Before she was a graduate student at University of Maryland at College Park, Kelly Lynn Mulvey worked as a high school teacher in Durham, N.C. There, she observed that a main worry for kids was being excluded by their peers.

"They wondered who was going to sit with them at the lunch table, whether they'd be invited to a party after school or what they should do if a bully was harassing someone," she says. "Seeing their challenges really got me interested in how I could help kids at a broader level."

Thanks in part to a $25,000 Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz fellowship from the American Psychological Foundation, she's now able to do that. The annual grants fund up to six scholars each year for promising graduate work in child psychology.

Mulvey is examining factors that drive children to exclude or support peers who act outside the group norm. She's finding that children feel they should confront the group if it is shunning someone who is challenging them on moral grounds — but are afraid they'll be kicked out if they do.

Such mixed findings intrigue Mulvey and make her want to investigate the area further, and eventually bring her findings back into the schools.

"I'd like to educate parents and teachers about how we can give kids the tools to stand up and challenge their group when they need to and still have a rich social life," she says.

Here is what other Koppitz winners are doing with their grants.

Helping sickle cell patients thrive

Duke University graduate student Taryn Allen is helping children with sickle cell disease improve their cognitive skills — a critical intervention for these youngsters who tend to have cognitive deficits resulting from disease-related complications such as stroke and chronic anemia.

The cognitive aspects of the disease have received short shrift because researchers have focused more on the disease's medical aspects than on quality-of-life issues, she says. "There's been a protracted history of health disparities with sickle cell disease, both in terms of the clinical care that's been offered to these children, and also the amount of research done," she says.

To help correct the imbalance, Allen is testing a computer-based intervention in these children's homes that uses engaging, game-like strategies to help them sharpen their attention skills and memory. The approach has already been shown to help survivors of pediatric cancer and children with attention deficit disorder.

If it works, the intervention may have significant implications for children who need the support, says Allen. "My hope is this training could help these kids function better in school, and later on, to succeed in the workplace."

The bilingual advantage

Several studies show that bilingual speakers have better executive functioning and cognitive control than single-language speakers, likely because they must suppress one language in order to speak the other.  

Georgetown University graduate student Natalie Brito is adding to that body of work. Brito has found that youngsters at 6, 18 and 24 months who grow up in bilingual environments also have better explicit memory — the type of memory that requires conscious thought — than monolingual children. "Just hearing the two languages makes a difference," she says. She's already published the work on 18-month-olds in Developmental Science.

Her research suggests that bilingualism has positive effects in many areas of the brain, not just those associated with executive functioning. It should also dispel concerns among bilingual parents that they are overloading their young ones with input, she says. "The findings imply that it's not just OK to speak two languages with your infant — it's a plus," she says.  

Problems with generalizing

Why do children with autism have trouble with language? Until now, many autism researchers have looked to their social interactions for answers.

Princeton University grad student Matt Johnson is analyzing this problem from a different angle: how the information-processing style of children with autism may influence their language learning. That style is marked by an unusually narrow focus of attention where the child focuses on details but has trouble creating abstract meaning from those details.

Researchers have noted this style in other domains of autistic functioning such as visual processing, but few have looked at whether and how it exists in language learning, says Johnson.

He is filling that gap by conducting experiments that probe the ability of autistic children and normally developing children to learn abstract linguistic meaning. First, the youngsters watch a series of videos that show different characters and actions but the same general meaning, each narrated in a similar manner. Then, he tests the children to see how well they can generalize to new examples that hold the same abstract form but involve different characters and actions.

Compared with normally developing children, children with autism have much greater difficulty generalizing to new examples, Johnson is finding. This processing style may be a key obstacle in their language development, as the ability to generalize from one instance to other similar instances is what gives us the ability to use language creatively.

Yet the research also suggests ways to help these youngsters, Johnson adds. "If we conducted learning trials where all of the elements differed only slightly from one video to the next, we might be able to help these kids recognize abstract meaning more easily," he says.

Supporting immigrant students

New York University doctoral student Ha Yeon Kim is looking at how to improve classroom engagement in children who have recently immigrated to the United States.

In three studies that make up her dissertation, she is finding that these students tend to be highly motivated and want to learn, but often have difficulty engaging in classroom activities because of language barriers. She's also found that support from teachers and peers makes a huge difference. Children are less likely to engage in class work if they lack such support, and more likely to join in if they have it. Moreover, youngsters who described having more support and engaging more fully in classroom activities had better grades than those who didn't.

The findings suggest a major role for psychosocial variables like teacher and peer support in these children's school success, Kim says.

"There are plenty of schools that provide good language support for these students," she says. "But the children still need help in terms of their relationships and behaviors in the classroom."

How does family conflict affect kids' social competence?

Children whose parents argue frequently are at high risk for peer rejection, research suggests. Stony Brook University doctoral student Nadia Samad is now looking at the mechanisms through which negative interparental conflict and poor parenting might affect children's social competence. Using her grant, she is testing a model examining whether children who witness a lot of this conflict and experience cold, unresponsive parenting are more prone to a "hostile attribution bias"— to assume the worst of people's intentions in ambiguous situations — and to have difficulties being socially competent as a result.

Samad is using data on 400 families that she and her advisers have collected to support her hypothesis and to lay the foundation for possible interventions tailored to the findings. "If it turns out that children of parents with high levels of negative conflict behaviors show this bias and that the bias is linked to difficulty interacting with peers," she says, "we could potentially train these children to interpret interactions with their peers more accurately. That in turn would allow them to respond more appropriately during social interactions."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

The next deadline for the Koppitz awards is Nov. 15.