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Julia Leonard

Yale University

Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
United States of America

PhD, Cognitive Science,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018
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Research Focus

Learning requires effort, yet we cannot try hard at everything. Every day we have to decide what’s worth our effort – when to persist through challenges and when to give up and move on to a different endeavor.  Julia Leonard studies the fundamental cognitive, neural, and computational representations underlying children’s decisions about effort allocation. Her goal is to gain a comprehensive and causal understanding of how children adaptively learn in response to a range of environmental inputs and to apply this work to interventions that improve children’s academic, social, and health outcomes.

My plans for the fellowship period

 Children’s persistence in the face of challenges is related to real-world academic and interpersonal outcomes. However, group-level interventions to increase children’s persistence have yielded mixed results, potentially because the factors that impact motivation differ across individuals and depend on children’s broader sociocultural context. With support from the Jacobs Foundation, I will explore individual differences in the factors that support children’s persistence before school entry, when children form foundational skills for later learning. I will employ intensive repeated measures design to study within-child variability in persistence and ask (1) How do physiological factors, like sleep, and psychosocial factors, like parent behavior, impact day-to-day fluctuations in children’s persistence? (2) How does children’s broader context (e.g., socioeconomic status, culture) moderate relationships between physiological and psychosocial factors and fluctuations in persistence? By combining person-focused science with multiple levels of analysis, this work will inform the creation of personalized interventions to help children become the best version of themselves.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

My proposed project utilizes multiple levels of analysis to reveal how distal factors, like children’s cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and proximal factors, like daily parent behavior, child mood, and sleep, relate to individual variability in children’s behavior. By exploring ecologically valid measures of persistence (i.e., toothbrushing, educational apps), this project will create knowledge that can be directly applied to fostering positive child development at home, before the critical schooling years. Furthermore, by focusing on the drivers of behavior within individual children from diverse backgrounds, this project will inform the creation of personalized interventions that help children persist in the face of challenges and form healthy habits.

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