preschool child

Autism therapy can normalize face processing

November, 2012

A small study shows that an intensive program to help young children with autism not only improves cognition and behavior, but can also normalize brain activity for face processing.

The importance of early diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder has been highlighted by a recent study demonstrating the value of an educational program for toddlers with ASD.

The study involved 48 toddlers (18-30 months) diagnosed with autism and age-matched normally developing controls. Those with ASD were randomly assigned to participate in a two-year program called the Early Start Denver Model, or a standard community program.

The ESDM program involved two-hour sessions by trained therapists twice a day, five days every week. Parent training also enabled ESDM strategies to be used during daily activities. The program emphasizes interpersonal exchange, social attention, and shared engagement. It also includes training in face recognition, using individualized booklets of color photos of the faces of four familiar people.

The community program involved evaluation and advice, annual follow-up sessions, programs at Birth-to-Three centers and individual speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and/or applied behavior analysis treatments.

All of those in the ESDM program were still participating at the end of the two years, compared to 88% of the community program participants.

At the end of the program, children were assessed on various cognitive and behavioral measures, as well as brain activity.

Compared with children who participated in the community program, children who received ESDM showed significant improvements in IQ, language, adaptive behavior, and autism diagnosis. Average verbal IQ for the ESDM group was 95 compared to an average 75 for the community group, and 93 vs 80 for nonverbal IQ. These are dramatically large differences, although it must be noted that individual variability was high.

Moreover, for the ESDM group, brain activity in response to faces was similar to that of normally-developing children, while the community group showed the pattern typical of autism (greater activity in response to objects compared to faces). This was associated with improvements in social behavior.

Again, there were significant individual differences. Specifically, 73% of the ESDM group, 53% of the control group, and 29% of the community group, showed a pattern of faster response to faces. (Bear in mind, re the control group, that these children are all still quite young.) It should also be borne in mind that it was difficult to get usable EEG data from many of the children with ASD — these results come from only 60% of the children with ASD.

Nevertheless, the findings are encouraging for parents looking to help their children.

It should also be noted that, although obviously earlier is better, the findings don’t rule out benefits for older children or even adults. Relatively brief targeted training in face recognition has been shown to affect brain activity patterns in adults with ASD.

Reference: 

[3123] Dawson, G., Jones E. J. H., Merkle K., Venema K., Lowy R., Faja S., et al.
(2012).  Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 51(11), 1150 - 1159.

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Development of mathematics in children — a round-up of recent news

August, 2012
  • Fifth grade students' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement.
  • School entrants’ spatial skills predicted later number sense and estimation skills.
  • Gender differences in math performance may rest in part on differences in retrieval practice.
  • ‘Math’ training for infants may be futile, given new findings that they’re unable to integrate two mechanisms for number estimation.

Grasp of fractions and long division predicts later math success

One possible approach to improving mathematics achievement comes from a recent study finding that fifth graders' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement, even after statistically controlling for parents' education and income and for the children's own age, gender, I.Q., reading comprehension, working memory, and knowledge of whole number addition, subtraction and multiplication.

The study compared two nationally representative data sets, one from the U.S. and one from the United Kingdom. The U.S. set included 599 children who were tested in 1997 as 10-12 year-olds and again in 2002 as 15-17-year-olds. The set from the U.K. included 3,677 children who were tested in 1980 as 10-year-olds and in 1986 as 16-year-olds.

You can watch a short video of Siegler discussing the study and its implications at http://youtu.be/7YSj0mmjwBM.

Spatial skills improve children’s number sense

More support for the idea that honing spatial skills leads to better mathematical ability comes from a new children’s study.

The study found that first- and second-graders with the strongest spatial skills at the beginning of the school year showed the most improvement in their number line sense over the course of the year. Similarly, in a second experiment, not only were those children with better spatial skills at 5 ½ better on a number-line test at age 6, but this number line knowledge predicted performance on a math estimation task at age 8.

Hasty answers may make boys better at math

A study following 311 children from first to sixth grade has revealed gender differences in their approach to math problems. The study used single-digit addition problems, and focused on the strategy of directly retrieving the answer from long-term memory.

Accurate retrieval in first grade was associated with working memory capacity and intelligence, and predicted a preference for direct retrieval in second grade. However, at later grades the relation reversed, such that preference in one grade predicted accuracy and speed in the next grade.

