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Self-regulation and cognitive development of infants facing poverty

Final Report Summary - SRCD-IP (Self-regulation and cognitive development of infants facing poverty)

Children raised in families experiencing poverty face significant adversity early in life that puts them at much greater risk of developing learning difficulties. This project investigated how infant-parent interactions in early infancy are related to later cognitive and language development at 11 and 24 months of age in families with high and low socio-economic status (SES). In particular, we studied how infant’s emerging abilities to regulate own attention and behaviour can attenuate the effects of early socio-economic adversity. The potential societal implications of the project are significant as it may inform social policy on best strategies to tackle socio-economic disparities and improving the long-term developmental and scholastic outcomes of children experiencing poverty.
One hundred and twenty infants from families with high and low SES were being followed up from the age of 5 months through to 24 months using a range of measures of cognitive, social and emotional development using methods that study behaviour (infant-parent interactions, eye-tracking of attention, cognitive control, social cognition) and brain actiity (neuroimaging with electro-encephalography, EEG). Pilot phase involved testing of 30 infant participants, which has also lead to the development of a new coding scheme for analysing infant-parent interactions.
While not all final analyses of the data have been already concluded, the project has yielded several important findings. One is related to the effects of chaotic home environment on infant ability to process visual information at the age of 5 months. In a task measuring processing speed we found that infants from household with higher chaos (noise, crowdiness, disorder) are slower to process difficult, but not simple stimuli. This result may suggest that physical home environment begins to affect infant cognitive resources from very early age. Another important result is related to the role of infant-parent mutual play during the first months of life. We have demonstrated that the duration of mutual gaze between the infant and the mother during their free play at 5 months of age is highly associated with later attention control skills. More mutual gaze was related to faster ability to withdraw attention and shift it onwards.

Apart from scientific achievements, the project has lead helped to greatly develop infant psychological research in Poland. As the first goal the Researcher has established at the Host Institution a new facility – infancy research laboratory (BabylabUW) with state of the art equipment for investigating neurocognitive development of very young children. This laboratory is used exclusively by the new research group established and led by the Researcher, also thanks to the Marie Curie Project. Establishment of the laboratory itself is a major achievement: it is the only infancy research laboratory in Poland and one of a few in Central and Eastern Europe. The Researcher and his team have created a number of training opportunities for Polish scientists with a focus on infant psychological research methods. It has a considerable impact on the discipline in Poland – research groups from other institutions in the country have been encouraged to commence infancy studies, while one has already secured external funding for it. This project has also lead to further grant applications and allowed to develop more large-scale research projects on infant brain and cognitive development (altogether the Researcher and the Research Assistant have secured 5 national grants and 1 European grant). One of the new project is a participation as a Beneficiary in a Marie Curie Early Training Network from Horizon2020.
The project also helped the Researcher to advance his major career goals by allowing him to obtain his Doctor Habilitatus degree, thus meeting all University of Warsaw requirements to secure a permanent position. The project has facilitated staff training and development. Another major achievement is the successful completion and defense of a doctoral thesis by the project Research Assistant (the Researcher served as a co-supervisor of her work thus obtaining training in doctoral student supervision).

One of the goals of the project was also to work towards developing applied research projects that use new technologies for screening of infants at risk. While the institutional environment in public health sector has not been favourable, a number of activities were undertaken to engage and consult different professional groups in this regard (clinicials, therapists, pediatricians, social workers, etc.). This involved organising different outreach activities: public talks, training with professionals in different institutions, and most importantly, a symposium with international invited speakers, attended by an audience of over 200. It was also focused on cooperating with technology developers in the country (both public research institutions and start-ups) to develop and test the feasibility of new technologies assisting early screening and intervention for young children with first feasibility studies already completed.

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