Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Yee Lee Shing

Goethe University Frankfurt

Research focus
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.

What have I achieved during my fellowship?
During my fellowship, my collaborators and I started a longitudinal study which entailed collecting functional near-infrared spectroscopy data from a cohort of 4.5-year-old children in their homes that are distributed across central Scotland. Our research demonstrated the feasibility of collecting good quality neural data on children in their homes, despite the challenges that home-based testing poses for standardized procedure.

Our results showed that 1) reliable individual differences can be observed in neural activation of the frontal-parietal network that underlie working memory performance; 2) the transition from kindergarten to first grade has a positive effect on the development of working memory and fronto-parietal network functioning. Individual difference in such schooling-specific neurocognitive changes in working memory is positively associated with longitudinal gain in vocabulary; 3) children who transition to first grade, compared to their age peers who remain in the kindergarten, show a stronger neural signal after conducting errors in a speeded, inhibitory control task. Taken together, the school environment is important in shaping the development of brain functions underlying the monitoring of one own’s performance. Such schooling-specific neurocognitive changes may indicate how adaptive children are in adjusting to the formal schooling environment during the transition to first grade.

My plans for the future
As the next step, I want to work closely with teachers in classrooms to delineate the specific aspects of schooling experience that drives neurocognitive development in executive functioning, particularly performance monitoring and working memory. What is still unclear is, to what extent, these schooling-specific neurocognitive changes predict future academic achievement. In addition, do children who start with better performance on these specific neurocognitive processes in the beginning of first grade also gain more over time with schooling? Answering this question would have implications on the issue of school readiness, specifically whether children should start school when they reach a particular chronological age or whether school entry should be adaptive based on certain characteristics of the child. Therefore, in the future I aim to initiate a multi-site longitudinal study that incorporates rich behavioral and neuroimaging measurements on individual children, together with characterization of their classroom experiences and longitudinal follow ups that incorporate academic achievement.