Unlike girls, boys consistently preferred to use direct retrieval, favoring speed over accuracy. In the first and second grades, this was seen in boys giving more answers in total, and more wrong answers. Girls, on the other hand, were right more often, but responded less often and more slowly. By sixth grade, however, the boys’ practice was paying off, and they were both answering more problems and getting more correct.

In other words, while ability was a factor in early skilled retrieval, the feedback loop of practice and skill leads to practice eventually being more important than ability — and the relative degrees of practice may underlie some of the gender differences in math performance.

The findings also add weight to the view being increasingly expressed, that mistakes are valuable and educational approaches that try to avoid mistakes (e.g., errorless learning) should be dropped.

Infants can’t compare big and small groups

Our brains process large and small numbers of objects using two different mechanisms, seen in the ability to estimate numbers of items at a glance and the ability to visually track small sets of objects. A new study indicates that at age one, infants can’t yet integrate those two processes. Accordingly, while they can choose the larger of two sets of items when both sets are larger or smaller than four, they can’t distinguish between a large (above four) and small (below four) set.

In the study, infants consistently chose two food items over one and eight items over four, but chose randomly when asked to compare two versus four and two versus eight.

The researchers suggest that educational programs that claim to give children an advantage by teaching them arithmetic at an early age are unlikely to be effective for this reason.

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How early environment impacts cognitive development

February, 2012

Follow-up on an early child-care program for low-income children finds long-term benefits for education and employment. A large study pinpoints the advantages children from higher-income families have over those from low-middle families. Norway shows how extending compulsory education is linked to higher IQ.

Benefits of high quality child care persist 30 years later

Back in the 1970s, some 111 infants from low-income families, of whom 98% were African-American, took part in an early childhood education program called the Abecedarian Project. From infancy until they entered kindergarten, the children attended a full-time child care facility that operated year-round. The program provided educational activities designed to support their language, cognitive, social and emotional development.

The latest data from that project, following up the participants at age 30, has found that these people had significantly more years of education than peers who were part of a control group (13.5 years vs 12.3), and were four times more likely to have earned college degrees (23% vs 6%).

They were also significantly more likely to have been consistently employed (75% had worked full time for at least 16 of the previous 24 months, compared to 53% of the control group) and less likely to have used public assistance (only 4% received benefits for at least 10% of the previous seven years, compared to 20% of the control group). However, income-to-needs ratios (income taken into account household size) didn’t vary significantly between the groups (mainly because of the wide variability; on the face of it, the means are very different, but the standard deviation is huge), and neither did criminal involvement (27% vs 28%).

See their website for more about this project.

Evidence that more time at school raises IQ

It would be interesting to see what the IQs of those groups are, particularly given that maternal IQ was around 85 for both treatment and control groups. A recent report analyzed the results of a natural experiment that occurred in Norway when compulsory schooling was increased from seven to nine years in the 1960s, meaning that students couldn’t leave until 16 rather than 14. Because all men eligible for the draft were given an IQ test at age 19, statisticians were able to look back and see what effect the increased schooling had on IQ.

They found that it had a substantial effect, with each additional year raising the average IQ by 3.7 points.

While we can’t be sure how far these results extend to other circumstances, they are clear evidence that it is possible to improve IQ through education.

Why children of higher-income parents start school with an advantage

Of course the driving idea behind improved child-care in the early years is all about the importance of getting off to a good start, and you’d expect that providing such care to children would have a greater long-term effect on IQ than simply extending time at school. Most such interventions have looked at the most deprived strata of society. An overlooked area is that of low to middle income families, who are far from having the risk factors of less fortunate families.

A British study involving 15,000 five-year-olds has found that, at the start of school, children from low to middle income families are five months behind children from higher income families in terms of vocabulary skills and have more behavior problems (they were also 8 months ahead of their lowest income peers in vocabulary).

Low-middle income (LMI) households are defined by the Resolution Foundation (who funded this research) as members of the working-age population in income deciles 2-5 who receive less than one-fifth of their gross household income from means-tested benefits (see their website for more detail on this).

Now the difference in home environment between LMI and higher income households is often not that great — particularly when you consider that it is often a difference rooted in timing. LMI households are more common in this group of families with children under five, because the parents are usually at an early stage of life. So what brings about this measurable difference in language and behavior development?

This is a tricky thing to derive from the data, and the findings must be taken with a grain of salt. And as always, interpretation is even trickier. But with this caveat, let’s see what we have. Let’s look at demographics first.

