During their first year of life, human infants undergo dramatic transformations across all systems of the body, including cognitive, perceptual, and motor systems. Changes in these abilities completely reorganize infants’ relationships with their physical and social worlds. Infants explore their world by paying attention to what is around them, by switching their attention from one task to another, and by figuring out new solutions to problems that they face (like how to retrieve a toy from around a barrier or get themselves across the room before they can walk). The moment-to-moment details of those processes are now considered the heart of cognition, both in infants and adults (e.g., Spencer, Thomas & McClelland, 2009; Thelen & Smith, 1994). According to this conceptualization, called Dynamic Systems Theory (DST), cognition is perceiving, exploring and remembering, and it is through these processes that we make contact with the world and all within it (e.g., Samuelson & Smith, 2000). Understanding in detail how infants deploy their attention, explore a new object or space, and how they interact with their caregivers will help us understand how infants integrate their developing perceptual motor abilities with their decisions to act in the world.
My current research explores these processes in infants across a wide range of socio-economic statuses (SES). Links between poverty and low academic achievement are well-established. In particular, Children in poverty show specific deficits in executive function (EF), which is a combination of attention, cognitive flexibility and problem-solving. But we don’t know how early these problems begin, since most studies start testing children when they get to school (at 5 years of age). The studies on infants have focused on more global measures, rather than the details of EF. So my research tracks infants across the first year of life to determine whether low SES infants show deficits in these areas.
Exploring these components in detail in infants in poverty may provide a deeper understanding of the process by which poverty impacts developing cognition. This may aid teachers and caregivers in predicting which infants are more likely to have later difficulties with attention, academic learning, or social development. In addition, identifying children early in their development increases the chances of effective intervention.