Research: Past and Current Studies
Studies in our lab typically utilize a multimethod approach, meaning that we try to approach our research questions from multiple angles. We frequently bring children and families into our lab for a series of engaging, emotion-eliciting games and tasks that allow us to study individual differences in children’s emotional reactivity and regulation through behavioral observation, often considered the “gold standard” of trait assessment in children. We also view parent and teacher perspectives as critically important, and almost always ask parents and children’s teachers (with parents’ permission!) about their children’s personality and behaviors. When children are old enough, we also typically ask them to report on their own personality and behaviors, which lets us know how children and adolescents are seeing themselves and their world. Many of our studies are longitudinal, which means that we continue to have contact with families over time, such as through mailing questionnaires to be returned. This way, we are able to study how children and their families change and develop. Several of our studies utilize electroencephalography (EEG), which is a safe and noninvasive procedure (pretty much like wearing a swimmer’s cap!) for children and adults, that allows us to measure brain activity as they complete games on a computer. We have historically also used other methodologies to pursue our questions, such as an intervention-style week-long camp to boost kindergarten readiness, an observational study of children at their preschool across an entire school year, a text-messaging study to assess change throughout the day, and recruiting through online platforms to gather survey data.
See below for more specific details about our studies!
Reward Learning and Temperament Traits in Children
For this study, we recruited families from the local community who had children between the ages of 3 and 7. We wanted to explore previously unanswered questions in the research literature about the development of children’s emotions and temperament traits, and how these are related to their parents’ personality, emotions, and the family environment. Children and a parent came into our lab one time to complete a laboratory assessment of children’s emotional responses and temperament traits. Children engaged in tasks and games, during which they were videotaped. Parents were asked to participate in some tasks with their child, which were also videotaped. All of the tasks are designed to mimic everyday circumstances that are associated with different feelings children may experience (such as waiting for an activity or playing with a new toy). In addition, parents completed questionnaire measures of their own emotions and personality traits, their family environment, and their child’s emotions and personality traits.
Michigan Longitudinal Study
For this study, we recruited families from the local community as well as families who have been participating in a larger, Michigan-wide study, many since the 1980s! For this study, children were age 3-13. From this study, our lab (in collaboration with Dr. Jason Moser’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab at MSU) wanted to learn how children’s temperament traits are related to their patterns of brain activity as they complete simple tasks, how parents’ temperament traits are related to their patterns of brain activity as they complete simple tasks, and how similar parents and children are on these temperament traits and patterns of brain activity.
To answer these questions, we brought children and their families into our lab for our temperament trait assessment battery for children aged 3-10. This 2-2.5 hour visit where children progress through a series of emotion-eliciting series of games and tasks are designed to measure their temperament traits. Tasks are meant to mimic situations children commonly face, such as waiting to receive a prize, doing challenging puzzles, interacting with adults, drawing, and exploring new objects. In a separate visit, children and parents’ brain activity was measured through electroencephalography (EEG), which is a safe and noninvasive procedure (pretty much like wearing a swimmer’s cap!). Parents and children aged 10+ filled out questionnaire assessments regarding their views on their personality, different behaviors, mental health, family functioning, and other domains of interest.
We are currently in the follow-up stage of this study! Families come back into the lab to complete the EEG again 1.5 and 3 years later in order to answer questions about how patterns of brain activity may change over time. One, two, and three years after their first visit, parents and children also complete questionnaire assessments again so we can study development and change in children and their families.
Fear-Fearlessness and Temperament Traits
This study of 277 families with children aged 3-7 was conducted to learn more about how children’s temperament traits are related to their parents’ personality and emotions, their family environment, and how these traits change and develop as children age. We brought all children into our laboratory to assess their positive emotionality, negative emotionality, and effortful control, which are the three main domains of children’s temperament traits. Parents completed questionnaire measures on their children’s temperament traits as well as internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors. Parents also reported on their own personality, life events, marital functioning, parenting, and areas of concerns. Finally, an over-the-phone interview was conducted with all parents to assess mental health history. How children change over time was a key question in this study, and families were mailed follow-up questionnaire packets 3 months, 6 month, 9 months, 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months after their initial visits. With parent permission, children’s teachers were also contacted at each of these time points to complete questionnaire assessments on children’s personality and problem behaviors.
Camp to Boost Kids’ Kindergarten Readiness Skills
Effortful control, which is typically defined as the ability to self-regulate, focus attention (especially with distractions), plan, and inhibit your first automatic response, is a temperament trait that is rapidly developing in early childhood. There is a lot of research literature that suggests higher effortful control results in more optimal outcomes for children. Because these skills are so important for children entering formal schooling, we wanted to know if we could purposefully boost these skills through interventions. To answer these questions, we recruited local children from the community with average or below-average effortful control scores (as rated by their parent on an initial screening questionnaire). Effortful control has behavioral markers, such as performance on tasks like Simon Says, as well as brain activity correlates, which can be assessed through EEG. Therefore, to gather baseline effortful control data, every child completed a temperament trait laboratory assessment as well as an EEG visit. Then, half of the children completed one of several week-long “camps” for 3 hours each day where they practiced tasks and games theorized to increase effortful control. After completion of the camp (or after a similar period of time, for the control condition who had not gone through the camp), children completed other behavioral measures in laboratory tasks as well as completed an EEG visit again. Parents were completed a variety of questionnaires at the time of assessment as well as three and six months later.
Observational Study of Preschoolers’ Traits
In research studies, children’s traits (positive emotionality, negative emotionality, and effortful control) are often assessed through parents’ reports or through behavioral observation in laboratory tasks. While parents’ reports are great at providing parent opinion and laboratory tasks provide great control and standardization, neither of these methods allow observation of children in their “natural habitats” where they spend a good deal of time. In this study, we observed preschool children almost every school day for an entire school year. Using minute-to-minute coding techniques, we were able to assess their emotional reactivity and regulation as well as record their social and non-social behaviors. In this way, we were able to determine how traits and social behaviors change over the course of the year and influence one another. Notably, among other interesting results, we found that children whose play partners were extroverted or hard-working became similar to these peers over time. Children whose play partners were overanxious and easily frustrated, however, did not take on these particular traits.
Children’s Emotional Rhythms
While we have evidence for diurnal rhythms in adults’ positive emotionality but not negative emotionality, indicating that our emotions can follow a rhythm over the course of the day, very little work has been done with children. When do rhythms emerge? Do they look similar to adults’ rhythms? Are having greater emotional fluctuations (i.e., a lower low to a higher high) typical for children, or indicative of risk for problems? We sought to answer these questions using two methodologies. First, we recruited local parents to complete a series of questionnaires that provided baseline data on children’s temperament traits, internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors, the parent’s personality, the parent’s beliefs about children’s emotions, and emotional expressiveness in the family. After this, parents were texted 3-5 times per day for one week (ecological momentary assessment design) and asked to rate how intensely their children had been feeling 9 different emotions over the course of the last hour. Our second method for addressing this question was through MTURK, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowd-sourcing platform where adults can complete a variety of tasks for payment, including surveys. In this way, we were able to gather information on over 1000 children from their parents responding to our questionnaire measures and answering how intensely their children had felt over the last hour.