CEHD Interview with Professor Stephanie M. Carlson, ICD

2/16/2009

How does your work connect with the public good?

Through Teaching...

I teach cognitive development for graduate and undergraduate students. In particular, I teach about the development of executive function, which refers to the development of self control and both the brain and behavioral aspects of that in young children. I think it is helpful for students to be well versed in the cognitive milestones, to have better understanding and awareness of what children are capable of doing cognitively and when. I hope to inspire an interest in pursuing research and clinical work, to inspire a passion for going deeper to uncover things we still do not know about child development. This is a relatively young science, and it is important to bring new people into the field who are able to pursue these research questions for a long time to come. Our students are stakeholders in children’s lives in so many ways that they may not even realize. Whether they become parents or relate to children through other professions, there is a public benefit because it affects the lives of children.

Through Research...

My students and I study how self-control develops and how changes in executive functioning relate to other aspects of cognitive and social development. One of my goals has been to establish the relation between self-control and the ability to take someone else’s perspective. Understanding how these major changes link with one another could be really helpful for parents to understand, and to see that these are not isolated skills that happen to coincide, but that they are quite deeply linked. It gives parents and teachers more flexibility in helping children through developmental stages. The other area of my research is on the development of pretend play and imagination. We are beginning to document the incidence of different types of imagination in childhood; pretend play in toddlers and then more sophisticated forms of pretend play in preschool such as having an imaginary companion or engaging in impersonation role play, and then how children construct stories and imaginary worlds when they are older. We think about that as a lifespan cognitive skill, about the continuity of the imaginative capacity that changes form with age. Just documenting the incidence and establishing how common it is for children to have imaginary companions has changed people’s attitudes about it, because previously it caused concern among parents and teachers.

Through Intervention...

I am collaborating with Ann Masten and Phil Zelazo to do a training study with children who live in homeless shelters in Minneapolis, in order to have a better understanding of self-control skills and how to intervene in that development. I am a basic researcher, rather than applied, so sometimes the translation to the public good can be difficult to make, but certainly the inspiration for doing the research comes from situations like autism, in which there is a constellation of deficits that mirrors the aspects of typical development that I study. The eventual goal is to develop interventions based on what we have found. If that research foundation is really strong, we can be much more responsible in the recommendations we make for clinicians and educators. I would love to see some of these principles be implemented in the form of training or interventions, preschool curricula, or in clinical therapy with children.