Social influences on children’s persistence and learning

Julia Leonard


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Date: January 16, 2019


Children’s persistence in the face of challenge is central to learning. But how do young children learn when and how to deploy effort? This talk explores the various social factors that impact young children’s persistence and learning across two timescales, demonstrating that 1) social evidence influences children’s moment-to-moment effortful behavior and 2) children’s long-term social environment shapes their brain development and capacity to learn. First, I demonstrate that 15-month-olds can generalize the value of persistence from watching how hard an adult tries to reach a goal. Next, I show that young children not only integrate information about adults’ actions, but also about their outcomes (success or failure) and testimony, to decide how hard to try on a novel task. Children persist the longest when adults practice what they preach: saying they value effort in conjunction with demonstrating effortful success on their own task. In another line of work, I examine how children’s long-term social environment, specifically socioeconomic-status (SES), relates to the neural systems involved in learning. I show that SES has a selective impact on memory, relating to hippocampal-prefrontal declarative memory, but not striatal-dependent procedural memory. I also demonstrate that the neural correlates of fluid reasoning differ by SES, suggesting that positive brain development varies by early life environment. Collectively, this work elucidates both the malleable social factors that positively impact children’s persistence and the unique neural and cognitive adaptations that children develop in response to adverse environments. I will end with a discussion of future directions, including an effort to quantify and explain within and between subject day-to-day fluctuations in persistent behavior.

Created: Thursday, January 17th, 2019