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Summary of the Institute's Activities and Mission.

The Institute for the Study of Child Development has as its goals:

  1. Research designed to understand the processes leading to healthy children
  2. Translation of research findings into useful products and services
  3. Education

 


 

Research

Health of children and families involves their emotional, social, and psychological functioning, as well as their physical/medical well being. For a complete understanding of children’s health, research is necessary at all levels of functioning, from the molecular processes underlying behavior to the behavior of the whole child. In addition to understanding the different levels of functioning, it was deemed important to measure the environmental context in which the child is raised. Indeed, to understand development at any level of functioning, from the molecular to the whole child, understanding the role of environment is critical to understanding the developmental process itself. The understanding of the environmental context in which the child is raised involves for the Institute not only the measurement of the social environment, but also the physical environment, including environmental toxins. Ultimately, it is the underlying belief that the study of children’s development will lead to innovative intervention strategies that will benefit children in their everyday lives.

In order to accomplish the research goals of the Institute, studies necessarily must include multiple levels of analysis. These levels range from characterizing the environment, whether it be the physical environment of toxins or the social environment of caregivers, to studying the relation between brain and behavior using brain-imaging technology. Our current research work includes studies of behavioral teratology, as well as studies of the long-term effects of drugs and other toxic exposures during pregnancy. It includes identifying factors that affect the behavioral and physiological reaction to stress and the capacity to cope with stress, including measures of the autonomic nervous system, such as heart rate and heart variability, as well as the study of children’s adrenal cortical functioning. Research also includes the impact of deviant caregiving and traumatic events, such as maltreatment or sexual abuse, that occur in the child’s life, and how these experiences affect the development of the child’s emotions and cognitions and, therefore, mental health, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

In addition, the Institute studies the emergence of consciousness - the development of the mental representation that the child comes to have about itself - and the ability to utilize that knowledge in forming social relationships. Moreover, through the study of the emergence of consciousness, something that occurs in the middle of the second year of life, studies concerning the emergence of such pro-social behaviors as empathy and cooperation are undertaken. Finally, studies at the Institute involve both normal and deviant cognitive, social, and emotional development; studies with autistic children; studies with children with known disabilities such as Down Syndrome and Autism. Studies also seek to understand the sequelae associated with premature birth and how prematurity, a biological condition of the child, interacts with environmental risk in affecting children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. The Institute’s work also has focused on emotional regulation and inhibitory control, two processes that have serious impact on the child’s social and emotional development, as well as on its peer relationships and school performance.

Clinical Translational Activities

The creation of several clinics represents the translational aspects of the Institute, the attempt to translate research results into clinically useful products and services. Our clinical service activities include a Gifted Child Clinic and a Neurodevelopmental Clinic, in addition to a Childhood Aggression Mentoring Project.

Gifted Child Clinic

The Gifted Child Clinic was established in the belief that gifted children have special needs that society does not always recognize. While society must have compassion to study children with developmental problems, it also must possess the foresight to find ways to characterize and identify those children who, as adults, might be capable of making substantial contributions to the general good. The early identification of such children gives parents and educators maximum opportunity to nurture special talents through appropriate home or educational intervention programs.

The Gifted Child Clinic was established in 1984 in order to meet the need for identifying gifted toddlers and preschool children. Over the years, it has evolved into a clinic that serves as an evaluation center for the purpose of identifying gifted children of all ages, gifted/learning disabled children, and gifted underachievers. It also serves as an educational center and referral source for parents, pediatricians, psychologists, and educators, providing information, lectures, and special seminars on issues related to the identification and development of gifted children, and in an advisory capacity to private schools, public school districts, and the State of New Jersey Department of Education. Finally, it serves as a model program for other clinics around the country. Referrals are made on the basis of parental or professional beliefs regarding a child’s abilities and skill levels. Children’s cognitive abilities are evaluated using a specific skills approach to giftedness. Their pre-academic skills and academic achievement levels also are evaluated in terms of age and grade levels. A feedback session is held for the parents of each child in which background information is gathered, the purpose and structure of standardized tests is explained, the particular tests that were used to evaluate the child are explained in detail, the results of the child’s testing is reported, and the meaning of the results is explained. Parents also receive an extensive written report of their child’s evaluation. In the case of a gifted child, relevant articles regarding parenting; social, emotional, cognitive, and educational issues of gifted children; and a referral list that we have compiled of local, state, and national programs, schools, and referral sources also are included.

