Her Wordly Wisdom
Might attention disorders contribute to language-learning problems?
Lisa Sanders, director of UMass Amherst’s NeuroCognition and Perception Laboratory, believes immature attention systems may be at blame, at least in part, for language-acquisition problems. She’s overseeing a groundbreaking, four-year research project to look into the matter. The project is being underwritten by a $300,000 John Merck Scholars Program grant awarded in 2008. Sanders was one of only three researchers nationwide to receive one of the grants, which are bestowed annually “to encourage exceptional young individuals to focus on the problems of children who are mentally challenged and emotional disturbed.”
“When a child is learning language, any number of things can go wrong,” says Sanders, an assistant professor who joined the department of psychology faculty in 2005. “A child might not hear well or not be able to process what he or she hears effectively.” Relatively little prior research, she notes, has ever sought a causal relationship between attention problems and language-acquisition problems or attempted to define what such a link might be.
Sanders wants to find ways to help children improve their attentiveness to the most relevant information in their environments, in turn, helping them master language. “The ultimate goal,” she says, “is to make the resources we develop as freely available as possible to parents, teachers, counselors, and programs like Head Start. That might be through a website, for instance, with specific activities a parent could do with a child.” The project will also study attention-deficit challenges and how they might be overcome.
Under the project, 180 young children and an equal number of adults are being tested in Sanders’ electrophysiology lab—an effort she feels might have taken 10 years without the support from the Merck grant. Her research team currently includes ten undergraduates as well as postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, a reflection of Sanders’ awareness of just how valuable such experience can be. “There’s always something going on in the lab,” she notes, “and undergrads learn how to help each other out and be part of a team.”