The first thing is the importance of parental education. Income plus education accounted for some 70-80% of the differences in development, with education more important for language development and income more important for behavior development. Maternal age then accounted for a further 10%. Parents in the higher-income group tended to be older and have better education (e.g., 18% of LMI mothers were under 25 at the child’s birth, compared to 6% of higher-income mothers; 30% of LMI parents had a degree compared to 67% of higher-income parents).

Interestingly, family size was equally important for language development (10%), but much less important for behavior development (in fact this was a little better in larger families). Differences in ethnicity, language, or immigration status accounted for only a small fraction of the vocabulary gap, and none of the behavior gap.

Now for the more interesting but much trickier analysis of environmental variables. The most important factor was home learning environment, accounting for around 20% of the difference. Here the researchers point to higher-income parents providing more stimulation. For example, higher-income parents were more likely to read to their 3-year-olds every day (75% vs 62%; 48% for the lowest-income group), to take them to the library at least once a month (42% vs 35% vs 26%), to take their 5-year-old to a play or concert (86% vs 75% vs 60%), to a museum/gallery (67% vs 48% vs 36%), to a sporting activity at least once a week (76% vs 57% vs 35%). Higher-income parents were also much less likely to allow their 3-year-olds to watch more than 3 hours of TV a day (7% vs 17% vs 25%). (I know the thrust of this research is the comparison between LMI and higher income, but I’ve thrown in the lowest-income figures to help provide context.)

Interestingly, the most important factor for vocabulary learning was being taken to a museum/gallery at age 5 (but remember, these correlations could go either way: it might well be that parents are more likely to take an articulate 5-year-old to such a place), with the second most important factor being reading to 3-year-old every day. These two factors accounted for most of the effects of home environment. For behavior, the most important factor was regular sport, followed by being to a play/concert, and being taken to a museum/gallery. Watching more than 3 hours of TV at age 3 did have a significant effect on both vocabulary and behavior development (a negative effect on vocabulary and a positive effect on behavior), while the same amount of TV at age 5 did not.

Differences in parenting style explained 10% of the vocabulary gap and 14% of the behavior gap, although such differences were generally small. The biggest contributors to the vocabulary gap were mother-child interaction score at age 3 and regular bedtimes at age 3. The biggest contributors to the behavior gap were regular bedtimes at age 5, regular mealtimes at age 3, child smacked at least once a month at age 5 (this factor also had a small but significant negative effect on vocabulary), and child put in timeout at least once a month at age 5.

Maternal well-being accounted for over a quarter of the behavior gap, but only a small proportion of the vocabulary gap (2% — almost all of this relates to social support score at 9 months). Half of the maternal well-being component of the behavior gap was down to psychological distress at age 5 (very much larger than the effect of psychological distress at age 3). Similarly, child and maternal health were important for behavior (18% in total), but not for vocabulary.

Material possessions, on the other hand, accounted for some 9% of the vocabulary gap, but none of the behavior gap. The most important factors here were no internet at home at age 5 (22% of LMIs vs 8% of higher-incomes), and no access to a car at age 3 (5% of LMIs had no car vs 1% of higher incomes).

As I’ve intimated, it’s hard to believe we can disentangle individual variables in the environment in an observational study, but the researchers believe the number of variables in the mix (158) and the different time points (many variables are assessed at two or more points) provided a good base for analysis.

Reference: 

[2676] Campbell, F. A., Pungello E. P., Burchinal M., Kainz K., Pan Y., Wasik B. H., et al.
(2012).  Adult outcomes as a function of an early childhood educational program: An Abecedarian Project follow-up.
Developmental Psychology;Developmental Psychology. No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

[2675] Brinch, C. N., & Galloway T A.
(2012).  Schooling in adolescence raises IQ scores.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109(2), 425 - 430.

Washbrook, E., & Waldfogel, J. (2011). On your marks : Measuring the school readiness of children in low-to-middle income families. Resolution Foundation, December 2011.

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How family circumstance impacts learning and memory in children

February, 2012

A large study shows the impact of having multiple family disadvantages on cognitive development. A brain scan study finds childhood maltreatment significantly reduces the size of the hippocampus, while another finds parental care can increase it.

Quarter of British children performing poorly due to family disadvantage

A British study involving over 18,000 very young children (aged 9 months to 5 years) has found that those exposed to two or more “disadvantages” (28% of the children) were significantly more likely to have impaired intellectual development, expressed in a significantly reduced vocabulary and behavioral problems.

