Lehigh University
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Cognitive Development at Lehigh University: Great things come in small packages


Because of its small size, the psychology department at Lehigh fosters an environment of cooperation and support among grad students and faculty members.

"The interaction between the people in the program is very positive. I like coming to school every day," says Colleen McDonough, who is working with Gerald McRoberts, assistant professor of psychology, on speech perception and language research with infants and toddlers. "It's a small program, so you really get a chance to interact one-on-one."

Doctoral candidates in psychology at Lehigh go through a research-intensive program that is unified by a shared cognitive orientation. They are trained in a core curriculum and then specialize in one of three intersecting clusters: Cognition and Language, Social Cognition and Personality, and Social and Cognitive Development.

All students are active in research projects throughout the program, including a first-year project, a master's thesis or pre-dissertation project, and the doctoral dissertation itself. Additional projects and collaborations are also undertaken outside of these requirements.

"Our graduate program is unusual in providing integrated training in social, developmental, and cognitive psychology, and cognitive development is a perfect example of why this integration is important" says Barbara Malt, department chairperson and professor of psychology. "Children's cognitive development needs to be studied in light of both what is known about the endpoint of this development--adult cognition--and the social context in which it is embedded."

Psychology students at Lehigh are likely to know about research projects outside their areas of specialization.

"Being a small program, we can do things in a more integrated way," says Padraig O'Seaghdha, associate professor of psychology and graduate program director. "In contrast to some larger programs, students and faculty here tend to share fundamental intellectual interests that cut across areas."

Adds graduate student Marion Lapchak: "I've gotten to know everyone in the department and their research. We all help each other, even across disciplines. There's camaraderie, and I like that."

The variety of research being conducted in the department is illustrated by the stories of three graduate students: McDonough, Lapchak, and Elizabeth Richner.

Infant Language: Spotlight on Colleen McDonough:

She came here to work with McRoberts, and it looks like Colleen McDonough made the right decision. As one of only 900 students in the country to be awarded a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation for her work on the value of repetitive speech to infants, McDonough has already kicked off a successful research career in the area of infant language development.

"We know adults use a lot of repetition when they talk to babies, and we are interested in whether this repetition serves any purpose—do babies even notice it?" says McDonough. So far, the research conducted by McDonough and McRoberts shows that babies do notice repetitive speech, and there are important developmental changes in repetition preferences over the first year of life, implicating the role of memory.

So far, McDonough has gotten great feedback on her research from well-respected people in the field. "We presented our research at the Society for Research in Child Development in April, and people in the field were excited about our findings, so I feel like we're onto something," she says.

Language Impairment: Spotlight on Marion Lapchak:

After working for years as a pediatric nurse, Marion Lapchak developed an interest in the effect of chronic childhood illness on cognitive development. Lapchak came to Lehigh to work with her advisor, Sue Barrett, associate professor of psychology, and she’s currently examining speech perception in preschoolers who have a history of otitis media (ear infections).

“In looking at children who are diagnosed with auditory processing disorders, we notice that children who have had otitis media are more highly represented in this learning disability population,” she says. Lapchak wants to find out why.

Many children with otitis media do not have any residual hearing loss but they may attend to language differently. Children with a history of chronic ear infections may spend weeks with fluid in their ears and this can affect the young child’s ability to sort through the sounds that are used in his or her language. Lapchak suspects that children with a history of otitis media rely more heavily on lip movements, that is, the visual portion of speech.

To investigate this link, Lapchak focuses on how children perceive simple syllables. She has created a child-friendly task that required her to first put on her writer’s hat. “I wrote a series of children’s books to introduce kids to a group of fictional characters,” she says.

Once the children learn the names of the characters, they watch a person saying the character’s names. Lapchak analyzes children’s responses to determine the extent to which they attend to the auditory and visual portions of the speech signal. Using this technique, she will evaluate whether a history of otitis media is associated with differences in how children learn and perceive the sounds that make up words.

If, as Lapchak suspects, these children pay less attention to the acoustic portion of the speech signal, then multisensory techniques may be especially helpful in promoting early reading skills. Otitis-prone children who do not have hearing loss or learning disabilities may still benefit from techniques that are used with children who are visual learners. Face-to-face contact may be especially helpful for these children and teachers may want to keep this in mind in the classroom.

The Story Within the Story: Spotlight on Elizabeth Richner:

Together with advisor Ageliki Nicolopoulou, associate professor of psychology, Elizabeth Richner has looked into the social development of young children with two studies, both of which are based on her dissertation. Richner presented one paper, "Can narrative promote social understanding and theory of mind development?" at the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) last year.

In this study, Richner looked at middle-class preschool classes and assessed the impact of storytelling in the children's social understanding, including their theories of mind (TOM). (TOM is a specific cognitive ability to understand others as intentional agents). She found that children's participation in storytelling significantly improved their vocabulary, emotion identification and understanding, and their performance on theory of mind tasks.

Richner presented her second paper, which she co-authored with Nicolopoulou, "Teacher-Child Interactional Styles and Their Impact on Children's Peer Interaction: Implications for the Development of Social Understanding," at the SRCD Biennial Meeting in April. In the study, Richner examined how different styles of adult-child interaction influenced child-child interaction, which in turn affects the development of the children's "theories of mind" and social understanding.

Again looking at preeschoolers, Richner compared classes of two teachers who used very different teaching styles: one used a directive style and frequently intervened with the children's play and conflicts, and the other used a facilitative style that encouraged children's independent cooperation and conflict resolution. Results showed that the children who were left on their own to resolve conflicts developed more social understanding than the kids who received direct adult input from their teacher.

Posted on Tuesday, November 25, 2003

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