Dare Baldwin on the Development of Early Interpersonal Skills
by Ed Morris, Teacher
On May 31, 2000, Professor Dare Baldwin delivered this year’s lecture in the annual Bing Nursery School Distinguished Lecture Series. A nationally renowned researcher in child development, Dr. Baldwin spoke to the Bing community about the development of early interper-sonal skills and their effects on knowledge acquisition. An Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, Dr. Baldwin received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and has since been investigating the mechanisms that affect interpersonal skills. In addition to her accomplishments as a researcher, she is the mother of two children, one of whom currently attends Bing Nursery School.
Dr. Baldwin began by describing the social environment that most children experience. From birth, children are social beings. For example, they have a propensity to imitate facial expressions and look at the eyes when people speak to them. Infants are also emotionally responsive to vocal intonation, and display a distinct enjoyment of games, such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat a cake.” From birth to roughly nine months, social development is characterized by an interpersonal understanding, often termed primary intersubjectivity. During this time babies seek, enjoy, and work to maintain social contact, especially face-to-face engagement.
From approximately nine to twelve months, children begin to participate in new forms of social activity. In this phase of secondary intersubjectivity, babies begin to follow the gaze or pointing gesture of an adult, to show objects to others, and to share in others’ emotions. This phase is also characterized by the comprehension and production of language. Professor Baldwin theorizes that the joint engagement associated with secondary intersubjectivity is crucial for a child’s acquisition of knowledge. To investigate this process, she has been researching the largely unknown area of how children learn words and emotions from adults.
Since children are not born knowing how to speak, they must learn to navigate through the clutter of words they constantly hear. When an adult labels an object, the child has to figure out to which object the word applies. In addition, the child has to grasp the complex time relationships between words and objects, since the adult could be describing an object that is not currently present. The child also confronts a “relevance problem” in which he or she must determine which things in the world are relevant to this new vocabulary. For instance, a child who is asked to “say cheese” for a camera has to figure out that there is no cheese around and that cheese is not even being labeled or described. Another child may pick up a novel object, discard it, and pick up another novel object while the adult who is present labels and describes the first object. Thus, the child hears the correct label for an object she no longer sees, while simultaneously hearing the incorrect label for the object she does see.
It seems that children would be totally confused by this mix-up and would therefore have diffi-culty labeling new objects. Yet, by eighteen months children correctly learn four to ten new words each day—a process that intrigues researchers. Professor Baldwin believes that infants use their understanding of social situations and their joint engagement skills to filter through the discrepancies of labeling and other potentially confusing scenarios. It is thus social understanding that supports language acquisition.
Dr. Baldwin took a closer look at vocabulary acquisition by conducting a study in which infants were exposed to “discrepant labeling” as in the previous example: being shown a new object and then told the name of this object while they focused on a different novel object. Dare Baldwin postulated that the children’s understanding of social cues would help them understand which object the researcher was truly labeling. Indeed, the study’s results support her theory. All the children looked up at the speaker’s face when she was labeling the object (perhaps to check for social cues), and most showed that they did in fact know which object was being labeled. This suggested to Dr. Baldwin that the children were likely using joint engagement skills to learn object names.
To further investigate her findings, Dare Baldwin conducted the same study with two other groups: autistic children, characterized by deficits in abilities to interact socially, and cognitively delayed children with age-appropriate social development skills. When faced with discrepant labeling, the autistic children consistently mislabeled the objects. Yet the cognitively delayed children correctly labeled the objects. The evidence supports Dr. Baldwin’s theory that the development of social skills is crucial to the development of language. Dare Baldwin says future applications of these results may include training autistic children in joint engagement skills in order to help them with vocabulary acquisition.
Dr. Baldwin has also been researching how young children acquire emotive data from adults. She has conducted research similar to the discrepant labeling studies in which the researcher labels an unseen object with an emotional quality (e.g., “that’s yucky”) while the child is playing with a different item. Once again, it appears that those children who have and use their joint engagement skills are not confused by the discrepancy. Essentially, social understanding seems to help with acquiring emotive data as well as language.
Given the strong evidence for the link between interpersonal communication and knowledge acquisition, it is important that we support the growth of these skills in our children. For example, Professor Baldwin emphasized that watching too much television undercuts children’s social engagement. Television can have some educational benefits, but only in moderation; personal interaction is far more important. It is crucial that we talk to, play with, and in general, nurture our children so they can learn and grow to be healthy adults.