These differences were significant at three, and for the most part tended to widen between ages three or five (cognitive development, hyperactivity, peer problems and prosocial behaviors; the gap didn’t change for emotional problems, and narrowed for conduct problems). However, only the narrowing of the conduct problem gap and the widening of the peer problem gap was statistically significant.

Ten disadvantages were identified: living in overcrowded housing; having a teenage mother; having one or more parents with depression, parent with a physical disability; parent with low basic skills; maternal smoking during pregnancy; excessive alcohol intake; financial stress, unemployment; domestic violence..

Around 41% of the children did not face any of these disadvantages, and 30% faced only one of these disadvantages. Of those facing two or more, half of those (14%) only had two, while 7% of the total group experienced three risk factors, and fewer than 2% had five or more.

There was no dominant combination of risks, but parental depression was the most common factor (19%), followed by parental disability (15%). Violence was present in only 4% of families, and both parents unemployed in only 5.5%. While there was some correlation between various risk factors, these correlations were relatively modest for the most part. The highest correlations were between unemployment and disability; violence and depression; unemployment and overcrowding.

There were ethnic differences in rate: at 48%, Bangladeshi children were most likely to be exposed to multiple disadvantages, followed by Pakistani families (34%), other (including mixed) (33%), black African (31%), black Caribbean (29%), white (28%) and Indian (20%).

There were also differences depending on family income. Among those in the lowest income band (below £10,400 pa) — into which 21% of the families fell, the same proportion as is found nationally — nearly half had at least two risk factors, compared to 27% of those in families above this threshold. Moreover, children in families with multiple risk factors plus low income showed the lowest cognitive development (as measured by vocabulary).

Childhood maltreatment reduces size of hippocampus

In this context, it is interesting to note a recent finding that three key areas of the hippocampus were significantly smaller in adults who had experienced maltreatment in childhood. In this study, brain scans were taken of nearly 200 young adults (18-25), of whom 46% reported no childhood adversity and 16% reported three or more forms of maltreatment. Maltreatment was most commonly physical and verbal abuse from parents, but also included corporal punishment, sexual abuse and witnessing domestic violence.

Reduced volume in specific hippocampus regions (dentate gyrus, cornu ammonis, presubiculum and subiculum) was still evident after such confounding factors as a history of depression or PTSD were taken into account. The findings support the theory that early stress affects the development of subregions in the hippocampus.

While mother’s nurturing grows the hippocampus

Supporting this, another study, involving 92 children aged 7 to 10 who had participated in an earlier study of preschool depression, has found that those children who received a lot of nurturing from their parent (generally mother) developed a larger hippocampus than those who didn’t.

‘Nurturing’ was assessed in a videotaped interaction at the time of the preschool study. In this interaction, the parent performed a task while the child waited for her to finish so they could open an attractive gift. How the parent dealt with this common scenario — the degree to which they helped the child through the stress — was evaluated by independent raters.

Brain scans revealed that children who had been nurtured had a significantly larger hippocampus than those whose mothers were not as nurturing, and (this was the surprising bit), this effect was greater among the healthy, non-depressed children. Among this group, those with a nurturing parent had hippocampi which were on average almost 10% larger than those whose parent had not been as nurturing.

Reference: 

First study:
Sabates, R., Dex, S., Sabates, R., & Dex, S. (2012). Multiple risk factors in young children’s development. CLS Cohort Studies Working paper 2012/1.
Full text available at http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/news.aspx?itemid=1661&itemTitle=More+than+one+i...

Second study:
[2741] Teicher, M. H., Anderson C. M., & Polcari A.
(2012).  Childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced volume in the hippocampal subfields CA3, dentate gyrus, and subiculum.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/07/1115396109.abstract?sid=f73...

Third study:
[2734] Luby, J. L., Barch D. M., Belden A., Gaffrey M. S., Tillman R., Babb C., et al.
(2012).  Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Long-lasting effects of early-childhood brain injuries

January, 2012

A 10 year follow-up of children hospitalized for brain injuries in early childhood suggests that young brains are not as resilient as we thought.

I recently discussed some of the implications of head injuries and how even mild concussions can have serious and long-term consequences. A follow-up study looking at the effects of childhood traumatic brain injury ten years after the event has found that even those with mild TBI showed some measurable effects, while those with severe TBI had markedly poorer performance on a number of cognitive measures.

The study involved 40 children who were admitted to hospital with TBI in early childhood (between 2 to 7 years; average just under 5), and 16 healthy controls. The children’s cognitive functions were assessed at the time of accident, and again at 12 and 30 months and 10 years later. Of the 40 with TBIs, 7 had mild injuries, 20 had moderate, and 13 severe.

