Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 20, 2019

Can a Brief Pause Get in the Way of Toddler Learning?

by Jessa Reed, Roberta Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Teacher and toddler doing therapy using emoji emotions

Modern life is full of electronic interruptions. When we surreptitiously check our cell phone at dinner or in a meeting, we may convince ourselves that no one will notice, even though we become frustrated when we see others sneaking glances at their screens. How often do you see a cell phone in the hands of a parent at the park, playground, or pizza shop? Although checking one’s cell phone while parenting may seem harmless enough, research suggests that interruptions to the flow of conversation between a parent and a child may get in the way of the kind of social interactions that is crucial to learning. 

Decades of research show that sensitive and responsive parenting lays a foundation for a variety of positive child outcomes, from bonding with others to developing a big vocabulary. Although sensitivity and responsiveness have been examined in different ways in different studies, almost every way of studying responsiveness shares a core feature—contingency. When parents respond promptly to something a child says, without a break in the action, they do so contingently.  This contingency helps children learn about language, about other people, and about the world around them. But when parents are delayed in responding to the child by the text or e-mail that scrolls across a smartphone screen, they break that contingency.

Our recent research explored the consequences of cell phone interruptions on toddlers’ ability to learn words. In our study, we asked mothers of toddlers, aged 24-35 months, to teach their toddlers two made-up action words, including blick, which meant to bounce, and frep, which referred to a shaking action. The moms had been forewarned that they would be receiving several phone calls during the study to signal when they should move from teaching the first word to teaching the second. The experimenter also casually mentioned that she would sometimes call just to chat, like in the real world. While the mothers were teaching their child one of the target words, they were interrupted by a carefully timed cell phone call, after which they immediately resumed teaching the word.  Furthermore, we made sure that the teaching period lasted 60 seconds for each word (not counting the period of interruption).

To see if the toddlers had learned these new words, we showed them a video in which two scenes simultaneously appeared side-by-side. While the toddlers watched the two scenes side-by-side, they were told to look at the scene that showed either “blicking” or “frepping.” By carefully observing the toddlers’ eye gaze patterns, we were able to see if they looked longer at the correct screen—that is, at the video that matched the correct novel word they had just learned. Interestingly, children learned the new word only when their mother had NOT been interrupted by a phone call—even though children heard each novel word about the same number of times. Clearly, the cell phone call interfered with learning.

We have long known that toddlers can learn new words with remarkable ease. Researchers use the term fast mapping to refer to the fact that toddlers often learn a new word after being exposed to it just one or two times. Our findings suggest that fast mapping may happen consistently only when the social interaction in which that word occurs is smooth and connected rather than disrupted. In other words, merely hearing a word cannot easily fuel word learning. The quality of the interaction in which the word occurs also matters. As our grandmothers’ embroidered pillows might remind us, actions speak louder than words. When we break away from an unfolding social interaction to respond to a text or check our email, what message are we actually sending?

Our study suggests that the quality of the interactions that adults have with children makes a big difference for learning. Kids seem to learn best when their interactions with caregivers are smooth and not interrupted by distractions. In contrast, kids do not learn well when we create breaks in the action. Perhaps it is time to put that cell phone away when the kids are around so that we can give our full attention to that moment in the sandbox or standing in line at the grocery store.

For Further Reading

Reed, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). Learning on hold: Cell phones sidetrack parent-child interactions. Developmental Psychology, 53, 1428-1436. DOI: 10.1037/dev0000292

Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2014). Skype me! Socially contingent interactions help children learn language. Child Development, 85, 956-970. doi:10.1111/cdev.12166


Jessa Reed is a postdoctoral researcher at The Ohio State University who studies language development in children with and without hearing loss. She is particularly interested in translating research into accessible applications for classrooms and communities.

Roberta Golinkoff (University of Delaware) received her PhD from Cornell University and studies language development, the benefits of play, children and media, and spatial development. Passionate about bringing developmental science into the world, she is a co-founder of Playful Learning Landscapes and the Learning Sciences Exchange (LSX).

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the department of psychology at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. Her research on language, play, and cognitive development is at the intersection of developmental and translational science. An artist as much as a scientist, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek has dedicated herself to sharing the science of learning through community initiatives such as Playful Learning Landscapes and Ultimate Block Parties.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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