Feature

The American Psychological Foundation has awarded three $20,000 Koppitz Fellowship grants to graduate students studying child psychology. The fellowship program, which is in its third year, is 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.

This year's three Koppitz fellows will use their respective awards to study resilience in girls with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), evaluate an in-school antibullying program and investigate how parenting and early adversity interact to affect young children.

Resilience in girls with ADHD

Until very recently, few people bothered to study girls with ADHD, says University of California, Berkeley, graduate student and Koppitz fellow Kseniya Yershova. One reason for this could be that girls with ADHD are less likely than boys with the same disorder to be disruptive in class, making them less likely to get diagnosed in the first place. Another reason may have to do with social expectations--people don't expect girls to behave in inattentive or hyperactive ways, Yershova says.

"It's hard to believe, but people just thought, 'Girls aren't supposed to act like this,' and so they didn't study this behavior," she explains.

Because of this dearth of research, Yershova says, psychologists now know very little about girls with ADHD relative to what they know about boys.

Recently, that has begun to change. Yershova is working with Berkeley professor Steven Hinshaw, PhD, on what she says is the largest longitudinal study ever of girls with ADHD. The researchers have followed the girls for 4.5 years, beginning when they were 6 to 12 years old, and they plan to continue to follow the group.

Yershova's portion of the study will examine resilience in the girls as they move from childhood to adolescence and adulthood.

"When I came into the lab, the focus was on measures of negative outcomes," she says. "And I'm asking a counterintuitive question: Some of these girls must do well, despite all the odds. So what is it that helps them do better than expected?"

She theorizes that self-knowledge--understanding the effects of one's behavior on others and being able to develop a coherent life story--underlies some girls' success.

"The fellowship has really been a godsend," Yershova says, allowing her to concentrate on her work without the everyday financial pressures of graduate school.

Bullying in schools

Koppitz fellow Andrew Terranova, a graduate student at the University of New Orleans, is evaluating the success of an in-school antibullying program called BullySafe USA. The program, developed by therapist SuEllen Fried and her daughter, psychologist Paula Fried, PhD, is used in schools in Florida, Missouri and Louisiana, among other places.

It trains teachers to better identify and effectively respond to bullies and teaches students to stand up to bullies--whether they're being bullied themselves or witnessing other students being bullied.

"It's a whole-school approach that seeks to address teachers, students, parents and even nonteaching staff," Terranova says.

A string of highly publicized school shootings piqued Terranova's interest in studying school violence when he was an undergraduate.

"I wrote a few papers for class on the topic, and I realized that most of the shooters were the targets of bullies," he says. He first learned of the BullySafe program through an article in a local newspaper and called the school district to see whether he could make it the topic of his dissertation.

Since the fall of 2003, he's been collecting data from teachers, administrators and students in two Louisiana school districts that use the program, and he says the Koppitz fellowship will allow him to follow up with the same people 24 months later.

"A lot of people have focused on bullies," he says, "but we're focusing more on victims, how victims respond and whether those responses are effective."

Parenting and adversity

Children who experience early physical adversity--like being born prematurely--may actually learn to cope with stress better than healthy children, as long as they also have good parents. That's the theory that Koppitz fellow David Beaulieu, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is testing for his dissertation research.

"My idea is that kids learn how to regulate stress as a result of their experiences early in life," he says. "In some instances, children who experience more stress early in life may learn to handle it better."

For instance, premature children with parents who help them deal with the stressful situations they encounter may become extraordinarily resilient when facing stress later in life, he says. On the other hand, sick children who also have bad or neglectful parents may end up handling stress worse than healthy children.

The research is based on a similar model from rat studies, he explains. Rats placed under stress--by being handled by an experimenter--but then returned to their mother for grooming show a better stress response than rats that are never stressed. But rats that are stressed and then not groomed by their mother show a worse stress response.

Beaulieu is testing his theory via a longitudinal study following children from birth through the toddler years. He uses surveys and observation to measure parenting style. Then, he tests the children's reaction to stress by putting them in a stressful situation--being alone in a room with a stranger--and measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

The Koppitz fellowship, he says, will help with the cost of the hormonal assays and allow him time to focus on his research free of financial pressure.