Unsurprisingly, children with severe TBI had the poorest outcomes. This group was significantly poorer (compared to controls) on full scale IQ; performance IQ; verbal IQ; verbal comprehension; perceptual organization, processing speed. Those who had moderate TBI were significantly poorer on full scale IQ and verbal comprehension only, and those with mild TBI performed more poorly than the controls on verbal comprehension only. Note the size of these effects: the average scores of the group with severe TBI were 18-26 points lower than the control group. In comparison, those with moderate TBI were around 10 points lower on the two significant measures.

These findings are in contrast to research involving adults and older children, where IQ tends to remain intact.

They also contradict the belief that young brains have greater ability to ‘bounce back’ from injury.

Interestingly, the recovery trajectory wasn’t significantly affected by severity of injury — all the groups followed a similar pattern and they all tended to plateau from 5 to 10 years after injury. In general, the findings paint a picture of a long period of disrupted development immediately after the injury, lasting perhaps as long as 30 months, before the brain has recovered sufficiently to progress relatively normally. In other words, intervention may be helpful even years after the injury.

One weakness in the study is the small number of mild TBI cases. It should also be noted that the IQ of the control group was surprisingly high (113). However, given that they had similar IQ levels to the TBI groups prior to injury, it is possible that this reflects a practice effect (but remember that all groups got the same amount of practice).

One thing I wonder about, given recent research pointing to the value of schooling in raising IQ, is the extent to which some of this is due to loss of education that may have resulted from severe injury.

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Poverty-related stress affects cognitive ability

November, 2011

Stress in the lives of young children from low-income homes negatively affects their executive function and IQ, and these associations are mediated through parenting behavior and household risk.

The study involved 1,292 children followed from birth, whose cortisol levels were assessed at 7, 15, and 24 months. Three tests related to executive functions were given at age 3. Measures of parenting quality (maternal sensitivity, detachment, intrusiveness, positive regard, negative regard, and animation, during interaction with the child) and household environment (household crowding, safety and noise levels) were assessed during the home visits.

Earlier studies have indicated that a poor environment in and of itself is stressful to children, and is associated with increased cortisol levels. Interestingly, in one Mexican study, preschool children in poor homes participating in a conditional cash transfer scheme showed reduced cortisol levels.

This study found that children in lower-income homes received less positive parenting and had higher levels of cortisol in their first two years than children in slightly better-off homes. Higher levels of cortisol were associated with lower levels of executive function abilities, and to a lesser extent IQ, at 3 years.

African American children were more affected than White children on every measure. Cortisol levels were significantly higher; executive function and IQ significantly lower; ratings of positive parenting significantly lower and ratings of negative parenting significantly higher. Maternal education was significantly lower, poverty greater, homes more crowded and less safe.

The model derived from this data shows executive function negatively predicted by cortisol, while the effect on IQ is marginal. However, both executive function and IQ are predicted by negative parenting, positive parenting, and household risk (although this last variable has a greater effect on IQ than executive function). Neither executive function nor IQ was directly predicted by maternal education, ethnicity, or poverty level. Cortisol level was inversely related to positive parenting, but was not directly related to negative parenting or household risk.

Indirectly (according to this best-fit model), poverty was related to executive function through negative parenting; maternal education was related to executive function through negative parenting and to a lesser extent positive parenting; both poverty and maternal education were related to IQ through positive parenting, negative parenting, and household risk; African American ethnicity was related to executive function through negative parenting and positive parenting, and to IQ through negative parenting, positive parenting, and household risk. Cortisol levels were higher in African American children and this was unrelated to poverty level or maternal education.

Executive function (which includes working memory, inhibitory control, and attention shifting) is vital for self-regulation and central to early academic achievement. A link between cortisol level and executive function has previously been shown in preschool children, as well as adults. The association partly reflects the fact that stress hormone levels affect synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions are carried out. This is not to say that this is the only brain region so affected, but it is an especially sensitive one. Chronic levels of stress alter the stress response systems in ways that impair flexible regulation.

What is important about this study is this association between stress level and cognitive ability at an early age, that the effect of parenting on cortisol is associated with positive aspects rather than negative ones, and that the association between poverty and cognitive ability is mediated by both cortisol and parenting behavior — both positive and negative aspects.

