Seminar discusses the socioeconomic impact on children’s emotional growth

emotional growthPsychologist Dr. Stephanie Miller presenting her research | Fariha Tasnim Amir

Fariha Tasnim Amir | Contributing Writer

Not all children come from the same social and financial background and it heavily impacts their cognitive development while growing up.

Focusing on this, psychologist Dr. Stephanie Miller, whose research primarily delves into the psychological development of toddlers, hosted a seminar on Tuesday, April 9 discussing how various sociocultural environments impact children as well as other aspects that come into play.

Miller’s research demonstrates her research field which has an emphasis on optimizing early social-emotional cognitive health across diverse contexts. Integrating sociocultural environments into theory-driven cognitive research is a core focus of her work. She mostly works with children ranging from age 12-36 months in her field of interest. 

“I like to think about how early experience really shaped what you tend to do and what you came to be,” Miller said as to why she prefers to work with that age group. 

“This is really a transitional time, a key sensitive period when kids are really learning to be into regulating behavior and control.”

Miller mentioned how she has done a lot of her early work on Executive Function or EF, which is the cognitive processing or conscious regulations over thoughts and actions. Her research works to find out whether or not children can display this behavior when the situation calls for it.

“In mental health and psychopathology, there’s a lot of links between EF deficits and different types of psychopathology like within ADHD, within autism, within conduct behavior,” she said.

“I studied all aspects of child health and these are all intertwined. So, children’s physical health is related to how they are developing socially, it’s related to how they’re developing cognitively and that leads to academics. So we’re really thinking of the whole child and how all of these elements are working together,” Miller said when it comes to optimizing child wellness.

Dr. Miller also emphasized understanding the communities that they’re working with when they’re researching development and so her team of researchers is working across the globe focusing on different areas and fields for research in psychology.

For the research on EF and development in children, she and her collaboration partners gathered information and data from both the US and Argentina in Latin America.

In Miller’s research regarding EF in children, the children were subjected to tests to determine whether or not they responded to situations accordingly. Such as pointing and joint attention, where they point to something and move it to see whether or not the child follows it. Showing the children toys and then hiding them in places they can easily find them to see if they’d take the initiative to find the toy etc. 

The US children that were subject of the research were aged 12-18 months and the same kind of tests were done on children aged 18-36 months in Argentina and other Latin American countries. They found that the older toddlers aged 30-36 months have better language and little early cohesion.  They had better-developed vocalizing skills and symbolic understanding. 

For the most part, the American data replicated the Argentinian information.

While analyzing different socioeconomic contexts, it was seen that poverty, nutrition, parental sensitivity, differences in environment, and access to resources were the key factors that influence the development of executive function in children.  In both the US and Argentina, children who belonged to a lower income household had fewer language skills. 

“Higher quality schools equate to higher language abilities,” Miller said.

Screentime effects on children are another crucial component in Dr. Miller’s research.In her research, she has seen that toddlers are consuming roughly 1 hour of television, 2 hours of background watching, and around 30 minutes of mobile phone every day. Watching television relates to lower lexical density and reading books relates to higher lexical density. 

In addition, she shared that kids from lower socioeconomic status watch more TV read fewer books, and engage less in screen engagement.

Some key negative factors to be considered when it comes to screening and cognitive development are displacement, stimulation, and digital pacifiers. Screentime is taking children’s time away from other things which is displacement. Kids are too young and exposed to stimulation levels that their cognitive state is not ready for when they engage too much in watching TV and using phones. 

Parents also use screens as a way to calm children down easily which hinders their ability to process.

As most previous research on EF was done by white professors and researchers on children with higher socioeconomic backgrounds, their traditional method to measure abilities has faced a lot of backlash. 

A new model is being theorized that’s more appropriate for a broader socio-cultural context while holding onto some of the things that are helpful from the previous model. 

Miller and the team working on it are thinking of incorporating the parents’ cognitive health, stress, and children’s interactions with adults into the model for better accuracy. Stereotypes are a key ingredient too as when children believe in a stereotype about their abilities it activates habits that can affect their performance related to EF.

Dr. Miller’s new projects will focus on toddlers with indigenous backgrounds in both the US and Argentina. She’s looking to consider bilingualism in both countries, culture, and other social variables in her new research. She wants to focus on the parents’ EF, sleep, health, and screen time and relate it with the child’s data. 

The data was gained from 1878 caregivers of toddlers aged 12-48 months across 19 Latin American countries via parent reports.

To integrate representation, Miller’s team is conducting a transdisciplinary collaboration across multiple departments focusing on a primarily black community located in the Delta of Mississippi. Despite the rich ethnic background and history, there’s a lot of disparity in terms of healthcare and other resources. 

Miller’s team does recreational activities to observe their behavior while also providing the children with a space to talk and be heard. 

From the conducted research, results showed that parents who participated endorsed yoga as a beneficial exercise and they started reading to their children regularly as well as talking about diverse cultures and endorsed nongendered play. After the intervention, children started taking deep breaths and they stopped and stayed calm to regulate and assess situations now and they shared readily with others.

They had researchers and collaborators act out scenarios where they pretended to be hurt to see how the children would react. 

Surveys on kids who are a part of this intervention as well as children who were not were conducted and the kids were given scenarios to establish whether or not they’d help out other kids who are different from themselves in terms of socioeconomic background and ethnicity and the children who were part of the intervention were more likely to say yes according to the data.

Miller also acknowledges the lack of women and minorities in STEM fields and she’s been working with individuals to change that across different areas for years now.

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