Understanding a Child's Social World

Psychology researchers will team up with physicists to monitor children’s real-time, movement-based interactions in preschool classrooms.

Remember your earliest friends from preschool? Researchers from the University of Miami want to know how those friendships form, and they plan to do just that through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a nifty device that will track the movements of children at two UM centers in real time for four years. 

“We know that early social experiences in the classroom impact later development and learning,” said Dr. Daniel Messinger, a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Yet, we really don’t know how those social networks form. The whole point of this project is to learn what kids are doing moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, month-to-month, and year-to-year in the classroom.”

While child psychologists have observed classroom behavior in the past, research was always limited by the frequency and accuracy of the observations. Now, explains Messinger, researchers can harness technology to detect and record children’s movements throughout the day. Worn like a wristwatch, the data-tracking device gathers large amounts of data that UM researchers will analyze to ask how children’s social networks in early childhood change moment-to-moment and over several years.

The collection and analysis of this big data is possible through an interdisciplinary collaboration between the departments of psychology and physics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This is another exciting example of what the college has made possible through its support of complex systems science,” said physicist Neil Johnson. “I do not know of any other interdisciplinary project that involves psychology and physics working so closely together.”

The movement-tracking devices will be worn by children from the Debbie School at the UM Mailman Center for Child Development, which offers education services for children who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth through the second or third grade, and the Linda Ray Intervention Center, a Department of Psychology program that serves newborn to 3-year-old children who are developmentally delayed as a result of abuse, neglect, or prenatal exposure to drugs.

Dr. Lynne Katz, research associate professor and director of the Linda Ray Intervention Center, says the research will not only assist psychologists who study children’s behaviors, but help teachers understand the inner workings of how children play, who they play with, where they play, and where maximum learning and maximum language output occurs. “At Linda Ray, we are going to see how we can best put this study into place,” adds Katz. “The children are very young and we need to get them comfortable with wearing the data-tracking devices.”

Kathleen Vergara, director of the Debbie School, said she is excited about the study and its focus on children with hearing loss at the school, which will “lead to the development of important interventions for this population.”

The study is expected to take four years to complete and will follow children from toddler to pre-kindergarten age.

 

 

 

 

 

October 17, 2016