A final word should be made on the subject of the higher cortisol levels in African Americans. Because of the lack of high-income African Americans in the sample (a reflection of the participating communities), it wasn’t possible to directly test whether the effect is accounted for by poverty. So this remains a possibility. It is also possible that there is some genetic difference. But it also might reflect other sources of stress, such as that relating to prejudice and stereotype threat.

Based on mother’s ethnic status, 58% of the families were Caucasian and 42% African American. Two-thirds of the participants had an income-to-need ratio (estimated total household income divided by the 2005 federal poverty threshold adjusted for number of household members) less than 200% of poverty. Just over half of the mothers weren’t married, and most of them (89%) had never been married. The home visits at 7, 15, and 24 months lasted at least an hour, and include a videotaped free play or puzzle completion interaction between mother and child. Cortisol samples were taken prior to an emotion challenge task, and 20 minutes and 40 minutes after peak emotional arousal.

Long-term genetic effects of childhood environment

The long-term effects of getting off to a poor start are deeper than you might believe. A DNA study of forty 45-year-old males in a long-running UK study has found clear differences in gene methylation between those who experienced either very high or very low standards of living as children or adults (methylation of a gene at a significant point in the DNA reduces the activity of the gene). More than twice as many methylation differences were associated with the combined effect of the wealth, housing conditions and occupation of parents (that is, early upbringing) than were associated with the current socio-economic circumstances in adulthood (1252 differences as opposed to 545).

The findings may explain why the health disadvantages known to be associated with low socio-economic position can remain for life, despite later improvement in living conditions. The methylation profiles associated with childhood family living conditions were clustered together in large stretches of DNA, which suggests that a well-defined epigenetic pattern is linked to early socio-economic environment. Adult diseases known to be associated with early life disadvantage include coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and respiratory disorders.

Reference: 

[2589] Blair, C., Granger D. A., Willoughby M., Mills-Koonce R., Cox M., Greenberg M. T., et al.
(2011).  Salivary Cortisol Mediates Effects of Poverty and Parenting on Executive Functions in Early Childhood.
Child Development. no - no.

Fernald, L. C., & Gunnar, M. R. (2009). Poverty-alleviation program participation and salivary cortisol in very low-income children. Social Science and Medicine, 68, 2180–2189.

[2590] Borghol, N., Suderman M., McArdle W., Racine A., Hallett M., Pembrey M., et al.
(2011).  Associations with early-life socio-economic position in adult DNA methylation.
International Journal of Epidemiology.

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Bilingualism doesn't hamper language abilities of children with autism

November, 2011

Two studies demonstrate that language development in young children with ASD is the same in those raised in a multilingual environment as in those raised with only one language.

Bilingual parents of children with autism spectrum disorder often decide to speak only one language around their child because of advice from child development professionals who believe that exposure to two languages might further limit the child’s communication skills. Two recent studies challenge that assumption.

One study tested the vocabulary size of 14 bilingual (English-Mandarin/Cantonese) and 14 English-monolingual young children with ASD (aged 3-6). Bilingual children had a larger total vocabulary than monolingual children. When translation equivalents (two words in each language with the same meaning) were counted only once, the vocabularies of both bilingual and monolingual children were not significantly different. Both groups had equivalent scores on all but one measure of language and vocabulary, including English production vocabulary, conceptual production vocabulary, and vocabulary comprehension.

The second Canadian study found similar results in a slightly larger group of children (45 bilingual and 30 monolingual children with an average age of around 5). Languages covered were diverse: French, English, Chinese, Farsi, Hebrew, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Tamil. Bilingual children were divided into those who were exposed to both languages from infancy, and those who were exposed later (the cut-off was 12 months, but in general changes in the language environment occurred much later: on average, children in the former group were bilingually-exposed for the first 25 months; children in the latter group were monolingually-exposed for the first 31 months). Eleven children were trilingual. In order not to introduce sampler bias, non-verbal children were not excluded — seven participants spoke fewer than 10 words, of whom two were nonverbal.

There were no significant differences between the three groups at a language level, although monolingual and bilingual children exposed from infancy consistently scored higher than bilingual children exposed from a later age. Also, children exposed to two or more languages from infancy scored significantly higher than both groups on social interaction, and those exposed later were worst of the three groups. These differences probably reflect various social variables underlying the different language experiences.

