Buffett Institute seeks proposals for early child development research projects

· 5 min read

Buffett Institute seeks proposals for early child development research projects

UNL columns

Two University of Nebraska–Lincoln doctoral students are researching some of the biggest battlegrounds for parents and caregivers of young children: sleep and convincing kids to eat their vegetables.

Anna Johnson and Saima Hasnin are 2021-22 recipients of Graduate Scholars fellowships from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Hasnin is a doctoral student in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies using her Graduate Scholars funding to study the vegetable consumption of children in rural home childcare programs. Johnson, who is in the clinical psychology training program at the university, is researching young children’s sleep and whether trouble sleeping hurts social and academic outcomes later in elementary school.

“I thank the Buffett Institute for encouraging us as young scholars,” said Hasnin. “This is a great accomplishment and sets me up to be an independent researcher.”

Saima Hasnin

The application period for the 2022-23 Graduate Scholars program is now open, with submissions due March 31. The Buffett Institute offers the one-year fellowship, worth up to $25,000, to doctoral students affiliated with the University of Nebraska system whose research touches on the development, education, and well-being of young children. Learn more about the program and eligibility requirements.

Past scholars have used the funding to examine a wide range of topics, including health disparities, the early math skills of preschoolers, mindfulness programs for early educators and drug interventions that could treat developmental conditions such as autism.

“We’re looking for innovative project ideas, including from fields that aren’t traditionally represented in early childhood research,” said Greg Welch, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of research and evaluation.

The Institute encourages diverse candidates to apply, including international students. Hasnin, who is from Bangladesh, said she was grateful that the Buffett Institute prizes diversity and equity—as an international student, not all research funding sources are available to her.

“I would encourage our graduate students to apply to the Graduate Scholars program because it will help them develop research skills such as grantsmanship, study design, data analysis and research dissemination through peer-reviewed publications as well as to community stakeholders,” said Dipti Dev, Hasnin’s faculty mentor and an associate professor of child, youth and family studies.

Johnson is analyzing data from an existing longitudinal study by the university’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab to see how the sleep patterns of a group of 5-year-olds affected later outcomes during third grade, such as cognition, behavioral and mental health issues and social interactions.

“Children’s sleep, it’s just such an important thing that impacts so much of their growth and development, she said. “It’s just the time when a child’s brain is going through a lot of changes, and sleep really helps facilitate those changes and facilitate the growth.”

Anna Johnson
Parents and pediatricians sometimes brush off sleep problems as a normal part of growing up, Johnson said, but more and more research points to the importance of enough sleep for growing bodies and brains. Conversely, she’s also interested to see if getting enough sleep can act as a buffer or a boost for children growing up in poverty or other challenging circumstances.

“One of the things that I really like about the Buffett grant is really focusing on distributing research widely to the community,” she said. She wants her research to reach those who work with young children, so they can better understand the importance of sleep and how sleep problems can have lasting effects, instead of assuming children will grow out of it.

Hasnin similarly hopes her research project can influence the way parents and child care providers prepare and serve vegetables, so kids eat more nutrient-rich food and waste less broccoli or carrot sticks.

Children in child care eat a significant portion of their daily meals there, she said—breakfast, lunch, snacks. Schools and child care programs have made strides in getting kids to eat more fruit, she said, but convincing kids to eat cooked or raw vegetables is still a challenge.

She’ll be surveying and observing family child care home providers and parents across Nebraska to see how food preparation can impact consumption—will kids eat more vegetables if they’re roasted with some spices versus steamed?

Caregivers seem to have more success when they incorporate vegetables into the entrée of a meal, like pasta mixed with vegetables, or serve vegetables with a healthy dip like low-fat ranch or hummus, but providers don’t receive federal reimbursement for dips and many don’t have time to experiment with new recipes.

“We know responsive feeding and encouraging children in the mealtime are very important, but at the end if the children do not like the taste of the vegetable, the outcomes of these best practices may not reach optimum levels,” Hasnin said.

Timothy Nelson, a psychology professor who serves as Johnson’s faculty mentor, encouraged graduate students to apply to the Graduate Scholars program.

“Support from the program provides scholars with one of the most precious resources in research: time,” he said. “Scholars are afforded the rare luxury of dedicated time to conduct their research—time to develop their ideas, execute a quality project and disseminate their work in ways that maximize impact.”

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