The first years of life are crucial in shaping the ‘mind’ (and the brain) of the child. The studies we are conducting at the Toddler and Preschooler Lab aim to understand part of this 'mind-making' process. Our research interests are addressed through several Research Projects:
Early Communication in children who are deafblind: Joint attention through alternative sensory modalities
Intentional communication starts early in the child’s development and acts as a developmental platform for socio-cognitive skills and cultural learning. Well before children are able to talk, they can share their intentions, their attention and their interest about the world with others. In joint attention with others, children exchange gestures, emotions and learn culturally relevant information (from, e.g., words to how artifacts work).
Most research on early communication in joint attention has focused on the visual modality. Joint attention, however, is a multisensory experience where visual, auditory and tactual input is exchanged and integrated in the communication event. Children who are deprived of sensory input through the visual and auditory channels can still make use of other sensory modalities to communicate and share the world with others.
In this research project we are looking at the use of alternative sensory modalities in the early communication of deafblind children. We are looking at what strategies they use to ‘call’ for attention, request an object or an action and share their interest with familiar adults. If we can systematically assess and describe joint attention skills through tactual and somatosensory tasks, we can better understand how these children communicate and how we can improve their opportunities of learning and developing through communication. The results of this project will help to provide valuable hints to inform practice and families.
Visual and temporal responses to unfolding narratives: Young children’s skills as natural psychologists reassessed
Research in the last 30 years has shown that the ability to infer and understand other people’s (and their own) internal mental states and feelings is acquired during the preschool years. This early cognitive ability underlies much of our everyday interpersonal interactions where inferences and implicit ‘calculations’ on others beliefs, intentions feelings etc. are made on–line. The apparent facility and speed with which these inferences are drawn reveals humans as skilful ‘natural psychologists’.
Most research with young children, however, has relied on the results of tests that look at mental state inferences ‘off-line’. These tests have been useful in revealing the early onset of these processes but they leave one of their most characteristic features un-assessed. An adequate assessment of the temporal and on-line responses, as well as the standard ‘off-line’ verbal responses, is essential in order to fully understand the developmental trajectory of these inferential processes and account for individual and atypical patterns.
This project is looking at young children’s mental-state inferences as they take place while narratives are unfold. Inferential process are assessed ‘on-line’ by registering temporal and visual inspection responses with a Tobii X300 eyetracker. These ‘on-line’ measures are related and compared with the standard ‘off-line’ verbal and behavioural responses.
Early understanding social exchange & trust: Young children’s skills as negotiators
Social exchange involves conditional agreements where the right to do (or get) something desirable is granted whenever an agreed condition is met. Adults spontaneously use conditional agreements to regulate young children’s behaviour. For example, a mother can agree with her child that she will tell him a bed-time story if he brushes his teeth. Are young children, however, able to infer the reciprocal obligations ensued by this type of agreements?
Our previous research has shown that reasoning skills for social exchange emerge early in human development. Preschool children accurately spot cases of conditional rule violations in the context of unilateral agreements prescribed by an adult or an authority. Even in the absence of authority young children also understand violations and completions of bilateral exchanges agreed by peers. Moreover, this set of skills remains robust across different linguistic and cultural contexts.
In our current research we are looking at the connections between this early ability and three other socio-cognitive developments, namely: young children’s theory of mind, their moral understanding and the development of trust.
Visuo-spatial processing in typical and atypical development
This project is investigating visuospatial cognition in children with Autism and Fragile X Syndrome (FXS). We are using both standardised battery of tasks (e.g. WISC block design or Raven matrixes) and adapted versions of well known visuo spatial tasks (e.g. The Navon task). Our research so far has highlighted particular disparities between the two groups both at the cognitive level and within their performance across different aspects of visuo spatial processing. This may have consequences in areas of learning and understanding such as reading ability. Further research in these area aims to look at the links between visuo-spatial processing and executive function abilities in these two atypical groups and in normal developing children.