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Tools of the Trade

The purpose of this blog is to pique and satisfy the curiosity that people have about how children learn so much so quickly and give parents an appreciation for the surprising path children’s development can take.  With that in mind, I’ll issue a caution: the exercises described are not intended as assessment or diagnostic tools.  There is a great deal of variation in the development of individual children and the findings that are described here represent a set of children in a particular location who participated in a study.  Researchers are often looking at basic cognitive processes that are not necessarily indicative of delays or disorders or genius.  So, if your child does not behave the way the children in the study did or at the same age, it does not mean that something is wrong. In fact, you (as the scientist) have essentially created a data point outside of a laboratory setting that may or may not support the outcome of a particular study, and that is one goal of science: to study and replicate findings on a phenomenon to discover how true and robust it is in the world.

Ground rules for the exercises

  • Researchers aim to gather unbiased data, so it is important that children not know beforehand what they are going to see or hear, particularly since none of it is objectionable.  This will allow you to see their honest reaction.
  • Ask questions in a neutral manner, try not to laugh at children’s answers.  They are the teachers in the situation even if they don’t know it.
  • You may need a “confederate” as they are called in research, someone who knows the purpose of an exercise and helps you to set up or carry it out.
  • When using objects or puppets in the exercise, try to use novel ones that your child has not seen before to reduce any preconceived notions or preferences he/she may have toward it.
  • If your child does not produce the “correct” or “mature” response the first time you try an exercise, wait a few weeks before trying it again. If you keep doing it every day, your child’s response may change because of training or some implicit cue from you of what you want them to do.
  • Although these exercises were designed to be harmless and enjoyable for children, as with any family activity, if your child becomes upset or distressed at any point, it’s best to take a break or stop the exercise.
  • If you think these exercises are fun and interesting, sign up to participate in a nearby university’s research projects and help out your local developmental psychologist!  Our research really does depend on the families who volunteer.

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