Katie Edler, a graduate student in psychology, conducts an experiment in emotional regulation where she asks children between 6 and 8 years old to complete a simple puzzle with 20 large pieces and then leaves the room.

The trick is that the puzzle is under a box with a sheet over it, and it’s actually “pretty much impossible” to fit the pieces together without seeing them. A video camera records the scene.

“We put them in a challenging or frustrating situation—nothing too intense, but we want to see how they react,” Edler said. “It’s not a bad thing if a kid is struggling in the moment, but this is one way we can assess: Do they keep trying? How much of the five minutes did they try to put it together? We also look at their expressions of positive and negative emotion.”

Some kids actually lift up the sheet to cheat by seeing the pieces. That’s OK, Edler said. It might be a sign of persistence or determination, reminiscent of one of the more famous studies in psychology history.

Katie Edler sets up a puzzle under a clear stand.
Katie Edler, a graduate student in psychology, and Zach Bergman, an undergraduate psychology student, set up the hidden puzzle task.
A puzzle under a clear stand that's partially covered with a black cloth.
A sheet over the open-ended box prevents children from seeing the puzzle pieces, making it very challenging to complete by feel.

Decades ago, a Stanford psychologist told kids that if they could refrain from eating a marshmallow (or cookie) for five minutes, then their reward would be a second treat. The test of a person’s ability to delay gratification was supposed to be a better indicator of future success than any other measuring stick, including the SAT or IQ test.

“That’s my favorite topic, actually—they were studying delay of gratification, but it’s also emotional self-regulation,” Edler said. “New research shows that everything happens in context. When children are growing up in poverty, actually taking the marshmallow, that’s associated with better mental and physical health outcomes.”

For the children in the marshmallow study, who were from middle- and high-income families where resources were likely plentiful, the ability to wait was linked to positive long-term outcomes. The certainty and availability of resources in children’s lives influence whether it is adaptive to wait or to take the resources in front of them.

In her research at the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families with about 100 families, Edler has therefore matched her sample population with the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of South Bend. “Depending on who you want your research results to apply to, you need to match the population,” she said.

A portrait of Katie Edler in front of trees.
Katie Edler chose to continue at Notre Dame and the Shaw Center for her graduate degree in psychology.

Edler’s research into developmental behavior focuses on how children learn emotional regulation from and with their parents. She frames her work in a positive way, looking for skills and techniques that will inform interventions to improve coping skills and mental health.

“The broader topic that I’m interested in studying is what leads to positive and negative parenting behaviors,” Edler said. “I hope that what we learn from this research can help parents and children.”

Edler grew up in Kansas City with her brother and two parents who studied business. Her mother is an accountant and her father an auditor, so it’s not a surprise she liked math and science and wanted to go into engineering.

Both parents went to the University of Kansas, and she hadn’t realized her grandfather went to Notre Dame until he invited her to South Bend for a game when she was a high school sophomore. She was excited to be admitted to the University and started in fall 2015 intending to study biomechanical or civil engineering.

“I knew I wanted to have a career that was having an impact on people.” –Katie Edler

But she didn’t find herself engaged in the classes. When a professor joked that the students knew they were all meant to be engineers because they probably have a pocket knife and like to fiddle around fixing things, some of her classmates in fact pulled out pocket knives, but Edler didn’t have one—cementing her decision to change majors.

“I didn’t feel quite as passionate or fulfilled learning about this topic as I thought I would,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to have a career that was having an impact on people.”

The class Edler did find fascinating was a developmental psychology class, especially the research about adversity and childhood development.

“Mental health concerns are increasingly common,” she said. “I have loved ones and friends who have experienced mental health difficulties. I cared about the topic, but I hadn’t really considered it as a career. But I was most excited about that class, and I thought, ‘College is too expensive—life is too long—for me to do something that I’m not feeling passionate about.’”

