Professor, Cognitive Development in Children
Department of Psychological Sciences
My primary research focus is to better understand the processes underlying cognitive development in preschoolers and school-aged children. Specifically, I am interested in cognitive, metacognitive, affective, and motivational factors that impact academic achievement. Much of my research has focused on individual differences in learning. My research has attempted to understand cognitive and academic consequences of learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, language disabilities, and reading disabilities. More recently, collaborative work has focused on the academic, attentional, and behavioral consequences of broncho-pulmonary dysplasia and prenatal cocaine exposure.
My research tends to heavily emphasize the importance of multimodal assessment. By using multiple informants (i. e., parents, teachers, clinicians, & self) and multiple methods (behavioral, standardized tests, informal assessments), I feel I am in a better position to understand the strengths and weaknesses of children and better design interventions. Comprehensive assessment is essential for understanding how to develop compensatory routines and what environmental resources would insure better quality of life for children and their family.
My preschool project (4-7 year olds) has been designed to examine the diagnostic utility of a battery of tasks to differentiate children with autism spectrum disorder, particularly Asperger's, from children with language disorders, with ADHD, and with co-morbid ADHD and language disorders. Assessments that comprise this battery include language, nonverbal intelligence, executive functioning, and play, as well as a variety of questionnaires designed to assess developmental assets, problems, and behavioral symptoms. The comprehensive nature of research protocol should lend itself to better specificity about diagnosis, course of symptoms and what environmental resources would be most beneficial to optimize development. Diagnostic uncertainty in the early developmental periods often leaves practitioners uncertain about which deficits to address first. Behavioral noncompliance may be the result of inattention, failure to understand the linguistic request, or failure to appreciate the pragmatic constraints underlying language. The reasons underlying behavioral noncompliance, social problems, and academic failures must be carefully examined so as to better target behavioral or instruction treatments to the young child's needs. Examining children's behavior across a variety of tasks and settings better enables us to figure out the subtle differences between language impairment, attentional impairments, and social impairments that all lend themselves to behavioral noncompliance and poor school adjustment.
One unique piece of my assessment package is the inclusion of play â€“ an arena in which all children are comfortable. Standardized testing can be threatening to young children and their parents. Separation issues, language demands, and attentional requirements often underestimate the true performance of young children. Play is nonthreatening for young children and their parents. Lots of useful data can be gathered from play, including but not limited to level (functional vs. symbolic), imagination, aggression, language skills, reciprocity, passivity, hyperactivity, and attention. The question becomes, "can you use play as a medium to teach some of the skills to the kids that are having more trouble? " Hopefully through play we will be able to work on some of the problematic social behaviors including lack of reciprocity, impulsivity, and passivity. One of the exciting things about our study is the inclusion of a broad array of measures and a diverse population of children.
The research in my lab can best be thought of as applied experimental research with clinical populations. While it's central focus is on understanding individual differences in social, linguistic, intellectual, and behavioral skills of children with developmental disabilities, I like to thinks we also provide direct services to families in the provision of a detailed report communicating strengths and weaknesses of their child and services they may want to consider to optimize development.
All children with developmental disabilities who have enrolled in our study have been diagnosed by a licensed psychologist or speech pathologist. Referrals are received from community agencies, local hospitals, pediatricians and word of mouth. Some of the standardized measures require language skills. But when children cannot complete this portion of the assessment, we turn immediately to our play task which provides a rich source of diagnostic information. Perhaps the coolest thing about this study, as far as I'm concerned, is that it fills a need in the community. Assessments are really expensive and to be able to provide the clinical data to these families and provide them with a report, and recommendations for clinical services that they need for free is something that families greatly appreciate.
Understanding the role that intelligence, language and social skills plays in the design of effective treatment programs for all children is central to our success. Treatments that are sensitive to the intellectual, social, and linguistic skills of children will be more effective at maximizing skills. Even if a child has intellectual, social, and/or linguistic deficits, capitalizing on the familiarity of the play arena may provide the perfect medium in which to impart new skills. We often evaluate the sophistication of language skills by examining mean length utterance. So too we can evaluate the sophistication of play by looking at mean length of play, reciprocity of play, and imagination in play. Families of children with developmental disabilities are often frustrated and discouraged when clinicians convey the message that their "child is untestable." Everyone is testable, we just need to be more creative and think out of the box in terms of giving parents hope, and setting up structure for children to demonstrate their burgeoning skills.
We contend that children with autism are characterized by a social relatedness deficit, nonetheless some children of these children have a desire for social interactions but their efforts are often in vain. Children can never be captured by a diagnosis. What is typical, what is ADHD, what is Autism? Within every diagnostic group there are huge individual differences. Social relatedness or lack thereof may characterize individuals with autism; nonetheless some children with autism are highly social but ineffective in their social attempts whereas others are completely disinterested.
I'm not sure the diagnostic process makes the most sense the way it currently exists - you either have or you don't. Instead I think it is important to think of children as possessing a variety of skill sets - social skills, intellectual skills, linguistic skills, and attentional skills for example. Using the continuum analogy, if you are highly skilled in all four of these arenas, children will fare well academically and socially. If you fare poorly or are on the low end of the continuum in all four domains, you will need a lot of assistance in life. The interesting and tricky thing is when strengths occur in some of the domains with weaknesses in the others. The challenge to educators, clinicians, and parents is to help children use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. All of us need to recognize when "children can't seem to maximize their potential using the current educational and environmental strategies" and be flexible and creative enough to build in important supports so they can achieve their potential.
B.A. - University of Notre Dame
M.Ed - Boston College
M.A. & Ph.D. - University of Notre Dame