SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

February 09, 2016 12:00 ET

University of Calgary professor receives federal funding to study early childhood development

Research into factors that set kids up for success among eight projects supported by the Canada Research Chair awards at the University of Calgary

CALGARY, AB --(Marketwired - February 09, 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. 

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."

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.

NOTE: Assistant Professor Sheri Madigan is available for media interviews on camera or over the phone today. To arrange an interview please contact Media Relations.

University of Calgary Canada Research Chair recipients

Naser El-Sheimy, Schulich School of Engineering:Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Tier I in Geomatics Multi-Sensor Systems.

Walter Herzog, Faculty of Kinesiology: CIHR Tier I renewal CRC in Molecular and Cellular Biomechanics.

Nathalie Jette, Cumming School of Medicine: CIHR Tier II renewal CRC in Neurological Health Services Research.

Sam (Seonghwan) Kim, Schulich School of Engineering: NSERC Tier II CRC in Nano Sensing Systems.

Sheri Madigan, Faculty of Arts: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Tier II CRC in Determinants of Child Development.

Oury Monchi, Cumming School of Medicine: CIHR Tier I CRC in Non-motor Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.

David Proud, Cumming School of Medicine: Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Tier I renewal of CRC in Inflammatory Airway Diseases.

Gregory Welch, Faculty of Science: NSERC Tier II CRC in Solar Energy Materials and Devices.

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is making tremendous progress on its journey to become one of Canada's top five research universities, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.' 

For more information, visit ucalgary.ca . Stay up to date with University of Calgary news headlines on Twitter @UCalgary. For details on faculties and how to reach experts go to our media center at ucalgary.ca/news/media.

Contact Information

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    Sean Myers
    Media Relations Advisor
    University of Calgary
    W: 403.220.4756
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    sean.myers2@ucalgary.ca