Funded Grants

Understanding and Enhancing Self Regulation in Toddlers

Today a majority of children between 2 and 4 years of age in the U.S. are involved in preschools of some sort. However, there is little uniformity in childrens' experiences in these preschools. Some of these preschools provide only baby sitting. At the other extreme some of the most highly funded tend to push down the learning objectives of elementary school to younger ages. Although much of this situation involves societal factors that could not be influenced by our research, it is also true that psychological studies have generally argued that learning can only be effective within specific domains such as number or language. This view has the effect of adding scientific support for organizing preschools like elementary schools.

However, we think recent scientific studies have suggested that 2-4 year old children are influenced by the development of attentional systems that provide the basis for their regulation of emotion and cognition. There is reason to believe that appropriate training of this system might have favorable consequence for later school performance in whatever domainis being taught. In addition, training might also help prepare the child for more general aspects of the elementary school environment such as the need to quietly maintain concentration for relatively long periods of time. It is possible that such training could also influence on the performance of children who would later be classified as having a learning disability or attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Certainly if would be better to use training methods rather than drugs to assist children to use their attention in better ways.

The current data on the development of attention systems largely rests on studies of adult patients with specific brain injuries and effort to image the brains of adults while performing cognitive tasks. The studies have shown several attention networks that have the function of maintaining alertness, orienting to sensory events and self regulation of emotion and thought. These networks appear to have a distinct anatomy, but clearly they also communicate with each other and many tasks that we perform involve all three networks.

Recently, it has been possible to learn some facts about the development of these networks in infants and young children. The data have largely come from tasks that are known to activate these networks in adults and can then be studied in children at varying ages. For example, we have found that the ability to focus attention on sensory event undergoes a strong development in the first year of life. This development allows infant to focus attention on salient visual stimuli and also allows caregivers to use novel objects to capture attention and produce temporary calming of a distressed infant. It is possible for caregivers to teach infants at this age where to look to find a salient object and later to learn the name of the object. These developments involve specific neural maturation of brain systems or their connections.

When adults are given tasks in which they are required to attend to one of several conflicting messages, particular brain areas become active. This anatomy involves activity in the midline of the frontal lobe in a brain area called the anterior cingulate as well as some areas closely connected with it. A somewhat separate cingulate area appears to be involved when the task involves emotional conflict. Currently some researchers believe that the cingulate and associated areas form an executive attention network that is in involved in both cognitive and emotional self regulation.

When children of two to four years are placed in a task where they must ignore a response close to the stimulus and instead choose one that matches the stimulus but is at a very different location, they show strong conflict between choosing on the basis of location and of identity. Between two and four years they learn to control the strong tendency to choose based on location. Performance in this task is related to parental reports of effortful control or how well their children are able to control their attention and to inhibit undesirable behaviors in a wide range of situation. We believe this development depends upon changes that take place in the connectivity between this frontal midline area and other brain areas.

Research suggests that the degree to which children develop effortful control influences their development of empathy and of conscience. In addition, effortful control appears to be a central component of the acquisition of high level skills such as reading. The absence of successful mechanisms of effortful control may lead to pathologies such as attention deficit disorder. Indeed it has been shown that children with this disorder have deficits in their ability to select stimuli and responses in the face of competition, and that adults who had attention deficit disorder as children, unlike other adults, fail to activate the cingulate region during the execution of conflict tasks.

Our research proposes to train children of two to four to improve their effortful control. To do this we will use training exercises that have been developed to train monkeys and chimpanzees to respond to a given stimulus in the face of conflicting information from other stimuli. In work with non-human primates these tasks have proven very popular and appear to lead to a general decrease in aggressiveness and improvement in social interaction in their daily environment. Of course we cannot give the toddlers the same intense level of training that has been used with primates, but we have developed very sensitive assays that can allow us to trace any improvement that the training produces in any of the attentional networks. In addition, through imaging of brain electrical activity, we can examine changes in brain circuitry that might occur as a result of the training. This work should lead to improved scientific understanding of the brain areas involved in this form of attentional regulation.

We therefore also plan to provide high levels of training a group of non-human primates. It is has already been demonstrated that the animals seek out the training and seem to like to choose which task to practice. It is possible, therefore to run thousands of trials over many months of practice. The natural behavior of these primates will be observed using instruments very similar to those used to study the toddlers.

If this work is successful, we would be in a position to suggest a rational basis for development of preschool curricula. Preschool might be seen as a time when systematic effort would be given to the development of the skills of attention needed to succeed in all aspects of the elementary school curriculum. Although our studies would mainly be focused on individual attention by training with computerized exercises, we also believe it would be possible to build exercises that emphasized the importance of attention within the social situation of the school. By designing such group exercises that involve the class as a whole, the preschool child might also be better prepared to deal with the social environment involved in schooling.