Researchers say children’s unique traits could be used to tailor education, jobs and more effective interventions — ScienceDaily

A new research article proposes that more attention be given to what’s right with children who grow up in high-stress environments so their unique strengths and abilities can be used to more effectively tailor education, jobs and interventions to fit them.

Stress-adapted children and youth possess traits — such as heightened vigilance, attention shifting and empathic accuracy — that aren’t tapped in traditional learning and testing situations. In addition, these skills may actually allow at-risk children to perform better than their peers from low-risk backgrounds when faced with uncertainty and stress.

Most research to date has focused on detrimental effects of growing up under stressful conditions and the deficits in cognitive development that can result, said Bruce J. Ellis, lead author.

“We’re not arguing that’s wrong, but that it is only part of the picture,” said Ellis, a University of Utah psychology professor. “The other part is that children fine-tune their abilities to match the world that they grow up in, which can result in enhanced stress-adapted skills. We’re trying to challenge a world view and give consideration to an alternative adaptation-based approach to resilience.”

The study “Beyond Risk and Protective Factors: An Adaptation-based Approach to Resilience” is forthcoming in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Co-authors include JeanMarie Bianchi, University of Arizona; Vladas Griskevicius, University of Minnesota; and Willem E. Frankenhuis, Radboud University Nijmegen.

The prevailing view is that children who experience high-stress environments are at risk for impairments in learning and behavior and that interventions are needed to prevent, reduce or repair the damage that has been done to them.

These high-stress environments include neighborhood danger; exposure to environmental chemicals; bad housing conditions; neglectful and abusive parenting; low-quality childcare; and peer and school violence. Research has shown that the more stressors children are exposed to, the more their performances in traditional learning and testing situations is compromised.

Most interventions are aimed at countering these deficits and getting “children and youth from high-risk backgrounds to act, think, and feel more like children and youth from low-risk backgrounds,” the authors say.

In other words, the dominant approach assumes at-risk youth are somehow broken and need to be fixed.

Virtually no research attention has been paid to what strengths and abilities youth possess as a result of growing up in high-risk environments, Ellis said.

Although there is a rich body of literature examining adaptive responses in birds and rodents to stressful environments, the first theoretical work related to humans was published in 2013 by co-author Frankenhuis, followed by the first experiments in 2015 by co-author Griskevicius, Ellis said.

That research showed repeated or chronic stress does not exclusively impair cognition and can improve forms of attention, perception, learning, memory and problem-solving.

“Our argument is that stress does not so much impair development as direct or regulate it toward these strategies that are adaptive under stressful conditions,” Ellis said. “Stress-adapted children and youth may perform better on tasks that involve situations and relationships that are relevant to them, such as social dominance. They also may perform better in settings that do not attempt to minimize the reality of daily stressors and uncertainties.”

These stress-adapted skills should be understood, appreciated and seen as building blocks for success, Ellis said. A first, essential step is that researchers catalog the strengths and abilities of people who grow up in high-stress environments and focus on how to leverage those abilities to enhance learning, intervention and developmental outcomes.

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Materials provided by University of Utah. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Picture overload hinders children’s word learning from storybooks — ScienceDaily

Less is more when it comes to helping children learn new vocabulary from picture books, according to a new study.

While publishers look to produce ever more colourful and exciting texts to entice buyers, University of Sussex psychologists have shown that having more than one illustration per page results in poorer word learning among pre-schoolers.

The findings, published in Infant and Child Development, present a simple solution to parents and nursery teachers for some of the challenges of pre-school education and could help in the development of learning materials for young children.

Doctoral researcher and co-author Zoe Flack said: “Luckily, children like hearing stories, and adults like reading them to children. But children who are too young to read themselves don’t know where to look because they are not following the text. This has a dramatic impact on how well they learn new words from stories.”

The researchers read storybooks to three-year-olds with one illustration at a time (the right-hand page was illustrated, the left-hand page was blank) or with two illustrations at a time (both pages had illustrations), with illustrations introducing the child to new objects that were named on the page.

They found that children who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations.

In a follow-up experiment, researchers added a simple hand swipe gesture to guide the children to look at the correct illustration before the page was read to them. They found this gesture was effective in helping children to learn words when they saw two illustrations across the page.

Zoe, who has written a blog post about the research, said: “This suggests that simply guiding children’s attention to the correct page helps them focus on the right illustrations, and this in turn might help them concentrate on the new words.

“Our findings fit well with Cognitive Load Theory, which suggests that learning rates are affected by how complicated a task is. In this case, by giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words.”

Co-author Dr Jessica Horst, said: “Other studies have shown that adding ‘bells and whistles’ to storybooks like flaps to lift and anthropomorphic animals decreases learning. But this is the first study to examine how decreasing the number of illustrations increases children’s word learning from storybooks.”

She added: “This study also has important implications for the e-Book industry. Studies on the usefulness of teaching vocabulary from e-Books are mixed, but our study suggests one explanation is that many studies with e-Books are only presenting one illustration at a time.”

The study is one of many being carried out at Sussex in The WORD Lab, a research group that focuses on how children learn and acquire language. Previous research has shown children learn more words from hearing the same stories repeated and from hearing stories at nap time.

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Materials provided by University of Sussex. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Indoor air in schools could add to children’s exposure to PCBs — ScienceDaily

The U.S. banned PCBs nearly four decades ago, but they persist in the environment and have been found in animals and humans since then. Now researchers report in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology that concentrations of airborne PCBs inside schools could result in some students inhaling the compounds at higher levels than they would consume through their diets. Exposure through both are lower than set limits, but cumulative amounts, researchers caution, could be concerning.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a group of synthetic chemicals that were used for 50 years in hundreds of products, including paint and building materials. Before PCBs were banned, industries dumped waste containing the compounds into rivers and streams, later resulting in some of the costliest environmental clean-ups in U.S. history. They continue to pose a problem, however, because they remain in soil and water and accumulate in animals. Additionally, although they are not made in the U.S. anymore, PCBs can appear in new paints and other materials as a byproduct of pigment manufacturing or in old buildings in construction materials that were made with the compounds. Studies have linked exposure — either through diet, inhalation or skin contact — with a range of health problems, including developmental issues and cancer. Children are at greater risk for potential health effects from the compounds than adults because they’re still developing. So, University of Iowa researchers wanted to see how much PCBs children were being exposed to in schools.

The researchers tested the air inside and outside of six schools. Four were within 1.5 miles of the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, a waterway serving major industries in the area. Keri Hornbuckle and colleagues had previously shown that the canal is a known source of airborne PCBs. Despite this source of PCBs to outdoor air for some schools, the analysis found that the concentration ranges of PCBs were higher inside all the schools (up to 194 nanograms per cubic meter) than outside, but below the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended action level of 500 ng/m3. The PCB “fingerprints” showed that the sources of the compounds varied across schools, suggesting a combination of historical contamination and new paint as contributors. The schools were part of a study of human exposure to PCBs led by Peter Thorne. The study also estimated that in some cases, inhaling air inside these schools could lead to higher exposure to PCBs than a child’s diet. And combined, the two sources are cause for concern, the researchers say.

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