The ability to regulate stress is central to emotional and physical health across the human lifespan. Individual differences in stress regulation are shaped, in part, by the early caregiving environment, particularly parental support during challenge. Little is known, however, about specific features of the parenting response that promote children's regulatory functioning. This interdisciplinary research project will examine prosody, a potentially vital but largely unexamined feature of parental behavior that is defined as the rhythm and intonation of speech and is assessed by investigating the acoustic properties of maternal speech. The investigators will conduct the project by drawing on and integrating theory and evidence from psychology, psychophysiology, linguistics, and speech science. The project will assess the degree to which the acoustic properties of language may elicit parasympathetic activity and, in turn, act as a mechanism by which social experiences "get under the skin" to affect attention and behavior of children during their early years. Project results will enhance knowledge about direct sensory links between parenting and child regulation and will help advance understanding of early socialization processes and child development. Results also will inform key questions in linguistics regarding the biological mechanisms through which communication may operate and, relatedly, may lay groundwork for building models of prosody in spontaneous speech. A more fine-grained understanding of caregiving and its influence on child regulation will be valuable in the design and implementation of prevention and intervention programs for families in high-stress circumstances. This project also will provide valuable educational opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students from multiple disciplines, including training in observational methodology, acoustic analysis, physiological assessments, and advanced data-analytic techniques.

This project will bring together theory and evidence in psychophysiology as well as burgeoning findings from linguistics and speech sciences regarding the acoustic correlates of perceived emotional arousal. The investigators will examine associations between the acoustic properties of maternal speech and children's physiological and behavioral regulation. They will focus on children between 3 and 5 years of age, a developmental period in which regulatory capacities show tremendous growth and caregivers may play a particularly salient role. Mother-child dyads will participate in visits to the laboratory playroom during which time video, audio, and physiological data will be time-synched and recorded continuously during a baseline assessment, a mother-child play session, and two mother-child challenge tasks. Because the stress response unfolds over real time, the investigators will adopt a dynamic analytic approach that permits investigation of the relations between maternal prosody and child regulation across time. Comparisons across interactive tasks will explore whether such processes are more salient under challenge conditions. Because of the pervasiveness of spoken language and the acoustic properties of speech in everyday life, this project will yield information and insights of value for a wide array of disciplines in the social and behavioral sciences. This project is supported through the NSF Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) competition.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)
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Antoinette WinklerPrins
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
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