Growing Up Global

Early-childhood experiences can prove to have life-long impact on the direction our lives take.

Research by Theodore Waters and Antje von Suchodoletz, both assistant professors of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi, seeks to determine similarities and differences related to childhood development across cultures.

Waters studies how the bonds we form with caregivers shape the way we come to understand ourselves, our relationships, and the world. “Some children learn that they can trust their caregivers, while others learn that they can’t rely on their caregivers all the time,” Waters said. “I’m trying to figure out what determines the quality of the bond between child and caregiver, how that early trust relationship is built, and how it cascades forward to affect people later in life.”

Waters’ research, and the work of others in the field, argues that there are far-reaching implications for how these early relationships shape an individual and place him or her on a particular developmental trajectory. For example, the way in which an individual cares for his or her own children, and builds that caregiver-child bond, is correlated with the way the individual was raised. These formative experiences extend to other relationships we build as well: “If you’re married, or in a long-term relationship, is the quality of that trust relationship related to how you related to your caregiver early in life?” Waters thinks so.

I’m trying to figure out what determines the quality of the bond between child and caregiver … and how it cascades forward to affect people later in life.

Theodore Waters

Von Suchodoletz is also interested in the contexts in which children develop, particularly in the the home and at school, and how these contexts interact to impact children’s development. Her research is both qualitative and quantitative, and encompasses observations of children, parents, and teachers, cognitive tasks (such as tests of executive function), behavioral measures, eye-tracking technology, and analyses of the hormone cortisol from saliva and hair.

Von Suchodoletz has conducted research in kindergarten and secondary schools in Abu Dhabi, where she analyzed teacher-child interactions and determined classroom resources and techniques can lead to high-quality learning environments. Through this research, von Suchodoletz found that, overall, children were able to perform better and exhibited less stress — measured by the level of cortisol — when they experienced classroom environments in which the teacher provided a high level of emotional support and structured the day in a predictable manner.

In the very best classrooms, von Suchodoletz noted, “there was a back and forth exchange between teacher and student, and the teacher was not focused on the students’ getting one right answer, but allowed the students to elaborate on their thought processes.”

In addition to the research von Suchodoletz is conducting in the UAE, she has also worked in various other countries, including Germany, Finland, Kosovo, Ukraine, India, and Jordan, while Waters has conducted research in Europe and China. Both are doing comparative work that seeks to determine similarities and differences in child-caregiver relationships across cultures.

Though there is much to gain by analyzing these early-childhood experiences in different parts of the globe, there are obstacles as well.

“If you want to include different cultures in one study, you are challenged by using exactly the same measures across cultures,” von Suchodoletz said.

Most measurements that are common in the discipline have been developed based on Western theories, she explained, and these measurements might not accurately reflect what is happening in non-Western cultural contexts. “So in drawing any conclusions about cross-cultural similarities or differences, one has to be very careful about what measures are being used and how the results are interpreted,” von Suchodoletz said.

That being said, conducting these studies in different cultures allows researchers to ask questions that they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, as this kind of research “helps us disentangle what is universal and what is context specific related to learning and development,” she noted.

For Waters’ project in China, he and collaborators from NYU New York and NYU Shanghai are studying the relationships between over 200 children and their mothers. In this investigation, they hope to learn how the manner in which mothers play with their children can predict the level of attachment years from now.

“My goal with my research in China is not to show that all parents behave the same way, but rather that the developmental process by which a child learns to trust, or not trust, their caregiver according to the way the caregiver treats them is culturally universal,” Waters said.