The FIU’s Infant Development Lab is bright and inviting with blue couches and colored toys and books everywhere. This warm, welcoming atmosphere is due to the work of the dedicated staff who run the lab and to its director and creator Lorraine Bahrick, a professor of psychology at FIU for over thirty-five years.
Psychology is in her blood. Both her parents were psychologists, and she grew up knowing she too wanted to enter the profession. In grad school, she initially focused on adult cognition, but soon became more interested in early developmental psychology. “There was so little known, so much more room for new methodology,” Bahrick says. “The idea of figuring out how to ask a baby a question and get an answer was fascinating. And there was so much creativity in designing experiments that could address questions about infant perception and learning.”
Early developmental psychology is important because it provides a window into understanding adult behavior, and how systems develop within the larger frameworks of society and acculturation.
The early part of her career was focused on uncovering general principles of infant perceptual development. Later, she began working with Robert Lickliter, a developmental psychobiologist, to examine whether these principles could apply to both humans and animals. Their intersensory redundancy hypothesis focused on how newborns organize, integrate and coordinate the audio and visual information available from everyday events in the environment. Bahrick received a grant to develop a test for this hypothesis. Combining her human infant research with studies of bobwhite quail chicks, they found that principles of perceptual development – synchrony and rhythm and tempo detection – were common to birds and infants- and therefore were general developmental principles
Peter Mundy, a prominent autism investigator at the University of Miami, was intrigued by their work. At the time, there was little focus on intersensory processing and early development in regards to autism studies. Most children were between the ages of two and five when they were diagnosed with autism, but earlier detection could lead to better care.
Bahrick used her research and skills to develop a test that could assess three key multisensory attention skills – sustained attention, the speed of attention shifting and synchrony detection (matching the sounds and sights of both people speaking and objects making noise). This Multisensory Attention Assessment Protocol (MAAP) was the first measure of multisensory attention skills for preverbal children. It could reveal subtle differences in performance between individuals and provide scores for each child. She also developed the Intersensory Processing Efficiency Protocol (IPEP), a more difficult test providing fine-grained measures of just synchrony detection (speed and accuracy) appropriate for infants, children, and adults.
Bahrick received a grant to look at how these skills developed from the age of three months to three years and how they predict and provide a foundation for language and social development. She and her team followed more than 100 parent and child dyads. “It’s a community of participants,” she says. “These parents are very devoted. They’ve come in at least fifteen times for the various assessments and tests.”
They’re so devoted, they’re going to continue coming to the Infant Development Lab. Bahrick recently received two new grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, along with co-investigators James Todd, Shannon Pruden, and Bethany Reeb-Sutherland. In fact, Bahrick has been continuously funded by the National Institute of Health, and occasionally the National Science Foundation, since she arrived at FIU in 1983. One key to her success: She’s found it helpful to think about the audience that reads the grant proposal. “Put yourself in the perspective of a first-time reader, and tell them why it’s so important to fund this work.”
One of her new grants, entitled “Intersensory Processing, Development Trajectories, and Longitudinal Outcomes,” will continue to follow the same parent and child dyads, measuring the children at the ages of four, five, and six years. It will continue assessments of attention skills as well as examining school readiness measures such as self-regulation and pre-literacy. The outcomes of this research will have important ramifications for the healthcare and education fields. In fact, one of Bahrick’s favorite projects (in collaboration with Katie Hart) involved using the IPEP to predict pre-literacy skills and determine children at risk for reading delays. Such successful predictions could help teachers accurately assess and assist their students.
The other new grant, entitled “Multisensory Development: New Measures and a Collaborative Database,” is based on collaboration. She’s looking to implement the IPEP and MAPP tests in thirteen labs across the country and Canada. By combining the research efforts of all thirteen labs, she can create one large dataset of more than 1600 children. “This will allow us to establish preliminary norms,” she says. “Development is a pathway from basic to more complex skills. If we can determine typical developmental trajectories, we can identify atypical individuals in need of intervention. And by studying these attention skills that serve as building blocks for language and social functioning, we will learn how to target and tailor interventions to improve these key skills in later development.”