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Associate Professor of Psychology Rachel White, right, explains a concept to summer researchers, from left Andrew Harrell '23, Kate Bruno '23, and Paige McKenzie '25.
The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-control, develops rapidly in young children, but that does not mean that self-control develops at a universal rate. The actions children take, and the actions adults take around them, can increase or limit the expression of self-control traits.

This reality created the basis for Associate Professor of Psychology Rachel White’s student summer research projects, which explore how pretend play among children and third-person speech among caregivers affects children’s self-control. The results of both projects have the potential to improve children’s care at school and home.

“A lot of the research I do on self-control is focused on the preschool age range,” White said. “If we are going to create interventions to build children’s skills, we want to do it while the prefrontal cortex is developing the most.”

Kate Bruno ’23

Major: Neuroscience
Hometown: Lexington, Mass.
High School: Lexington High School

Pretend play, despite its carefree connotation, involves many components that build self-control. When children decide that a banana is a telephone, for example, they stimulate symbolic thought, which allows us to think in hypotheticals and foresee the various pathways we can take in a situation. If children play pretend with others, their emotional regulation can improve as well. 

Prior research, mostly in labs, indicates that pretend play improves self-control, but comparatively few psychologists have researched this relation in real-life settings. White hopes to add to this limited research set. For the first few weeks of summer, Andrew Harrell ’23, Kate Bruno ’23, and Paige McKenzie ’25 watched videos of children’s classroom play recorded in the time between two self-control assessments of the children. By analyzing the videos’ contents against these assessments, the research group can look for a correlation between the amount and type of pretend play and improvements in children’s self-control. 

White plans to expand this study and eventually use the findings to build a school curriculum involving pretend play. “A lot of schools are moving away from playtime, or getting rid of it entirely, and I think we’re doing a disservice to children when we do that,” White said. 

Andrew Harrell ’23

Major: Neuroscience
Hometown: Sunapee, N.H.
High School: Proctor Academy

While the second project also studies self-control in children, it does so through the lens of caregivers. Third-person speech is an emotional regulation strategy that can help people mentally distance themselves from a situation at hand and act more rationally. Parents often use third-person speech when they say things to their children like, “Mommy needs you to clean up right now” or “Daddy said, ‘no.’” The White research group spent the latter portion of the summer investigating how this strategy correlates to parents’ emotional regulation and children’s self-control. It is a new project, developed by the summer research students under White’s mentorship.

“It’s a very universal idea that you can change your language, and it can really affect the whole situation,” Bruno said. “I think it’s very useful to see how we can model that for kids and encourage them to use those techniques in their own language.”

Paige McKenzie ’25

Major: Neuroscience and Sociology
Hometown: Kingston, Jamaica
High School: Coconut Creek High School in Florida

Using an online survey platform, the group received responses from about 100 parents who answered questions based on a frustrating situation with a child. On average, parents who used third-person speech in these situations reported feeling less upset and more capable of seeing their child’s perspective. They also reported that their children were less impulsive. 

“It’s crazy to think that, as a rising sophomore, I’m playing a small part in adding to the general knowledge of psychology,” McKenzie said. “It’s a real opportunity to immerse myself in what research is actually about.”

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