Variability surpasses frequency for language learning

In “Predicting the Birth of a Spoken Word” [PDF]:

Children learn words through an accumulation of interactions grounded in context. …

We show that words used in distinctive spatial, temporal, and linguistic contexts are produced earlier, suggesting they are easier to learn. …

…contextual distinctiveness (whether in space, time, or language) was a strong independent predictor of the child’s production. Each of the three predictors correlated with the child’s production more robustly than frequency, MLU [mean length of utterance], or word length…

Distinctive combinations of contextual features matter more than mere frequency of repetition. Children learn language through meaningful, authentic contexts, suggesting the caregivers and teachers should expose them to and engage them in real-life conversations using varied vocabulary, in varied expressions, about varied topics, in varied situations.

Project-based learning, science talks, and field trips, anyone?

Roy, B. C., Frank, M. C., DeCamp, P., Miller, M., & Roy, D. (2015). Predicting the birth of a spoken word. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(41), 12663-12668.

Pretty Princesses Produce Problems

Perhaps I was too generous in my suggestion that “The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them.”

As reported in Not so pretty: Researchers find that Disney princesses are really damaging girls’ self esteem, girls (average age 5 years) who played with princess toys demonstrated the following tendencies a year later:

  • wanted to look like princesses
  • showed less confidence
  • adopted “girly” stereotypes
  • avoided getting dirty, exploring or playing “non-feminine” games
  • were more likely to express the belief that being girls means they’ll have different opportunities and goals in life”

Especially problematic, “grown women who self-identied as princesses’ gave up more easily on a challenging task, were less likely to want to work, and were more focused on supercial qualities.”

Available here:
Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A. and Birkbeck, V. (2016), Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.12569

Responses to Feedback Define Mindsets Better than Self-Reported Beliefs

Growth and fixed mindsets are better defined as responses to feedback, particularly feedback on errors, shortcomings, and setbacks, than as beliefs about intelligence. As reported in, “Seeing the benefits of failure shapes kids’ beliefs about intelligence“:

Parents who tended to view failure as a negative, harmful event had children who were more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed.

…parents who adopted a more negative stance toward failure were more likely to react to their child’s hypothetical failing grade with concerns about their child’s lack of ability. At the same time, these parents were less likely to show support for the child’s learning and improvement. Their reactions to the failing grade were not linked, however, with their beliefs about intelligence.

Actions speak louder than words, especially self-reported words that conform to social desirability.

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C.S. (2016). What Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797616639727


Out-of-school factors connect with in-school success

Per “Strong neighborhoods, parenting can bridge ‘achievement gap‘”:

“when youth in urban environments have supportive parents and feel safe in their neighborhoods, they are positive about their future and believe they can be successful in school,” says lead author Henrika McCoy, assistant professor at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.

The statements with the strongest correlation with academic achievement were: “I can be successful” (indicating future aspirations); “I can talk with parents about bad things” (positive parental relationships); and “I can be safe within a few blocks from home” (safe neighborhood environment).

Henrika McCoy, Elizabeth A. Bowen. Hope in the Social Environment: Factors Affecting Future Aspirations and School Self-Efficacy for Youth in Urban Environments. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s10560-014-0343-7

Letting children choose promotes prosocial behavior

As described in “Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior“:

[S]haring when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a new, more beneficent light. Perceiving themselves as people who like to share makes them more likely to act in a prosocial manner in the future.

Previous research has shown that this idea — as described by the over-justification effect — explains why rewarding children for sharing can backfire. Children come to perceive themselves as people who don’t like to share since they had to be rewarded for doing so. Because they don’t view themselves as “sharers” they are less likely to share in the future.

Developmental psychologists Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir found that compared to children who were given a non-costly choice or who were required to share, preschoolers given a costly choice were more likely to share again at a subsequent opportunity.

My thoughts:

  1. I would be interested in an analysis comparing the effect of the conditions on the children who did not share– that is, collecting baseline data on children’s initial propensity to share, and then comparing how the interventions affected them across the range of initial tendencies.
  2. I wonder how well this would apply to long-term planning and diligence (e.g., completing homework, practicing a difficult skill, doing chores).

The results do suggest that choice can be a powerful mechanism for promoting positive habits and attitudes, something which I think parents and schools could harness more productively. That choice can potentially foster empathy and perspective-taking is very encouraging.

Full reference: N. Chernyak, T. Kushnir. Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613482335

Empathizing with actions above appearance

In two previous posts, I emphasized the importance of encouraging children in general and girls in particular to value actions above appearance, noting that I would especially want to promote perspective-taking, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility rather than looks. “Fit and Feminist” blogger Caitlin echoes this sentiment:

[W]hat your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.

She objects to the disconnect between achievement and the appearance of achievement, with regard to how we judge physical fitness:

When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who [sic] has excellent nutrition… You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?

Imagery carries an immediacy that surpasses words and numbers, even when crafted into a compelling narrative. We process images much more quickly and viscerally than we process stories, and we have less experience critiquing pictures than we do analyzing and arguing using language.

Images themselves strip away context, removing the periphery and exaggerating the impact of anything contained within the frame. Still images also remove temporal context, inviting us to fill in but allowing us to forget what might have happened before and after the photo. In today’s highly connected and media-saturated world, we archive and recirculate images capturing unusual moments, someone’s “best of” achievement rather than the ordinary everyday which we mentally discard. Instead we create unrealistic expectations based on this visual vocabulary in which only the rare and easily perceived is worth remembering and emulating:

[W]hen we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?

