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Kids in stressful environments may adapt cognitive skills

April 4, 2017
child with hand in cookie jarBy the time they were preschoolers, high-risk children with "hawk traits" like heightened levels of aggression and boldness performed worse on a standardized visual problem-solving task with low motivational significance, but did significantly better on problem-solving tasks if rewards were involved.

A new study shows that early experiences of environmental harshness, in combination with personal temperament, can shape the child’s problem-solving abilities later in life.

Children growing up in poverty with unengaged caregivers are more likely to do poorly on standardized assessments. However, the researchers found, those children who exhibited higher levels of so-called hawk traits at age two became better at using problem-solving skills to obtain a blocked reward.

Hawk traits describe heightened levels of aggression, boldness, and dominant behavior in toddlerhood.

By the time they were preschoolers, these high-risk children with hawk traits performed worse on a standardized visual problem-solving task with low motivational significance, but did significantly better on problem-solving tasks if rewards were involved.

The study, conducted at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center, was recently published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Using an evolutionary perspective, the study addresses questions about how and why stressful environments and children’s temperament may interact to shape children’s cognition.

“Our study supports emerging views that early environmental experience, in combination with temperament characteristics, shape children’s cognitive functioning to focus on what is most salient in their environments,” says lead author Jennifer Suor ’19, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Rochester.

The multi-method study looked at 201 mother–child dyads when the children were two and four years old. At age two, environmental harshness was assessed via maternal report of earned income, and observations of the mother’s disengagement during a parent–child interaction task. Children’s hawk temperament traits were assessed from a series of unfamiliar episodes. At age four, the researchers measured the children’s problem-solving skills.

In one task children completed a standardized visual problem-solving assessment where they re-created a block puzzle shown to them by an experimenter. In a reward-oriented problem solving task, children had to figure out how to open a transparent box with a set of keys that contained a toy prize the child had previously picked out. However, the researchers had provided the wrong set of keys to be able to observe the children’s problem-solving behaviors like strategy, how they manipulated the keys, and their level of concentration on the task.

“While on average children performed similarly on problem solving tasks – the kids who had experienced greater caregiving adversity and had more hawk traits were more likely to do better on the reward problem solving tasks,” explains co-author Melissa Sturge-Apple, University of Rochester associate professor of psychology, and dean of graduate studies in arts, sciences, and engineering. “They were more persistent, tried more solutions, were more engaged.”

Placed in a larger evolutionary context, the findings suggest that high-risk children adapt to their stressful environment in a way that might help with survival.

“When kids are faced with poverty and unengaged caregivers, they devote more energy to solving the problem which is more meaningful to them than one that isn’t,” says Sturge-Apple.

“Evolutionary approaches to child development might offer important insights into the functional significance behind developmental adaptations in cognition. Standardized cognitive assessments, which often lack direct ecological and motivational significance, may not be able to fully capture the specialized repertoire of cognitive skills children in stressful environments have developed as a survival mechanism,” explains Suor.

Psychologists Melissa Sturge-Apple and Patrick Davies of the University of Rochester, and Dante Cicchetti from the University of Minnesota and the University’s Mt. Hope Family Center co-authored the study, which was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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