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Research on factors behind kids' success receives federal funding

Sheri Madigan’s early childhood development project one of eight supported by $7.6 million in Canada Research Chair awards

Sheri Madigan, assistant psychology professor and full member of Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, is one of eight University of Calgary researchers recognized as Canada Research Chairs on Feb. 9, 2016. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

By Jennifer Allford
February 9, 2016

We are learning more and more that a child’s early experiences — including how they’re parented in the very first days and years — can influence them for life.

Sheri Madigan, assistant psychology professor at the University of Calgary, and full member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, has received a Tier II Canada Research Chair (CRC) worth $500,000 over five years to study a number of determinants of and interventions for enhancing childhood development.

She is one of eight University of Calgary researchers recognized as Canada Research Chairs today. The university professors will receive a total of $7.6 million of CRC funding.

“The Canada Research Chair awards announced today play a central role in our success at the University of Calgary as we address the great societal challenges through our strategic research plan,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary. “Dr. Sheri Madigan stands as an exemplar of the value of the CRC program and how research excellence is improving the quality of life for Canadians.”

Madigan’s research reveals that about a quarter of children show deficits in learning, language or social behaviour before they go to school. “Early environmental and social factors, like how a child is parented, the quality of their relationships with siblings, the amount of conflict in the home—all of these can influence how children develop and can dictate whether they’re set up for success or have difficulties,” says Madigan. “I am trying to understand which factors are most important so we can target interventions to enhance children’s success.”

Optimal parenting is an especially important protective factor, says Madigan. For example, children with a “bio-medical risk” of low birth weight are at high risk of developing language issues, but children with low birth weight who experience responsive and stimulating parenting are protected from developing language deficits. 

Effective parenting can protect children from negative outcomes

Children’s brains are extremely flexible in early childhood. That’s also when it’s the easiest to enhance parenting practices.  “Children get to an age where they start to solidify patterns of interaction with their parents, and then these patterns get harder and harder to break,” she says. “As they get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to intervene effectively.”

Madigan has studied a variety of high-risk situations, but she says every child in every situation can benefit from good parenting. “Optimal parenting gives children a protective shield of sorts,” she says. “It can provide children with a solid base that can safeguard them from several negative outcomes.”

Using studies that follow families from pregnancy to middle childhood, Madigan looks at how parents interact with their children, watching to see whether the parent is a little too aggressive with their child or not attentive enough. “We primarily focus on what the caregivers are doing well, reinforce these positives but also discuss some areas of improvement that we know are most beneficial for child development,” she says. “We find that caregivers tend to be quite responsive to this type of approach.”

Early interventions can help break bad habits passed down over generations

Without intervention to improve parenting, unhealthy patterns can get passed onto the next generation. “We parent in a very similar way to how we were parented,” she says. “If we don’t break that cycle — hostile parenting or neglectful parenting — then it may just perpetuate across generations.”

The Canada Research Chairs Program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's top countries in research and development.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.

Madigan’s research is also supported by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.