self-regulation is shaped by biological and behavioral developmental processes.

Furthermore, the article sheds light on research that indicates the correlation between poverty and gaps in school readiness, and discusses effective ways to address the negative effects that poverty has on childhood development. The article also highlights advancements in neurobiology that have enhanced research on self-regulation and school readiness.

Look out for Dr. Blair and Dr. Raver’s paper in an upcoming issue of the Annual Review of Psychology!

Early Head Start and the ABC Project

by Megan Zhang

Toxic stress can significantly affect young children and can be harmful for healthy development of their cognitive functions. Evidence shows that exposure to toxic stress at a young age can disrupt the proper development of children’s brain functions and can increase the likelihood of being diagnosed with stress-related diseases later in life. But despite this, there are ways to buffer children from the consequences of toxic stress. NEL’s ABC Project, in partnership with Early Head Start, aims to study how.

What is Early Head Start?

Early Head Start is a federally funded program designed to help low-income families with infants and toddlers. The program aims to promote normal development in children and healthy functioning in families and to ensure school readiness for toddlers. To achieve this aim, Early Head Start provides comprehensive developmental services in the realms of education, health, social learning, and nutrition. Parents play an important role in the program, as both educators and participants.

What is the ABC Project?

Together with Early Head Start, NEL’s ABC Project aims to evaluate the beneficial role that Early Head Start can play in protecting children from the negative effects of toxic stress. Researchers from NEL visit the home of participants a few times a year to measure children’s executive functions and cognitive abilities through games and other activities. Heart rate measurements and saliva samples are collected, and parents fill out questionnaires about their children’s lives. Using this data, NEL can evaluate children’s development and track improvements in their cognitive and physiological functioning.

For more information on the ongoing project, click here.

Dr. Clancy Blair To Give Speech at Stanford University on April 30th

by Megan Zhang

NEL’s principal investigator Dr. Clancy Blair will be speaking at the colloquium series of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University on April 30th, this coming Wednesday, at 3:30pm EDT. His talk is titled “Psychobiology of Self‐Regulation: Stress Physiology and the Development of Executive Functions In Early Childhood.”

The main purpose of Dr. Blair’s talk is to discuss the consequences that early stress may pose for children’s executive functions, which are a set of cognitive processes that include working memory, problem solving, and reasoning. Dr. Blair will introduce a psychobiological model of self-regulation development which evaluates children’s executive functions on attentional, emotional, physiological, and genetic levels of analysis. Data supporting the model was collected from a prospective longitudinal sample of 1,292 children from predominantly low-income and non-urban communities in two highly impoverished regions of the U.S. In further support of the model, Dr. Blair will also present findings from two recently completed randomized controlled trials of an innovative early education curriculum called “Tools of the Mind.”

Check back after April 30th   for more information on Dr. Blair’s talk!