When my daughter was a baby and I was a stay-at-home mom desperately looking for excuses to get out of the house, I saw that one of my alma maters was searching for babies to participate in a research study. I hesitated at first, picturing your classic sci fi human science experiment with my baby hooked up to a machine with electrodes stuck all over her as they tested pain thresholds, but then the desire to have other adult human contact won out over my concerns and I dug deeper into the work the lab did. We went to the first one when she was still a baby and, to my surprise, it was a really fun experience!
Both of my children participated in the most recent study on moral development in children, a topic that fascinates me personally, and I thought I’d interview the lab manager, Stef Hartlin, for more information about how the Early Social Development Lab works, just in case any other parents may have had the same initial hesitations that I did.
Early Social Development Lab (ESDL) at Dalhousie University, Halifax
The ESDL is a research lab in the Psychology and Neuroscience Department of Dalhousie University founded by Dr. Chris Moore “who is a leading expert in child social development and has been a Professor of Psychology at Dalhousie University since 1988” and has published over 100 articles and authored several books on the subject.
When you enter the lab you will be greeted right away by friendly people. Stef says the team is made up of a wide range of highly trained staff and volunteers “who are passionate about child development.” They include developmental psychologists, clinical psychology PhD students, experimental psychology PhD, undergraduate research students, and undergrad volunteers; and she tells me they all have “up-to-date criminal record checks, vulnerable record checks, and child abuse registry checks.”
I asked Stef about their standard procedure for when a family arrives at the lab for a study. She explained that they have a playroom for kids to explore and warm up in while the researcher reviews the study with the parent and explains the consent form that you will need to sign.
“Your child will then be invited to participate in a fun game or activity with the researcher. Parents are welcome to sit in and watch as their child participates,” Stef says.
When the children finish the study they receive a personalized certificate and can choose a toy or gift card from the prize bag to take home. Families are also entered into a prize draw which is currently for a $500, $200, or $50 pre-paid VISA gift card.
Anything involving our children is going to raise our privacy red flags so I asked Stef what they do with the research and how our children’s privacy is protected.
“All of the data we collect in the lab is treated with the strictest confidence and we never share individual results,” she assured me. “When a family comes to the lab to participate in one of our studies we assign them a unique number that we use to identify their data so that their name does not appear with their data. After a study is completed, we compile all of the anonymized data we have collected and use statistical analysis to answer questions about child development.”
The findings are often published in journals and/or presented at scientific conferences, and summaries can be found on their website. She told me that they only ever discuss group results, never identifying individual results.
Stef explained the current study to me that my two children participated in. They are still looking for children from age 2-17 to participate in this research.
“Right now we are focused on understanding children's judgements about right and wrong across development and answering three specific questions: (1) how do moral judgements develop through childhood? (2) how do parental and child moral values relate to each other across development? and (3) how does moral development compare across groups and cultures?”
She explained that they have created age-appropriate, fun games that show children a range of actions and ask children what they think about them.
“For toddlers and pre-schoolers the game involves watching a series of puppet shows. For example, in one video a young puppet will be told to go to bed by their parent and the young puppet will listen. In another video a young puppet will be told to go to bed by their parent and the young puppet will not listen. Children are then shown the puppets and asked to point to the puppet (that) did something bad,” she says.
“For older children and adolescents moral scenarios are presented on a touch screen computer and they are asked to indicate whether s/he thinks the behaviour in each example is bad, how bad s/he thinks it is, whether the person in the story should be punished, and how the situation described makes him/her feel. We also have a short, 10 minute questionnaire for parents that asks questions about their ideas of right and wrong.”
She also tells me that the tasks have been translated into Mandarin and Farsi and are “being used in China and Iran in order to explore cross cultural differences.”
ACCOMMODATING YOUR FAMILY’S VISIT
The lab is located on the Halifax campus, right beside Sherriff Hall and across from Dalplex. They work hard to accommodate the participants by having a free, reserved parking spot and a wide range of times available every day of the week.
Most studies require only one visit that lasts for 30-60 minutes. When I asked, they even arranged to have my two kids go in at the same time so I didn’t need to wait double the time for them.