Taking their eye off the ball: How shyness affects children's attention during word learning

Matt Hilton, Katherine E Twomey, Gert Westermann
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2019 March 11, 183: 134-145
The current study tests the hypothesis that shy children's reduced word learning is partly due to an effect of shyness on attention during object labeling. A sample of 20- and 26-month-old children (N = 32) took part in a looking-while-listening task in which they saw sets of familiar and novel objects while hearing familiar or novel labels. Overall, children increased attention to familiar objects when hearing their labels, and they divided their attention equally between the target and competitors when hearing novel labels. Critically, shyness reduced attention to the target object regardless of whether the heard label was novel or familiar. When children's retention of the novel word-object mappings was tested after a delay, it was found that children who showed increased attention to novel objects during labeling showed better retention. Taken together, these findings suggest that shyer children perform less well than their less shy peers on measures of word learning because their attention to the target object is dampened. Thus, this work presents evidence that shyness modulates the low-level processes of visual attention that unfold during word learning.

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