The main reason for the belief that autistic children are better not ‘burdened’ with an additional language is because of their language difficulties. These studies are not saying that a child with ASD raised in two languages will be equally fluent with both. In the second study, second language vocabularies were much smaller than their dominant language vocabularies. But that’s not the point. Whether or not there is any general cognitive advantage in bilingualism for this group, as there is for normally-developing children, remains to be determined. But there is a clear message that parents of ASD children can take on board: if your family is bilingual, relax and enjoy interacting with your ASD child in your language of choice.

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Music training and language skills

November, 2011

A month-long music-based program produced dramatic improvement in preschoolers’ language skills. Another study helps explain why music training helps language skills.

Music-based training 'cartoons' improved preschoolers’ verbal IQ

A study in which 48 preschoolers (aged 4-6) participated in computer-based, cognitive training programs that were projected on a classroom wall and featured colorful, animated cartoon characters delivering the lessons, has found that 90% of those who received music-based training significantly improved their scores on a test of verbal intelligence, while those who received visual art-based training did not.

The music-based training involved a combination of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks, and included training on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic musical concepts. Visual art training emphasized the development of visuo-spatial skills relating to concepts such as shape, color, line, dimension and perspective. Each group received two one-hour training sessions each day in classroom, over four weeks.

Children’s abilities and brain function were tested before the training and five to 20 days after the end of the programs. While there were no significant changes, in the brain or in performance, in the children who participated in the visual art training, nearly all of those who took the music-based training showed large improvements on a measure of vocabulary knowledge, as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. These correlated with changes in brain function.

The findings add to the growing evidence for the benefits of music training for intellectual development, especially in language.

Musical aptitude relates to reading ability through sensitivity to sound patterns

Another new study points to one reason for the correlation between music training and language acquisition. In the study, 42 children (aged 8-13) were tested on their ability to read and recognize words, as well as their auditory working memory (remembering a sequence of numbers and then being able to quote them in reverse), and musical aptitude (both melody and rhythm). Brain activity was also measured.

It turned out that both music aptitude and literacy were related to the brain’s response to acoustic regularities in speech, as well as auditory working memory and attention. Compared to good readers, poor readers had reduced activity in the auditory brainstem to rhythmic rather than random sounds. Responsiveness to acoustic regularities correlated with both reading ability and musical aptitude. Musical ability (largely driven by performance in rhythm) was also related to reading ability, and auditory working memory to both of these.

It was calculated that music skill, through the functions it shares with reading (brainstem responsiveness to auditory regularities and auditory working memory) accounts for 38% of the difference in reading ability between children.

These findings are consistent with previous findings that auditory working memory is an important component of child literacy, and that positive correlations exist between auditory working memory and musical skill.

Basically what this is saying, is that the auditory brainstem (a subcortical region — that is, below the cerebral cortex, where our ‘higher-order’ functions are carried out) is boosting the experience of predictable speech in better readers. This fine-tuning may reflect stronger top-down control in those with better musical ability and reading skills. While there may be some genetic contribution, previous research makes it clear that musicians’ increased sensitivity to sound patterns is at least partly due to training.

In other words, giving young children music training is a good first step to literacy.

The children were rated as good readers if they scored 110 or above on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency, and poor readers if they scored 90 or below. There were 8 good readers and 21 poor readers. Those 13 who scored in the middle were excluded from group analyses. Good and poor readers didn’t differ in age, gender, maternal education, years of musical training, extent of extracurricular activity, or nonverbal IQ. Only 6 of the 42 children had had at least a year of musical training (of which one was a poor reader, three were average, and two were good).

Auditory brainstem responses were gathered to the speech sound /da/, which was either presented with 100% probability, or randomly interspersed with seven other speech sounds. The children heard these sounds through an earpiece in the right ear, while they listened to the soundtrack of a chosen video with the other ear.

Reference: 

[2603] Moreno, S., Bialystok E., Barac R., Schellenberg E. Glenn, Cepeda N. J., & Chau T.
(2011).  Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function.
Psychological Science. 22(11), 1425 - 1433.

Strait, Dana L, Jane Hornickel, and Nina Kraus. “Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children.” Behavioral and brain functions : BBF 7, no. 1 (October 17, 2011): 44. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22005291.

Full text is available at http://www.behavioralandbrainfunctions.com/content/pdf/1744-9081-7-44.pd...

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Bilingualism helps early development of executive control

August, 2011

A study of Korean preschoolers demonstrates that at least some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are due to learning two languages, not because of a more diligent culture or a more enriched environment.

An increasing number of studies have been showing the benefits of bilingualism, both for children and in old age. However, there’s debate over whether the apparent benefits for children are real, or a product of cultural (“Asians work harder!” or more seriously, are taught more behavioral control from an early age) or environmental factors (such as socioeconomic status).

