Yee Lee Shing is a developmental psychologist interested in understanding how the human mind develops across the lifespan. With the notion that human development is embedded within environments and shaped by individuals’ experiences, one of her research foci aims at unraveling the mechanisms through which environmental factors, such as formal school entry and stress-related social disadvantages, impact children’s cognitive and brain development. She makes use of both neuroimaging (e.g., structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging) and multivariate developmental methodology (e.g., structural equation and latent growth curve modeling) to investigate the unfolding of brain–behavior relationships across time.
My plans for the fellowship period
Entering formal schooling is a major transition in almost every child’s life. My recent work showed that, due to increased demands on sustained attention of the school environment, one year of being in the first-grade leads to quite specific changes in children, namely improved cognitive control (i.e. the ability to orchestrate thought and action in accordance with internal goals), as well as an increase in the activation of right posterior parietal cortex, a brain region important for sustained attention. During the fellowship period, I will tackle the questions of whether there are antecedents and consequences to such schooling-specific neurocognitive changes, for example in predicting academic outcomes over time. Together with my collaborators in Scotland, we will initiate a longitudinal study that assesses brain functions, cognitive abilities, and academic performance in a sample of children similar in age but different in year of school entrance. In Scotland, parents of children born in January and February can choose to defer their child’s entry and these requests are automatically approved. The unique setting of comparing children who enter school to those who stay in kindergarten but enter school one year later allows us to assess their schooling-specific brain and cognitive changes across time.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
My work contributes to a better understanding of fundamental brain and cognitive changes that happen during the important transition of preschool to formal schooling. Such changes can be conceived of as individual markers of adaptation when children immerse into the structured learning environment of schools. The outcome of this research is that, if successful, we will have clear markers of school adaptation, which are based on longitudinal, intra-individual changes on neurobiological measurements that are easy to collect using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. The markers are potentially related to future academic attainment, and may be predicted by pre-existing differences of the child. With this knowledge, we open up the possibility to make individual-based informed decision on entry of schooling using the identified predictors, and to adapt the nature of classroom lessons based on person-specific neural markers of adaptation. This endeavour can potentially impact school-entry policies and early classroom practices. By this, it helps to promote equal opportunity at the school-entry level and ultimately reduces educational disparity.