Allison Master, Stanford University

Parents might hope that “The Little Engine That Could” will teach their children to persist in the face of difficulty, but research shows that children often have trouble relating to storybook messages, says Allison Master, a fifth-year developmental psychology student at Stanford University.

The children enjoy the story, but they may not connect to it because the character is a train or because climbing a mountain isn’t a challenge they typically face, says Master. But could a story featuring a child taking on a typical challenge, such as solving a difficult puzzle, enhance their confidence? Master thinks so.

To test her theory, she wrote storybooks featuring main characters of varying degrees of similarity to the participating children — an animal, another child, and the child him or herself. After she read them to the children, she asked them about their preference for hard or easy tasks. She found that the children who heard the motivational books were twice as likely to choose hard tasks as children in the control group, who heard a story about playing with the child as the main character. But when Master tested the children’s persistence on a challenging puzzle, she found that only the children who’d heard a story about themselves showed enhanced persistence.

The findings indicate that tailored messages appear to boost school achievement, she says. “We have an educational system in which many students try to figure out the easiest way to get the grade they want with the minimum amount of work,” says Master. “Instead, we could have an educational system where all students seek to challenge themselves and push themselves to succeed.”

Up next: Master will use her scholarship to complete her data collection and cover her expenses as she writes her dissertation. Once she’s earned her degree, she plans to seek an academic job that will allow her to both teach college students and conduct research with children.

Margaret Sibley, State University of New York, University at Buffalo

The jump from elementary to more demanding middle school can be a shock to many students. Making that transition is even more difficult for children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Often these kids are able to hold it together until December before they have any big exams,” says Margaret Sibley, a third-year student in the developmental psychology department. “Then they start to become disorganized, which leads to grade decline. By May or June, they’re failing.”

With the help of the Koppitz scholarship, Sibley is designing and testing an intervention to ease communication among students, middle school teachers and their parents. Past studies show that daily communication about homework and classroom behavior helps elementary school children with ADHD succeed, but such interventions are rare in middle school because students have multiple, and often busier, teachers.

“The challenge will be seeing if these teachers will have time for this in their day, so I am trying to look at the factors that will maximize that communication,” says Sibley.

Specifically, she is asking teachers how they prefer to communicate daily with parents and testing a password-protected Web site as one option. She’s also running a randomized control trial to see if the intervention improves children’s academic performance and classroom behavior.

Sibley is conducting her study through Florida International University in Miami, where her SUNY adviser, William E. Pelham, PhD, transferred this spring to open a clinic for children and teens with ADHD.

Up next: Sibley will continue working and conducting research in the FIU ADHD clinic and will defend her dissertation in 2012. She hopes to fine-tune her intervention so that it can be used by families nationwide.

Claire Cook, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Many parents recall when their children began to talk back to them with reasoned arguments, whether to postpone a bedtime or put off a chore. While amusing — and sometimes even annoying — that ability to persuade another is a complex skill, one that requires children to see situations from others’ perspectives and to select the most convincing evidence for their arguments, says Claire Cook. She is studying when children start to combine their causal reasoning skills and social knowledge at the Early Childhood Cognition Lab at MIT. Not much is known about that confluence, says Cook, but exploring it could shed light on learning, communication and persuasion.

“As an adult, you don’t just make causal inferences in a vacuum. You are making them in a social setting, or on your own but with the ultimate goal of sharing them with people,” says Cook, a third-year student in MIT’s cognitive science department. “Imparting information to another person about the cause-and-effect relationships in the world, and getting that person to agree with you, is central to the way we interact. In fact, in everyday life, it’s often the reason we choose to interact with others in the first place.”

With the Koppitz scholarship, Cook will continue a series of studies on how 4- to 5-year-olds develop the desire and ability to convince others. She is using a modified version of a classic causal reasoning task, in which a child is shown that only a specific color of block — such as red — will make a machine light up. Specifically, Cook will study how those children explain their red block theory to someone who wrongly believes that only circles light up the machine.

Up next: Cook is submitting this research for publication and plans to pursue a career in research and continue her work on causal reasoning and explore how we change our strategies based on negative feedback from our environment. “Cognitive science is such a young field, with so many important questions that remain to be answered,” she says.

APF also awarded $2,000 Koppitz scholarships to five runners-up

The winners and their projects are:

  • Lindsey Bell, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, “Growth of Executive Function in Children: Contributions of Schooling and Culture.”

  • Diane Chen, Temple University, “Longitudinal Associations Among Aggressive-Disruptive Behavior and Peer Processes.”

  • Melissa George, University of Notre Dame, “The Development of Attachment Insecurity in the Parent-Child Relationship as a Potent Risk Factor for the Development of Psychopathology.”

  • Cara Kiff, University of Washington, “Bidirectional Relations of Emotionality and Parenting to Child Psychopathology.”

  • Katherine Lingras, University of Minnesota, “Associations Between Aggression and School Outcomes: The Role of Executive Function in Reducing Risks for Young Homeless Children.”