Martha Ann Bell, a College of Science Faculty Fellow and a professor in the Department of Psychology, will help lead a three-year $347,000 National Science Foundation grant that will look at how infants develop the ability to manage their emotions as they grow into toddlers.

Teaming with researchers from Washington State University, Bell and her Cognition, Affect, and Psychophysiology Lab (C.A.P. Lab, for short) team will examine the growth patterns of emotions in infants during their first two years.

According to Bell, children spend their first two years learning about their worlds by reacting behaviorally and emotionally to many different types of situations. Some infants display quieter emotions during these early months, while others react with strong emotions. 

By the second birthday, the now toddlers will have learned to control or regulate their reactions in ways that allow them to interact in multiple situations that would have caused an emotional outburst during infancy, when emotions tend to be reactive rather than regulated. Examples include the child being frightened, frustrated, or overly excited.

For the study, Bell and her counterpart at Washington State, Maria Gartstein, will recruit a large group of infants and parents at each university to participate in six research visits, one every four months, as the child ages from six to 26 months of age. The first four visits will focus on infant emotional reactivity and include behavioral observations and brain electrical activity (EEG) recordings of these emotions. 

The last two visits will focus on toddler behavioral regulation and include games such as Simon Says. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and awaiting IRB approval, the team hopes to start the study in January 2021. The first visits likely will be virtual, again due to pandemic restrictions.

“The goal is to identify patterns of emotion reactivity during infancy that are related to different strategies used by toddlers to regulate their behavior,” Bell said. “The findings from this study will help both parents and early childhood educators understand the ages during infancy when parenting and caregiving behaviors are most critical for helping infants deal with intense emotional reactions in order to develop better behavioral regulation as toddlers.”

Bell is an adjunct professor in the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience and an affiliated faculty member of the Department of Human Development and Family Science, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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