The SPARK Lab

School Transition and Readiness (STAR) Project in Rural Pakistan

An estimated 88 million young children worldwide drop out before completing primary school, resulting in serious repercussions for children’s development and for societies. In Pakistan, only 57% of girls and 74% of boys are enrolled in primary school. Almost half of all children who enter preschool will not make it to first grade. With Dr. Aisha Yousafzai and the research team at Aga Khan University, in Karachi, Pakistan, we are investigating whether an early cognitive stimulation and responsive parenting intervention, either alone or in combination with a nutrition intervention, has an effect on school readiness of highly disadvantaged children in rural Pakistan. This study includes a sample of 1489 infants who at birth were enrolled in a cluster randomized control trial. The follow-up assessment is currently being conducted at age 4 and focuses primarily on children’s executive functioning, school readiness skills, stress physiology, and brain development. In addition, we are conducting community-level assessments to identify global barriers to school enrollment. Our goal is to identify processes that can improve Pakistani children’s chances of school success. This study is funded by a grant from the Grand Challenges Canada (GCC) Saving Brains Initiative.

Promoting Learning, Understanding Self-Regulation (PLUS) Project

The basic self-regulatory skills known as executive functions (EFs) have substantial implications for school success. Students’ ability to focus attention, ignore distractions, and control their behavior has been linked to both school readiness and subsequent academic achievement. Moreover, these skills are malleable and can be improved. Yet, we know very little about how classroom context affects development of EFs in children beyond kindergarten. The aim of this study is to identify how specific aspects of the elementary school classroom context relate to changes in EF skills across an academic school year. We are currently developing new mobile protocols that will allow us to measure EF skills and biological sensitivity in a regular classroom, capturing concurrent data on all children, as well as new measurement scales that capture classroom level processes affecting students’ EF skills. This work is funded by a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.

Reactivity and Self-Regulation in Kindergarten Children

Although many children experience various challenges and stressors in their daily lives, not all are affected the same way. Recent studies show that differences in children’s biological reactivity can play an important role in determining the effects of social and family adversity on children’s adaptation. Moreover, children’s capacities to self-regulate their own attention, behavior, and emotions can help them further cope with challenges. This study seeks to extend our understanding of how the interplay between children’s biological reactivity and self-regulation predicts school readiness and general adaptation during the important developmental transition to kindergarten. Moreover, we are investigating the role of parents in shaping the development of children’s biological and behavioral reactivity and regulation. We are examining these questions in children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in order to help educators and policymakers design programs to improve the school success of disadvantaged children. This study was supported by a grant from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Family, Culture, and Cognition in Immigrant Students

One out of five children in the U.S. are immigrants or live in immigrant families. Unique stressors related to the healthy adaptation of immigrants include negotiating multiple social identities and cultural practices, experiencing racial discrimination, and navigating family cultural conflict. For example, competing cultural practices and values may be related to increased stress and mental health problems among immigrant Asians. We are working with Dr. Janxin Leu and Dr. Keith Burt to examine how cultural stressors and family context influence stress physiology and well-being of first and second generation immigrant students. This study was funded by a grant from the Jacobs Foundation.

OTHER ACTIVE COLLABORATIONS

Gene Expression Collaborative in Kids Only (GECKO)
Dr. Tom Boyce (University of British Columbia) and colleagues

Peers and Wellness Study (PAWS)
Dr. Tom Boyce, Dr. Nancy Adler (UCSF), Dr. Nicole Bush (UCSF), Dr. Julianna Deardorff (UC-Berkeley) and colleagues

Athena Studies of Resilient Adaptation (AStRA)
Dr. Frosso Motti-Stefanidi (University of Athens), Dr. Jennifer Lloyd (University of British Columbia) and colleagues

AFFILIATIONS

Developmental and Psychological Sciences
Stanford Graduate School of Education

William T. Grant Scholars Program
William T. Grant Foundation

Experience-based Brain and Biological Development Program
Canadian Institute for Advanced Research

Human Early Learning Partnership
University of British Columbia

Institute of Child Development
University of Minnesota