Feature

In 2006, the American Psychological Foundation (APF) Koppitz Fellowship Program awarded $20,000 each to three child psychology graduate students. The four-year-old program is funded by a bequest of more than $4 million from Werner J. Koppitz, PhD, in memory of his late wife, Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz, PhD, a school and educational psychologist.

One of this year's Koppitz fellows will use the award to investigate how children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affect their parent's marital relationships. Another will map visual salience in 2-year-old children with autism to predict their social functioning. Another will continue a study of parent and child anxiety that was almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Parental relationships and ADHD

Research shows that parental discord can lead to negative or ineffective parenting strategies that in turn spark behavioral problems in children, says Koppitz winner Brian Wymbs, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York. However, he adds, no study has yet examined the opposite scenario: What effect do children with behavior problems have on their parents' relationship?

"It appears that the more severely misbehaving child you have, the more severe the level of discord is in the parents," says Wymbs.

For his dissertation research project, Wymbs devised a first-of-its-kind study that manipulates child behavior to examine its effect on how parents interact. Wymbs trained four normally well-behaved child actors, ages 9 to 12, to act in a disruptive manner similar to how a child with ADHD behaves-uncooperative, distractible, overactive and bossy. The children were also trained to follow another script, which dictated that they behave in a friendly, compliant manner.

He then had each child behave in either a "good" or "bad" way in the lab with mother-father pairs, 47 of which actually had children with ADHD and 17 of which had children without ADHD.

The trios engaged in structured- and free-play activities, completed a math assignment and cleaned up the play area together. Research assistants observed them from behind two-way glass, videotaped and coded the interaction and had parents report on how they perceived their partner during the activities.

Wymbs' preliminary findings show that parents of children with and without ADHD were significantly more negative toward and less supportive of each other during interactions with disruptive children than during interactions with typical children. Findings also indicate that parents of children with ADHD are more susceptible to being negative and less supportive during interactions with children than parents of children without ADHD.

"Given the manipulation we have right now, it's outstanding that we're seeing these effects," he says. "It's surprising that we're finding differences in how parents react even when not only do they know they're not interacting with their own child, but they're in a university setting and they know they're being watched."

Wymbs sees his lab research as setting the groundwork for future observational studies in parents' homes with their children, and he'd eventually like to design interventions to help couples parent children with ADHD and prevent marital dissolution.

The Koppitz fellowship has helped Wymbs fund recruitment efforts for his dissertation research and pay the child actors in his study.

From art to autism

As an undergraduate art and engineering student at Yale University, Warren Jones created sculptures that incorporated technology to explore how people relate to each other. While teaching art to children with autism, Jones found a topic that inspired him to enter the Yale neuroscience doctoral program, and one for which he received the Koppitz fellowship.

"My interest in autism came from an interest in how one person comes to know and understand another," says Jones. "Autism is an extreme case of difficulty connecting with anyone else and sharing someone else's experience of the world."

Jones uses eye-tracking technology to map visual salience through the eyes of 2-year-old children with autism as they view movies of social interaction. In a lab setting, Jones uses concealed cameras that zoom in on children's eyes and monitor the movement of their pupils to determine exactly what they are viewing on the TV screen.

Jones has found that when typically developing children watch scenes of other people, they spend most of their time looking at people's eyes. However, autistic children tend to be attracted to the mouths of people who are talking and to objects in the background. What first attracts children's attention as they view a scene translates to how their brains develop, he notes.

Jones hopes his research will help with early diagnosis of autistic children.

"It's already been shown that if you start interventions at age 3 rather than 5, they are more effective," he says. "But if you can start interventions in the critical window between zero and 3, when the brain is doing a lot of growth, it has the potential to be even more effective."

In future research, Jones hopes to map the "ongoing dance" of eye contact and social signaling between mother and child.

'It saved my education.'

Natalie Costa lost her home and all her possessions during Hurricane Katrina. Without funding from the Koppitz fellowship, her research and career plans would have been two more things lost to the storm.

"I don't really have words to say how happy I was to get this fellowship, because literally my future education was in limbo," says Costa, who this spring will finish her applied developmental psychology doctoral program at the University of New Orleans (UNO).

Costa, a New Orleans native who also received her undergraduate and master's degrees from UNO, began a study in 2002 to examine the social and contextual variables that underlie the relationship between maternal and child anxiety. Costa recruited 250 families and had parents complete questionnaires on such topics as their anxiety and depression levels, beliefs about their parenting, past traumas and relationship behaviors. Parents also completed a questionnaire about their child to describe their child's anxiety, psychopathology and academic and social functioning. In turn, children responded to questionnaires about their parents, took an intelligence test and received a skin conductance test to gauge their response to a movie of a threatening dog.

"I was supposed to be extending this study to look at over-time variables," says Costa. "But then the hurricane hit, and everything changed."

UNO was closed until January 2006, and Costa's lab was so damaged that she couldn't return to it until four months later. Worse still, her study families were all from areas of New Orleans that were "completely devastated," she says. After the hurricane, they scattered throughout the country.

Costa applied for the Koppitz fellowship for funding to help find her families and continue her study.

"We had a unique opportunity in that we had pre-disaster functioning variables on them, which in any kind of natural disaster literature is a pretty rare thing," she says. "Usually you have a whole lot of studies about what happened to people because of things like 9/11 or a hurricane or tsunami, but you don't have anything pre to predict the people who are going to be the worst responders."

Costa began the difficult task of locating her families through contact information supplied on her initial questionnaires, Internet searches and, sadly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency death lists, but she's only found about two-thirds of her original sample. She changed the focus of her study to how parental and youth anxiety, control and attachment interact with pre-Katrina anxiety levels to predict responses to natural disasters. She now conducts phone interviews with her participants on these topics.

Costa hopes that the data she's collected both before and after Katrina will help identify factors that make certain people more vulnerable toanxiety and post-traumatic stress-before a natural disaster occurs-so that they can be taught resilience and coping skills.

"People know we have to do more now in terms of prevention," says Costa. "I think a part of that is targeting some of the things that might help people cope better in the face of disasters, instead of waiting until after their mental health is destroyed and then trying to go in and help."

Koppitz runners-up

Five runners-up for the Koppitz Fellowship awards each received $4,000 travel stipends to attend APA's 2007 Annual Convention in San Francisco. They are Anne Shaffer, of the University of Minnesota, Russell Carleton, of DePaul University, Vanessa Simmering, of the University of Iowa, Ryan Beveridge, of the University of Utah, and Sujin Yang, of Cornell University.

Further Reading

For information on applying, visit www.apa.org/apf/koppitz.html.