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Amanda Murray, Jacqueline Marra, and Suzannah Chatlos.
Amanda Murray, Jacqueline Marra, and Suzannah Chatlos.

Project SPARK Researchers Measure Children's Friendships

by Allison Eck '12

By Allison Eck '12
Posted June 10, 2009
Tags Jean Burr Psychology
In 1973, directors of community actions agencies gathered at a national conference in Kansas City, Mo. They formulated a vision for a program that would investigate school readiness at the regional and state levels. This program became known as Head Start, and is now one of the leading authorities on advocacy for school readiness and education in the country. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), the organization's mission has developed rapidly – it aims to increase health standards and social competence in children growing up in low-income households. 

This summer, Amanda Murray '10, Jacqueline Marra '10, and Suzannah Chatlos '10 hope to discover what factors play into the acquirement of social skills that so many pre-school-aged children lack. Programs such as Head Start maintain that a child's ability to interact and communicate efficiently at an early age is diminished if that child grows up in an unstable, undernourished environment. A kindergarten student with much potential can easily fall through the cracks if her social skills are not equal to the rest of her classmates. 

Murray, Marra, and Chatlos, all psychology majors, are working with Assistant Professor of Psychology Jean Burr on Project SPARK, an effort aimed at scrutinizing friendship quality, or a measure of how well children get along with their peers and how this influences their future. More specifically, they want to look at the use of relational aggression between friends to see if social factors such as these are prerequisites to achievement and comfort in kindergarten. 

Project SPARK originated from a small idea that Burr gave to a few psychology students last year. Marra participated in the project last summer and is back to work on it further. The three students have constructed a procedure that involves contacting local preschools to bring in children for the experiment and reading articles on this area of study. 

They were assigned three rooms: the play room, the control room where they watch the children through a window that acts as a one-way mirror, and a third room where they ask the children questions such as "Do you feel happy when you're with Sally?" or "Do you like to talk to David?" While the children play, the researchers look for indicators of physical aggression (like pinching or kicking) and verbal aggression. However, they are most careful to spot examples of relational aggression, which can consist of spreading rumors or threats. Often a child will pressure a peer into submission by threatening to revoke their friendship. Relational aggression, in short, is "anything that threatens the intimacy of a relationship or [someone's] social standing," said Marra. 

The children come into the unconstrained play room for 10 minutes, and during that time the students have set up a "battery of self-regulation tests" which serve to confirm some of the factors they are looking for. The first is called "Walk the Line," in which the child must walk across a thick line taped to the floor. One of the researchers will then try it and pretend to fall off – they will suggest to the child that the task is too difficult to do that quickly, and maybe they should try it more slowly. This task examines self-regulation because it demonstrates how well a child can control herself when she knows she could perform better or act differently. Other tasks include an M&M task and a train task, which both involve the researcher leaving the room and then observing how thoroughly a child has listened to instructions or requests. 

Following unrestricted play is restricted play. Two children are given a doctor kit and the researchers tell them that only one person can wear the doctor's lab coat and stethoscope, while the other person is the patient. The researchers leave and they begin to notice that three types of aggression are present and perhaps intensified. Chatlos emphasized that the important part of this portion of the experiment is coding for "pro-social behavior" such as sharing. "We kind of want to see the two extremes," said Marra. This allows the researchers to see the dichotomy between a child who displays strong pro-social behavior and one who behaves aggressively. They plan to get in touch with their kindergarten teachers in the fall to see how much of their observations proved true. 

What is unique about this study is its multidimensional aspect: "There are definitely a lot of major articles that look at friendship quality, relational aggression and school adjustment but this is really one of the first that's combining them all together to look at the social aspect of kindergarten readiness" said Chatlos. It also is one of the first to analyze friendship dyads, or close interactions between just two friends rather than a large group.
All three students agree that education in the U. S. focuses too much on intellectual readiness rather than social readiness. Programs like No Child Left Behind center on math and the sciences. 

"So many studies have found that your social adjustment leads to your school adjustment and basically your whole future success," said Chatlos. "Everything is so connected and it carries on so that your competence in first or second grade is going to predict your competence in those areas as an adult." 

All three students plan to go to graduate school for psychology. Chatlos hopes to work for Sesame Street one day, and Marra wants to finish up the graduate school degree that she already started through Northeastern University in applied behavior analysis. In the past she has worked with severely autistic children. Murray came to Hamilton as a physics major until she took Intro. to Psychology, and is working on solidifying her plans for graduate school in development psychology. 

The students also represent a wide range of campus organizations. Murray is a psych stats TA and works for the Interlibrary Loan System; Chatlos is a resident advisor, vice president of the Hamilton College Choir, a member of Tumbling After, and participates in Hogwarts at Hamilton; and Marra is the vice president of the Psychology National Honor Society and the psychology coordinator on campus for Big Brothers Big Sisters. 

The students agree that America's educational system needs to advance its understanding of children and the way see their peers. "I think awareness is a big part of it," Chatlos said. "A lot of preschools aren't aware that this social aspect is so crucial." 

"It's incredibly difficult to catch everything that's going on," said Marra. "If [the teachers] don't know what to look for, they'll miss it." 

--by Allison Eck '12

Related Information
Summer Research at Hamilton

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