February 24, 2004

Project explores how preschoolers develop self-control

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. - How preschoolers develop self-control will become the focus of a five-year, $1.65 million study at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

There are a number of disorders (relating to self-control) that emerge in the preschool period, attention deficit disorder and autism being two of the best known," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, associate professor of family and community medicine in the School of Medicine and head of the research team conducting the study, which gets under way April 1.

Part of the reason the National Institute of Mental Health funded this project is that we know and understand so little about how (self-control) develops. If we can understand it in garden-variety children, it will help us understand how these other children get off the path."

The development that takes place in children between the ages of 3 and 6 is "dramatic," Espy said.

They move from being impulsive, in-the-moment kids who can't wait for anything - they'd rather have five lollipops NOW than 10 in a week - to children who can sit in a classroom, who can get their needs met through speaking, who can follow complex directions. The scientific label for this is 'executive control,' because they, like executives, can manage or guide their behavior purposefully to achieve a goal."

Espy's project ultimately will involve some 400 youngsters from all over the region. Half of them will undergo monitoring at nine-month intervals from their third birthdays until their sixth. A smaller group of 40 to 50 will be added at each nine-month interval with regular observation periods continuing until their sixth birthdays.

We wanted to have groups coming in at staggered periods in order to separate how much of the result is due to development and how much is due to having done the tasks over and over again," Espy said.

Young children may not remember much from one trip to the next, but you don't know - that's why we have set up the study in this manner."

Researchers will watch the children perform three sets of three "tasks," each aimed at measuring such functions as memory and inhibition. In one such task, for example, children have nine chances to search for treats hidden under cups; the better they remember where they searched previously, the more treats they can find - and eat.

We tried to make the tasks fun and exciting, and the children really seem to love these interactive games," Espy said.

While children are taking the hour-long battery in Espy's lab, their parents will huddle with members of Espy's research team, answering questions about the kids' actions and behavior at home and at school.

Parents can see those everyday things that don't show up in the laboratory," Espy said.

We'll also videotape each session so we can see, for example, how many times the children get out of their seats, don't pay attention to the task at hand and so forth."

Earlier work in Arizona with toddlers exposed prenatally to cocaine sparked Espy's interest in how children develop self-control.

"From that, I realized we didn't have an adequate understanding of this process in everyday children," she said.

Since I've come to SIUC, I've done some cross-sectional work - taking children of different ages and testing them once - but that only gives a snapshot at an age. It doesn't tell you how children develop on their own trajectory."

Neuropsychologist Paul M. Kaufmann, currently working on a law degree at SIUC, helped develop some of the task sets, psychologist David J. Francis from the University of Houston will assist with data analysis at the end of the three-year testing period, and a host of specially hired staff will conduct the individual monitoring sessions.

This kind of study is personnel intensive," Espy said. "Most of the project's costs are for staff."

Espy, who is currently heading another five-year federal study on the effects of prenatal nicotine exposure on child development, said she is particularly looking forward to this one.

Preschoolers are fun to work with," said Espy, herself a mother. "They're spontaneous, they try their best, and they say funny things. It's my favorite age."

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