Infant Cognition Research Includes Program for Incarcerated Terms

October 23, 2013 – Teen fathers in California and Ohio prisons are learning how to improve their relationships with their infants, thanks to a program created by Georgetown psychology professor Rachel Barr and Carole Shauffer at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

The Baby Elmo Program, which helps incarcerated teen dads form meaningful bonds with their offspring, is only one of a wide variety research projects led by Barr, a renowned expert on infant cognition who directs Georgetown’s Early Learning Project.

Noting that the absence of a father figure is linked to poor development outcomes, Barr and Shauffer train personnel to carry out the program at five different juvenile justice facilities in California and one in Ohio. Another will soon begin in Connecticut.

Increasing Interaction Quality

The program uses a Sesame Street character, Baby Elmo, to create a parenting and structured visitation program.

“What we find is a systematic and statistically significant increase in the qualities of the interaction of the parent with the child across time,” Barr explains.

The program comprises 10 staff-directed training sessions and 10 parent-child visits. The sessions focus on the teen father establishing or re-establishing a relationship with his child and cover such concepts as separation anxiety, following the child’s lead, language development, praise, affectionate touch and imitation and play.

Barr and her research team evaluate progress through observation as well as an interview that fathers participate in before and after the completing the sessions.

“It was wonderful to witness how psychological concepts could be used to build a bond between the dads and their very young children,” said Natalie Brito (G’13), who graduated in May with a Ph.D. in psychology from Georgetown. “I think this has had a lasting impact on how I view the utility of interventions with special populations.

Transfer Deficit

I’ve been very interested in how children learn from television, from touchscreens, from books and from computers, because they have to translate a lot of information that’s coming in and process it and then retrieve it out in the real world."

Rachel Barr, Psychology Professor

Barr also researches the influence of bilingualism on memory, imitation as a learning mechanism, how babies learn from older siblings and a host of other subjects involving children under the age of two.

“My research focus is on children and learning and memory and in particular how children pick up information from different sources,” says Barr, who first came to Georgetown in 2001. “So over the past 10 years, I’ve been very interested in how children learn from television, from touchscreens, from books and from computers, because they have to translate a lot of information that’s coming in and process it and then retrieve it out in the real world.”

She says there is sometimes a “transfer deficit” between what babies learn from TV or a computer and reality.

Her research has shown that parents can decrease the deficit by simply talking to their children while they watch TV or use a touchscreen and increase it by having them do most things by themselves.

Encouraging Scholarship

In the 12 years she’s been at Georgetown, supported by funding from the American Psychological Association, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other sources, she’s published more than 50 papers in scholarly journals, book and encyclopedia chapters.

She also has published a total of 23 journal articles as well as a couple of book chapters with graduate and undergraduate students.

“Rachel really invests a lot of time with the undergraduates in her lab and tries to make sure that they get a full research lab experience – from helping with recruitment, to coding, to manuscript submission and conference presentation,” says Brito, now a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society at Columbia university. “Almost all of her undergraduates get some recognition of their work, either as an author on a manuscript or conference presentation.”

She says Barr, who has two young children, also showed her it is possible to have both a successful academic career and a good work/life balance.

“Before coming to Georgetown I had my doubts that a woman could have an ambitious research career and still have time to have a family,” Brito explains, “but Rachel has demonstrated this again and again over the past five years and this has motivated me to not be afraid to pursue both.”

Bilingual Babies

One of Barr’s most recent research papers with Brito is on bilingual babies.

“Our argument was that the brain is diverging probably really early on in babies who are bilingual,” Barr says. “So we started doing these studies, and one of the most recent studies, with 1 ½-year-olds, we showed that the bilinguals really were more flexible.”

The researchers used an imitation test – bringing out a puppet and then coming back half an hour later and showing a different puppet. While the monolingual children had more trouble relating the two puppets, the bilingual babies could easily relate one puppet to another.

“What we think allows the bilingual babies to succeed at these tasks is their ability to abstract out perceptual information more easily, since they have to do this to understand more than one language,” Barr explains.

The Place for Me

[Working in Barr’s lab] has taught me that psychology is the place for me and research is the place for me. It's very comforting to know what I love to do in life already...”

Emily Perkins (C'14)

Brito isn’t the only student who has benefitted from Barr’s mentorship.

Kara (Garrity) Liebeskind (C’08) graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is now working for a Washington nonprofit PlayScience, which creates play and entertainment products designed to have a positive impact on children and their families. Other students are beginning Ph.D. programs or are already working in the field.

Awards her students have received include those from Psi Chi, the National Psychology Honors Society; the Eastern Psychological Society; and the Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Child Psychology Graduate Student Fellowship.

Graduate students are often working with undergraduates in Barr’s lab.

“I came to Georgetown not knowing I wanted to be a psych major,” says Emily Perkins (C’14). “[Working in Barr’s lab] has taught me that psychology is the place for me and research is the place for me. It's very comforting to know what I love to do in life already...”