Humans are unusual in their pursuit of long-term goals where rewards are sparse and infrequent: we take decades to build ornate temples, create environmental policies to benefit future generations, and get PhDs. Our protracted childhood provides an extended period of time to learn the high level of skills, reasoning, and cultural knowledge necessary to attain these goals. Critical to this learning process is the ability to effectively allocate effort—knowing when to persist through challenges, but also when to give up. I am interested in how young children calibrate their effort so that they can effectively learn.
I examine children’s motivation and learning across two timescales by exploring how the environment shapes children’s moment-to-moment approach towards learning and over time affects children’s brain development and capacity to learn. With the first approach, I look at how potentially malleable short-term input causally impacts children’s decisions to persist through challenges. With the second, I explore the unique neural and cognitive adaptations children develop in response to long-term, sometimes adverse, social contexts.
I study children from diverse populations, ranging from infancy to adolescence. I employ both observational and experimental methods, integrating behavioral, computational modeling (primarily Bayesian), and neuroimaging techniques (structural and functional MRI) to gain a comprehensive and causal understanding of how children make decisions about when and how hard to try.
My research program has both basic scientific and translational aims. From a basic science perspective, my research looks at the fundamental representations and inferences that support complex decisions around how humans allocate effort, and broadly informs theories of learning. From a practical standpoint, it leads to ways in which we can intervene to improve children’s academic and life outcomes.
For up to date information on my research, please visit the Leonard Learning Lab webiste.