She decided to join the lab of Kristin Valentino, director of the Shaw Center, because it is “right at the interface of developmental and clinical science.” Valentino’s work evaluates how to design and implement interventions that can improve parental caregiving and developmental outcomes for children.

A little boy and his mom sits at a table with Katie Edler discussing their session.
Edler works with a mother and son at the Shaw Center.

Edler also worked as a research assistant in two other labs studying human development as she tried to decide what to focus on in graduate school. Jay Brandenberger researches moral development, she said, and Mark Cummings studies family conflict and children’s emotional development.

She also did a Summer Service Learning Project after her sophomore year in a therapeutic nursery classroom that served preschool kids with behavioral and emotional difficulties. She found the intervention work to get the children back on track inspiring.

“That was the closest thing I had had to a clinical experience, but I really was interested in the research side of things,” Edler said. “I want to do research that informs interventions, learning what we need to do to create an evidence-based program that helps people.”

For graduate school, Edler considered clinical psychology programs where students do research but also train to be a therapist. In the end, she decided to stick with Valentino and pursue developmental psychology. “I landed in a good lab where I have resources to do research I’m really excited about,” she said.

Valentino apparently agrees, calling Edler “an absolute star.” Valentino explained: “Just in the last year, she just won a prestigious grant fellowship from NIH for her dissertation, and she published a paper in probably the biggest journal there is in our field.”

A portrait of Kristin Valentino wearing a blue v-neck sweater.
Kristin Valentino is the director of the Shaw Center for Children and Families.

Edler said the National Institutes of Health funds research it believes will benefit public health, which includes her hidden puzzle experiments. As children age, she said, they learn more adaptive strategies, ranging from taking deep breaths to asking for help or reframing their thoughts.

“My dissertation on the whole is focused on the different ways that moms can help children learn different strategies to manage their emotions,” she said.

Edler’s lab brings in mothers and their 6–8-year-olds three times over a year for observations, questions and interactive tasks. There is also a physiological assessment that starts with a baseline assessment of heart rate and breathing, done with electrocardiogram electrodes attached to the body. She attaches the electrode sensors to a teddy bear first to make the kids comfortable.

One standardized assessment uses an iPad to show kids a scene from The Lion King where Simba’s father dies. The EKG measures how their body reacts to the sad event.

“I also have moms and kids talk about times the child felt different emotions in the past,” Edler said. “We’re interested in how parents discuss emotions with their children. There’s not one right or wrong way, but we’re going to see what behaviors within those conversations are associated with positive outcomes for children.”

The academic article she published in a top journal called Psychological Bulletin focused on the same issue. It was a systematic review of all the prior literature (53 studies in this case) done on a topic to synthesize and summarize what the research shows.

The review found what she expected. “It’s kind of intuitive that if you have these healthy adaptive coping skills, that seems to be associated with positive parenting practices, which is associated with children’s positive emotional development,” she said.

Zach Bergman and Katie Edler sit at a computer.
Edler and Bergman analyze video of childrens' reaction to the hidden puzzle task.

Undergraduate psychology student Zach Bergman helped Edler conduct her experiments. He also helped develop a coding scheme to rate how kids react to the frustration of the hidden puzzle, a subject on which he wrote his recently completed senior honors thesis.

That Bergman will study clinical psychology and emotional regulation in grad school next year is an example of a positive academic pipeline—with Valentino’s research inspiring a graduate student, and Edler’s inspiring an undergraduate.

Edler and Bergman observed in the videos that the children often talk to themselves during the puzzle tasks. Their words offer fascinating insights into how people develop persistence and grit.

“We call it private speech—while they were doing this task, some of them were expressing their frustration out loud,” Edler said. “They were saying things like, ‘I can’t do this. This is so hard. I’m never going to finish.’ But then we’re finding other kids that are strategizing, or actually encouraging themselves, saying things like, ‘I have to keep trying. I can do this.’ They’re kind of hyping themselves up.”

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