Children with damage to the brain's prefrontal cortex often do poorly in school beyond second or third grade--when teachers expect them to be more independent learners. This may be because the damage prevents them from imposing their own learning structure, researchers have theorized.
Help for these children may be right around the corner, thanks to promising research on children's learning and memory by graduate student Erica M. Brandling-Bennett, whose work got a $20,000 boost from the Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Child Psychology Graduate Fellowship program, funded by the American Psychological Foundation (APF).
Brandling-Bennett's prize is one of three $20,000 fellowships awarded by APF for the first time this year to advance graduate students' research in child psychology.
"Through the fellowship program, APF aims to make a big impact on the future of child psychology by nurturing young research talent," says APF Trustee and Koppitz Chair Camilla Benbow, EdD.
The fellowships are funded by a more than $4 million bequest from Werner J. Koppitz, PhD, in memory of his late wife, child psychologist Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz, PhD. The foundation also awarded five graduate students $4,000 grants for travel to professional meetings (see sidebar).
Applicants for the Koppitz fellowships are nominated by members of the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology (COGDOP). COGDOP members may recommend one graduate student per institution each year. Graduate students who have achieved doctoral candidacy are eligible for the scholarships. Students can apply before passing their qualifying exams, but proof of having advanced to doctoral candidacy is required before funds are released. The 2004 nomination deadline is Nov. 15.
Meet the Koppitz fellows--child psychology's up-and-coming researchers.
Solving mysteries of the prefrontal cortex
For Brandling-Bennett, helping children with damage to the prefrontal cortex succeed in school means first filling in the research gaps on typically developing children. What is known is that the prefrontal cortex controls executive abilities--such as using memory to maintain information and applying strategies to problem-solving--but there is still much to learn.
"There has been very little research done on executive functioning in typically developing children, so we don't know much about how and when these diffe rent abilities come online over the course of normal development," says Brandling-Bennett, a fourth-year doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at Washington University in St. Louis.
In her dissertation research, she is charting the normal emergence and development of these abilities so she can compare how the patterns differ in children with prefrontal cortex damage, including those with phenylketonuria, severe traumatic brain injury, sickle-cell disease and cerebral palsy.
The comparisons will hopefully shed light on what happens to these key abilities when a child incurs brain damage, leading to improved understanding of the link between prefrontal cortex development and the emergence of executive abilities, she says. The ultimate aim, she says, is to help teachers and schools boost learning in children with prefrontal cortex damage.
"The [fellowship] provides me with an invaluable opportunity to concentrate 100 percent of my time and effort on this research," says Brandling-Bennett. "Hopefully I will be able to make a mark in the field."
Helping at-risk youth
Koppitz fellow Annalise L. Caron, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, says she hopes her dissertation research on family-based intervention programs for at-risk children and adolescents will influence the design and use of better intervention programs.
"We know from prior meta-analysis that these treatments work for children but we don't know how or why," she says. Caron says she hopes to turn that around by spotlighting the effects of parenting on treatment outcomes in a family-based intervention program. By collecting data on these families before treatment, three and six months into treatment, and eighteen months after treatment, she is examining how changes in the parents' behavior relate to changes in children's psychopathology, such as depression or aggression.
Caron's prize money will fund the last year of this three-year study as well as a meta-analysis she's conducting on how two types of parental control--behavioral and psychological--relate to adolescents' internalizing and externalizing problems.
Caron, who is earning a minor in quantitative psychology at Vanderbilt on top of her clinical studies, is applying for internship this fall. She foresees a long-term career in research on at-risk youth and says she is grateful to have this launching pad.
"The Koppitz fellowship will allow me to attend to my research more and get my dissertation and meta-analysis ready for publication sooner," she says. "It's a wonderful freedom."
Examining forensic suggestibility
The Koppitz fellowship will also allow University of California, Davis, doctoral candidate Ingrid M. Cordon, to spend less time chasing dollars and more time working on her dissertation research: a study of children's eyewitness memory in child abuse cases. While previous research in the area has examined the suggestibility of children when they testify about strangers, Cordon is looking at how suggestible children are when testifying about someone they know.
"The majority of children in eyewitness situations usually have to testify about someone that they know as opposed to a stranger," says Cordon, noting that 92 percent of cases involve children testifying about someone who isn't a stranger.
Cordon is halfway through her data collection and is balancing other research projects as well: She's looking at whether young adults who were abused as children recall the abuse later and is studying the long-term effects of criminal court involvement on child abuse victims.
Cordon will apply for postdoctoral positions within the next few months and plans to continue and expand her research on memory development.