Center for Responsive School’s Emily Hemingway recently connected with Dr. Jelena Obradović, the Director of the Stanford Project on Adaptation and Resilience in Kids (SPARK) and an associate professor at Stanford University in the Developmental and Psychological Sciences program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Emily Hemingway: What drew you to this field?
Jelena Obradović: I grew up in Yugoslavia, a country that dissolved after many years of civil wars, economic sanctions, and international armed interventions in the 90s. Those childhood experiences made me interested in understanding how children adapt to and thrive in disadvantaged contexts. In graduate school, I was drawn to the study of executive functions and self-regulation skills, because these malleable skills can help children cope with challenges, learn, and pursue goals.
EH: Can you describe your role at Stanford’s SPARK Lab and the work being done there?
JO: I am director of the Stanford Project on Adaptation and Resilience in Kids — the SPARK Lab. Together with my students and trainees, I work on understanding the role of children’s stress physiology and self-regulation skills in supporting their adaptation and resilience. We also work on identifying caregiving practices and educational experiences that promote the development of cognitive, social, and emotional skills.
EH: What do you hope to achieve with your research?
JO: First, my hope is to bring more attention to how children’s bodies respond to stressful and challenging experiences and how these biological responses may affect their learning and behavior. To support children’s socio-emotional learning, we must pay attention to their physiological stress responses, sleep, and physical health. Second, my goal is to identify pragmatic, sustainable, and scalable caregiving and educational practices that help young children develop abilities to understand and manage their own emotions, attention, and behaviors.
EH: What is your favorite aspect of your work?
JO: A favorite aspect of my work is developing and adapting assessments and measurement approaches that enable us to study children’s self-regulation and related skills in more diverse samples of children and in real-life settings. My lab has developed tablet-based tasks that can be used in educational settings (e.g., classrooms, children’s museums, summer camps) to assess many students at the same time. We are currently validating a new task that helps us measure elementary school students’ preference for challenges. We have also developed a quick teacher ranking report and an observational classroom measure. Together with my colleagues, I also work on cultural adaptations of assessment tasks to ensure that their application in the lowand-middle-income countries settings is valid and appropriate.
EH: Have any recent findings in your work been unexpected or surprising to you?
JO: Our recent study found that parents who followed their kindergartners’ lead when the child was actively engaged with a task, rather than intervene to provide instructions, corrections, suggestions, or questions, had children who showed better self-regulation skills and delay of gratification at other times. During the pandemic, when so many parents feel pressure to be a young child’s teacher and a playmate, it is nice to be reminded to step back and not get actively involved when children are engaged and focused.
EH: One of the goals in the research mission statement for the SPARK Lab is to “identify how families and teachers can help children with differing biological reactivity profiles and selfregulatory capacities succeed over time.” Many of our readers are K-8 educators, and they share an interest in this goal! Are there particular findings from your research that can help educators better meet the needs of their students?
JO: Our work shows that both caregivers’ and educators’ self-regulation skills and emotional well-being play a key role in supporting children’s socioemotional learning outcomes. Educators are facing so many stressors, and they need systemic supports with their own socio-emotional needs before they can meet the needs of their students.
EH: How has the pandemic affected your work? Do you think the pandemic has affected SEL as a field?
JO: My research group has several research-practice partnerships with local educational organizations and schools, so pandemic-related school closures has interrupted some of our work. We have also done some work directly related to the pandemic, such as interviewing families of lowincome English language learners last summer to better understand what they were facing. As a field, we will have to address new SEL challenges and opportunities as all children return to classrooms and we get a better sense of their emotional and social needs.
EH: What particularly excites you in socialemotional learning right now?
JO: A lot of existing SEL-relevant research has been conducted with white, upper-middle-class children, and current SEL practices tend to privilege behaviors of those children. We need to correct educators’ mindsets, assessment tools, and interventions to be more inclusive, just, and equitable. I am excited to contribute to those efforts.