Before she was a psychology graduate student, Sandra Y. Nay McCourt worked as a lawyer representing lowincome survivors of domestic violence in divorce and child-custody cases. The job immersed her in the challenges atrisk children and families face, and made McCourt long to do more to prevent child abuse and neglect and to foster healthier relationships among parents and children.

“I became very frustrated by the limitations of my legal training to address these issues,” says McCourt. So, she left a job at one of New York’s top law firms to pursue her doctorate in clinical psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

With assistance from the American Psychological Foundation, McCourt is now on her way to achieving her goal: For her dissertation, she is conducting a longitudinal study of resilience in neglected children with the help of a $25,000 grant from APF’s Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz graduate fellowship program. The program, which funds promising graduate student research in child psychology, selected six Koppitz scholars last year, including McCourt. Here’s a look at their research.

Making sense of moral thinking

Does offering a toddler a loaded statement like, “If you open this box, other kids will cry,” affect what they do next? Nadia Chernyak of Cornell University is using her Koppitz grant to study how moral and causal reasoning develops in young children.

Her preliminary findings show that children as young as 22 months can respond morally by choosing, for example, to keep the box shut and their friends happy.

The research is important because children are learning to use moral explanations to alter their behavior far earlier than one would think, says Chernyak.

“The next step is to discover how parents communicate about morality with their children, such as how parents may be highlighting the effects their child’s actions may have on the world without even realizing it,” she says.

Tailored treatments

When she started studying autism at the University of California, San Diego, Allison Jobin (formerly Cunningham) was struck by the fact that most autism research has focused on finding the best treatment, rather than customizing treatments to particular children. “What we know is that all kids with autism respond very differently to treatment,” says Jobin. “The individualization research is an area that’s in its infancy and needs a lot of work.”

Jobin is using her Koppitz grant to study differences between two different interventions used to teach language, play and imitation skills to young children with autism.

So far, the children in her sample are responding in unique ways to the two treatments, Jobin says. She hopes to identify the variables that might predict which intervention will work best for a particular child.

Building better interventions

Creating more tailored interventions is also the focus of research by University of Virginia graduate student Matthew D. Lerner. He is studying the underlying differences between two strategies for promoting social behavior in children with Asperger’s and highfunctioning children with autism. Some of the children he observes experience performance play activities where, for example, they act out emotions as part of a game, and others are given verbal instructions on how to understand other people’s emotions. “Most treatments actually have some of both,” he says. “I’m trying to tease out which might be the more active ingredients for one kid or another.”

After assessing their overall health and social functioning and observing how they interact with peers, Lerner assigns adolescents ages 9 to 16 to either a performance or verbal skills training, then observes them to see if their social skills improve. He hopes his findings could help clinicians match the treatment to the teenager.

“My hope is to build from there and be able to focus not just on efficacy, but efficiency of treatment delivery.

Assessing suicide risk

Temple University psychology student Kelly A. O’Neil was studying youth with anxiety disorders at Temple’s Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic when she spotted a trend. “Some of my clients who had an anxiety disorder, but not depression, were talking about suicide,” she says. “These were 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds talking about wanting to die or wishing they were dead.”

O’Neil is using her Koppitz grant to study whether anxiety disorders put children and teens at an increased risk for suicidal ideation. She’s also hoping to pinpoint potential predictors of suicidality in anxiety-disordered youth. The preliminary findings indicate that about 38 percent of children and adolescents coming into the clinic have thought about suicide, she says.

Talk it up

A native of Costa Rica, Adriana Weisleder of Stanford University is looking at how the amount of time Spanish-speaking parents talk to their children affects the children’s language development. Through recording Latino families during a typical day in their homes, she’s found that some children spend a lot of time in child-centered interactions with adults, hearing about 1,700 words per hour, while other children hear only 200 words per hour, says Weisleder. Her data indicate that children in richer language environments have better vocabularies, a finding that’s consistent with previous studies. Weisleder’s also found that these children are also better at language processing, including being able to recognize nouns in real-time speech. “It’s the experience of language that makes you better at processing language,” she says. “We think that’s really key, because when kids enter school, there is a lot of information to keep track of.”

More information on the Koppitz fund is available online.

More big winners

APF also presented three $10,000 Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz fund runners-up grants to:

  • Kalsea Koss, of the University of Notre Dame, who is studying how adolescents cope with stress and regulate their emotions amid family conflict.

  • Nicholas Mian, of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who is testing an intervention for parents of preschool children who are at high-risk for developing anxiety disorders.

  • Adena Schachner, of Harvard University, who is exploring the role of synchronized movement in children’s social development, looking at whether synchrony promotes prosocial behavior and cooperation.