A new study aimed to disentangle these complicating factors, by choosing 56 4-year-olds with college-educated parents, from middle-class neighborhoods, and comparing English-speaking U.S. children, Korean-speaking children in the U.S. and in Korea, and Korean-English bilingual children in the U.S.

The children were tested on a computer-game-like activity designed to assess the alerting, orienting, and executive control components of executive attention (a child version of the Attention Network Test). They were also given a vocabulary test (the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III) in their own language, if monolingual, or in English for the bilinguals.

As expected, given their young age, English monolinguals scored well above bilinguals (learning more than one language slows the acquisition of vocabulary in the short-term). Interestingly, however, while Korean monolinguals in Korea performed at a comparable level to the English monolinguals, Korean monolinguals in the U.S. performed at the level of the bilinguals. In other words, the monolinguals living in a country where their language is a majority language have comparable language skills, and those living in a country in which their primary language is a minority language have similar, and worse, language skills.

That’s interesting, but the primary purpose of the study was to look at executive control. And here the bilingual children shone over the monolinguals. Specifically, the bilingual children were significantly more accurate on the attention test than the monolingual Koreans in the U.S. (whether they spoke Korean or English). Although their performance in terms of accuracy was not significantly different from that of the monolingual children in Korea, these children obtained their high accuracy at the expense of speed. The bilinguals were both accurate and fast, suggesting a different mechanism is at work.

The findings confirm earlier research indicating that bilingualism, independent of culture, helps develop executive attention, and points to how early this advantage begins.

The Korean-only and bilingual children from the United States had first generation native Korean parents. The bilingual children had about 11 months of formal exposure to English through a bilingual daycare program, resulting in them spending roughly 45% of their time using Korean (at home and in the community) and 55% of their time using English (at daycare). The children in Korea belonged to a daycare center that did offer a weekly 15-minute session during which they were exposed to English through educational DVDs, but their understanding of English was minimal. Similarly, the Korean-only children in the U.S. would have had some exposure to English, but it was insufficient to allow them to understand English instructions. The researchers’ informal observation of the Korean daycare center and the ones in the U.S. was that the programs were quite similar, and neither was more enriching.

Reference: 

[2351] Yang, S., Yang H., & Lust B.
(2011).  Early Childhood Bilingualism Leads to Advances in Executive Attention: Dissociating Culture and Language.
Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 14(03), 412 - 422.

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Simple estimation abilities predict better math understanding in preschoolers

August, 2011

New research linking a better number sense to greater math understanding in preschoolers emphasizes the role of parents and caregivers in giving children a head start in math.

Mathematics is a complex cognitive skill, requiring years of formal study. But of course some math is much simpler than others. Counting is fairly basic; calculus is not. To what degree does ability at the simpler tasks predict ability at the more complex? None at all, it was assumed, but research with adolescents has found an association between math ability and simple number sense (or as it’s called more formally, the "Approximate Number System" or ANS).

A new study extends the finding to preschool children. The study involved 200 3- to 5-year-old children, who were tested on their number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability. The number sense task required children to estimate which group had more dots, when seeing briefly presented groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen. The standardized test of early mathematics ability required them to verbally count items on a page, to tell which of two spoken number words was greater or lesser, to read Arabic numbers, as well as demonstrate their knowledge of number facts (such as addition or multiplication), calculation skills (solving written addition and subtraction problems) and number concepts (such as answering how many sets of 10 are in 100). The verbal assessment was carried out by parents and caregivers of the children.

The study found that those who could successfully tell when the difference between the groups was only one dot, also knew the most about Arabic numerals and arithmetic. In other words, the findings confirm that number sense is linked to math ability.

Because these preschoolers have not yet had formal math instruction, the conclusion being drawn is that this number sense is inborn. I have to say that seems to me rather a leap. Certainly number sense is seen in human infants and some non-human animals, and in that sense the ANS is assuredly innate. However what we’re talking about here is the differences in number sense — the degree to which it has been developed. I’d remind you of my recent report that preschoolers whose parents engage in the right number-talk develop an understanding of number earlier, and that such understanding affects later math achievement. So I think it’s decidedly premature to assume that some infants are born with a better number sense, as opposed to having the benefit of informal instruction that develops their number sense.

I think, rather, that the finding adds to the evidence that preschoolers’ experiences and environment have long-lasting effects on academic achievement.

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