Even trickier is our tendency to try to identify with the subject of a photo, mapping ourselves onto the person we see (or imagine). As Paul Bloom notes, people are influenced by appearance and perceived similarity to themselves when judging competence, culpability, and worth:

People are understandably empathetic toward the victims of crime, particularly when they are young and vulnerable, when they are attractive, and when they share our race or ethnicity.

[W]hen the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence.

[B]aby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.

[J]udging someone based on the geometry of his features is, from a moral and legal standpoint, no better than judging him based on the color of his skin. Actually, both biases reflect the parochial and irrational nature of empathy.

Bloom also highlights our tendency to selectively empathize with people on one side of a conflict while disregarding the other, and with identifiable individuals rather than anonymous numbers:

Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with.

Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.

Appearances are seductive, readily merging with our imagined selves and crowding out invisible others.

What we ought to do instead is maintain a healthy separation between ourselves and the targets of our empathy. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury continually highlights the value of empathizing with young children, as distinct from simply identifying with them. It requires acknowledging others’ feelings while also remaining separate from them.

The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on.

They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.

Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?

Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?

Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”

Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?

Our capacity for empathy needs to go beyond thinking of others as replicas or extensions of ourselves, to recognizing that they are distinct from ourselves. We can acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of others’ feelings without assuming responsibility for changing those feelings or giving in to their demands. Instead of rushing to shelter or console innocent and adorable babies—focusing on their obvious appearance of vulnerability and cuteness—we observe their actions to better understand their particular goals and needs, which may not be the same as ours. Empathy is not ownership.

By maintaining this difference in perspective, both between appearance and action and between ourselves and others, we marry empathy to reason and allow space for incorporating multiple angles and unknowns in our empathy calculus.

Criticism? Carpe diem!

These serendipitous juxtapositions appeared in my news feed yesterday, variations on a theme of framing disappointments as opportunities:

“To avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”
– The Lorax

That is: Action inspires criticism, and criticism demands action.

We live in a world where there will always be criticism, of others and ourselves, by others and ourselves. The challenge is not merely accepting the reality of such criticism, but embracing, evaluating, and acting upon it, thoughtfully and productively.

In “How to Listen to a Recording of Yourself Without Getting Depressed,” Dr. Noa Kageyama outlines three attitudes to adopt (and associated actions to take) to yield a more helpful critique:

  1. Celebrate the bright spots.
    I would annotate this with reminders along the lines of, “That wasn’t always so easy for me [you],” or “I remember how I [you] had to work to reach that goal.” It highlights hard-won accomplishments as the product of effort rather than talent or luck.
  2. Cultivate a solution-focused mindset.
    For every problem you notice, formulate a plan to solve it. Recognize mistakes as temporary but necessary stopovers to help you survey the terrain, rather than final endpoints.
  3. Develop a more optimistic mindset.
    Focus on what can be done rather than what hasn’t been done.

I would also precede the feedback session by identifying (and writing out) the main goals up front, to avoid getting distracted by salient yet less-important features.

Without action as its counterpart, criticism by itself becomes a meaningless monologue.

The many pluses of positive parenting

Again highlighting the importance of encouragement, David Bornstein describes several evidence-based parenting programs that reduce at-risk behaviors:

As he summarizes, “The essence of the research is that children do best when they receive calm and consistent feedback and assertive discipline that’s based on reasonable expectations – with significantly more encouragement and positive feedback than criticism.”

Incentives and investment in schooling and parenting

In an interview with Paul Solman at PBS, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman discusses the achievement gap, IQ testing, early childhood education, and parenting, framing the issues from the perspective of incentives and investment.

Let me give you a startling finding about achievement gaps. Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.

The interventions in the “enriched parenting” programs include the usual: reading regularly to kids, providing encouragement, and simply giving the kids time to formulate and act upon a plan.

We need to think about these factors as social investments which the children eventually internalize, so that they are better positioned to succeed later in life.

Belief in effort improves social relationships

Hans Villarica’s article about dealing with peer aggression describes a fascinating example of how a growth mindset, or believing that success comes from effort, can help with social relationships as well as individual abilities.

While I strongly object to the title suggesting this approach is to “fix the victims,” I do agree with the value of encouraging everyone involved to develop productive coping strategies, and the article describes compelling research demonstrating the power of believing that relationships can be repaired. According to the article’s summary of a study[1] surveying 373 second-graders:

those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

Further, a previous study[2] surveying 206 elementary-school children revealed that those with an incremental theory of peer relationships were more resilient to peer victimization. As summarized in the article:

Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly. ‘If children believe that effort is worthwhile, they’ll feel less threatened or helpless when they hit bumps in their relationship,” [psychology professor Karen D. Rudolph] says, ‘and they’ll be more likely to try to resolve relationship problems.

Conclusion: Believing that social relations can be repaired is worth the effort.

Now I just need to find out if someone has applied this approach to attachment theory.

[1] Rudolph, K. D., Abaied, J. L., Flynn, M., Sugimura, N. and Agoston, A. M. (2011), Developing Relationships, Being Cool, and Not Looking Like a Loser: Social Goal Orientation Predicts Children’s Responses to Peer Aggression. Child Development, 82: 1518–1530. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01631.x

[2] Rudolph, K. D. (2010), Implicit Theories of Peer Relationships. Social Development, 19: 113–129. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2008.00534.x