UH Cognitive Development Lab Investigating How Babies, Children Learn

Parents will employ a host of techniques as they try to communicate with and teach their babies. They may make facial expressions, overly enunciate, or use certain hand gestures to offer basic instruction to infants.

At the University of Houston's Cognitive Development Lab, researchers are observing such parent-child interactions to discover how exactly babies and adults learn.

Directed by Hanako Yoshida, UH assistant professor of psychology, the lab focuses on the learning processes of babies, as well as children between the ages of 2 and 7.

One of the recent studies being conducted at the lab is one that examines what babies are looking at during interactions with parents. Placing headbands with tiny cameras attached to them on babies' heads, Yoshida and researchers can get a glimpse of the kinds of things that occupy their view.

Through this head-camera study, Yoshida is noticing a trend in what babies see when they are communicating with parents.

"Hands occupy their view," she said. "Many people think that babies are looking at facial cues, and we were also expecting parent's face to be captured much more often. We're observing, however, that babies are looking at hands, their own hands and their parents' hands. It makes sense. The eyes and face don't make things happen for a baby, but hands do. Hands give them food and toys, and hands pick them up. Babies may equate hands with action."

Along with the study of children's early visual field, the Cognitive Development Lab's research uses language learning context to understand early cognition.

"We do this because language is linked to cognitive development," Yoshida said. "When language is introduced at an early age, it affects how children think and view the world. We're basically using language to foster our understanding of how human knowledge emerges."

Other lab projects include studying the cognitive task performances of children who are monolingual, bilingual or deaf, as well as children with autism. The lab also compares cognitive task performances of immigrant and non-immigrant bilingual children. Bilingual subjects are fluent in English and either Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese or American Sign Language.

One of these studies is focused on a series of simple, game-like exercises in which children first match images of shapes. Administered by Yoshida's research assistants, the exercise features two open boxes with pictures (cartoon images of boats and bunnies) inside. The administrator will hold up one picture after another asking the children to match them with the images in the boxes.  After focusing on shapes, the children are then asked to match pictures according to color. The goal of this exercise is to understand how children are able to shift their attentions from one dimension to another.

"Bilingual children tend to do well with this exercise," said research assistant and graduate psychology doctoral candidate Crystal Tran. "Since they attend to two different languages, deciding which to use for specific contexts, they naturally train and control their attentions effectively."

Another exercise focuses on two puppets: a bear and a dragon. Using a format similar to "Simon Says," children are asked to take directions from the bear, but not the dragon. Children are asked by both puppets to perform simple tasks such as touching their heads or clapping their hands.

"From this exercise, we can understand children's sense of self-control," Tran said. "When instructions are given, the children must inhibit their urge to listen to the dragon."

In addition to testing child subjects in the UH lab, Tran ventures to pre-schools in Vietnam, while another research assistant travels to Argentina to focus on cultural variants that might impact children's early cognitive development.

Part of UH's noted psychology department, the Cognitive Development Lab strives to create a fun environment for participants and their parents. Likewise, it functions as an effective training ground for student researchers mentored by Yoshida  and developmental cognitive neuroscientist Poorna Kushalnagar, who collaborates on research projects related to deaf children's early sign language communication, bimodal-bilingualism and attention control.

Among the local organizations that have collaborated with and supported the lab are The Children's Museum of Houston, Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library, the Houston Community College Child Development Lab School, Montessori School of Downtown and Sugar Creek Baptist Church Preschool. The lab also has worked with a number of schools in Argentina, Japan, Vietnam and Colombia, as well as the Texas School for the Deaf.

To learn more about the Cognitive Development Lab or to volunteer for upcoming studies, visit http://www.class.uh.edu/psyc/cogdev/.