Neurodevelopmental Clinic

Pediatric patients suffering from diseases and/or treatments potentially harmful to the central nervous system, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, cancer, brain tumors, hematological disorders, sickle-cell disease related strokes, radiation treatment, neurotoxic chemotherapies, and neurosurgery, are evaluated in the Neurodevelopmental Clinic for a variety of functional deficits. A test battery assesses verbal and spatial abilities, memory, language fluency, word finding skills, vocabulary, comprehension, perceptual-motor ability, sequential analysis, symbolic processing, emotional expression, and achievement levels in reading, spelling, and arithmetic. Parent questionnaires are included to provide information about the child's behavioral style and home environment. The testing schedule and battery are designed to detect changes over time in specific cognitive functions that could aid in formulating educational and rehabilitative plans, as well as to provide feedback to physicians about the impact of therapeutic interventions. Outpatient psychotherapy services also are provided to the patents of the pediatric hematology-oncology clinic of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and their families.

Childhood Aggression Mentoring Project

The Childhood Aggression Mentoring Project is a big brother/sister clinic. This program was designed to prevent aggressive behavior and to promote adjustment in five- to eight-year-old children who are identified by their teachers as being overtly aggressive. Adults are trained to teach the children problem solving skills and self-control. They encourage the children to generate nonaggressive solutions to problems and conflict situations. The program provides an opportunity for children to develop good relationships with a consistent, competent adult. This helps them build self-esteem and improve their own abilities for coping with situations usually leading to aggressive behavior.

These three clinics of the Institute serve not only to put into practice information gained from the research activities, they also are used in order to assess the effectiveness of these clinical activities and to provide research opportunities for intervention.

Education

The Institute provides training for graduate students in clinical and developmental psychology, as well as in other fields of developmental science, including anthropology and education. It also offers research opportunities for Pediatric, Psychiatry, and Radiology residents and fellows. Graduate seminars are conducted for students pursuing a dissertation within the Institute, covering such topics as research design, philosophy of science, and the current areas of controversy in such fields as developmental psychopathology, mental health, and family interactions.

Work and study opportunities for medical students considering a specialty in Pediatrics also are available at the Institute. The program is sponsored either through UMDNJ’s research office or the Department of Pediatrics. Students traditionally work for eight weeks on research projects in progress at the Institute and complete a formal abstract of their research, which subsequently is published or presented at a research conference. The students have the opportunity to observe and study children in a laboratory setting, and they are exposed to data collection and analytic techniques.

In addition to weekly research project meetings and teaching seminars, the Institute provides seminars and lectures to the wider psychological, psychiatric, and pediatric communities. A monthly colloquium series presents speakers on such topics as affect development in children of depressed parents, lead exposure, sexual abuse, childhood obesity, neurodevelopment in HIV-infected children, and MRI studies of brain and behavior. Colloquium presentations by the entire Institute faculty are an integral part of the Institute’s activities, and many colloquia and Grand Round presentations occur in the local community, in the nation, and to international audiences. In addition, the Institute faculty frequently is invited to speak at conferences, academic institutions, and parent advocacy groups. Finally, a monthly Brown Bag research seminar is held where faculty of the Institute, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School , and Rutgers University , are invited to present updates on their research activity.

The Institute, together with the Department of Pediatrics, has cosponsored an annual conference on topics of current interest to allied healthcare professionals providing services to children and their families. Continuing education credits have been available for those attending. The conferences have been jointly funded by UMDNJ, the State of New Jersey Department of Human Services Office for Prevention of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and the Department of Pediatrics. Past conference topics have included: Environment-Illness Interaction; Motor Behavior: Theory to Practice; Developmental Outcomes in the Cocaine-Exposed Infant; Emotional Development of Children with Disabilities; Families’ Risk and Competence; Stress and Soothing; and Origins of Violence.

The three legs of the activities of the Institute - research, clinics, and education and professional training - have resulted in significant activities and products that can be found in the following pages. This includes research grants obtained in the last twenty years, the students and colleagues trained in our educational/professional training activities, and the publications of the Institute and its faculty. It is amazing, in thinking back over these twenty years, the progress we have made. The credit for such progress must be shared not only with the faculty of the Institute, but with the three Deans with whom we have had the pleasure to work: Drs. Richard Reynolds, Normal Edelman, and Harold Paz; as well as to the support and encouragement of the chairs of the Department of Pediatrics: Drs. Lawrence Taft, David Carver, Daniel Notterman and Patricia Whitley-Williams.