The Cognitive Development Lab focuses on mathematical and language development in young children, and on variations in children’s learning trajectories that relate to their experiences at home and at school.  We are interested in how learning is shaped by variations in the amount and quality of early experiences.  We are also interested in how attitudes about learning and affective factors such as domain anxieties contribute to children’s learning trajectories.  A new area we are pursuing examines early engineering and science learning, and how this can be enhanced by incorporating spatial learning tools in instruction.

Numerical and Spatial Development

We are studying the development of foundational mathematics ideas.  For example, we are interested in how children’s understanding of cardinal number develops, and whether there may be early nonverbal indicators of knowledge that signal children’s readiness to learn. A second example concerns children’s understanding of units of measure, and how this varies depending on whether problems involve discrete units or a continuous ruler.  A third example concerns the development of children’s proportional reasoning, and how this varies depending on whether the proportion is represented as a relation between continuous quantities, as a relation between discrete quantities, or as a relation between a discrete and continuous quantity.  For all of these areas of investigation, we are interested not only in what children know at any particular point in time, but also in what they can learn when given particular kinds of instruction.   

Individual Variations in Mathematical Thinking

We also examine individual variations in the development of early mathematical thinking, including numerical and spatial aspects of math, and how variations in home and school input relate to children’s learning in this domain.  Current research projects investigate the particular aspects of children’s exposure to number talk that are effective in scaffolding numerical thinking, including their understanding of cardinal and ordinal number. Our research on mathematical development also examines the development of spatial thinking, including early geometry, magnitude, and spatial transformations such as mental rotation and cross-sectioning. We also examine individual variations in early spatial thinking and the relation of these variations to earlier exposure to spatial language and spatial activities such as puzzle and block play. In addition, we study the role of socio-emotional and attitudinal factors in children’s math learning, including math anxiety, beliefs about the malleability of math skills, and  stereotypes of parents and teachers and children themselves.

Language and Cognitive Development

The Cognitive Development Lab also studies the effects of parent-child language interactions on the language and cognitive development of typically developing children and children who have incurred a pre- or perinatal brain injury.  While much of the existing literature on children with brain injury has examined the relation of biological characteristics of children’s lesions to variations in their language development, our work examines the joint effects of these biological factors and the quality of input children receive in their home environment on language learning trajectories. Our findings show that for children who are biologically compromised by an early injury to the brain, strong input can be even more predictive than is the case for typically developing children. By continuing to study how children with early brain injury use of language for higher order thinking as they enter middle school and early high school, we will examine the extent to which early functional plasticity extends to the more complex aspects of language that are critical for school success.