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Sophie von Stumm

University of York

Early Career Research Fellow
Department of Education
University of York
United Kingdom

PhD, Psychology
Goldsmiths University of London, 2010
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Research focus
Sophie von Stumm studies the causes and consequences of children’s differences in cognitive and social-emotional development. Her research is driven by the question “Why do some children learn better than others?”. She integrates approaches from a variety of disciplines, including education science, psychology, sociology, behavioural genetics, and genomics. Her work points to the pervasive influence that family background has for children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.

What have I achieved during my fellowship?
During my fellowship, I have explored the interplay of genetic and environmental factors in the prediction of children’s differences in learning. I capitalized on the recent advent of genome-wide polygenic scores, which are person-specific aggregates of DNA variants that capture an individual’s genetic propensity for a phenotypic trait, for example doing well at school. These scores can be used to disentangle the role of genetics and the environmental influences that children experience in their early lives, for example in their family homes.

My studies have shown that children’s genetic propensities for learning correlate with their early life experiences; in other words, children who find it easier to learn for genetic reasons also tend to grow up in family homes that are more cognitively stimulating. These findings do not mean that children’s differences in learning are innate or immutable – quite the opposite! My research suggests that reducing children’s learning differences that are associated with their family background is possible but likely to be challenging. I hope my findings will inspire further research into how we can best support children’s learning.

Data for this research came mainly from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) that initially enrolled over 12,000 families, who had twins between 1994 and 1996.

My plans for the future
My future research will focus on analysing children’s differences in learning that occur within families – that is, learning differences that are evident between siblings and twins. Using within-family research designs offers opportunities to better understand how children actively participate in creating their learning environments, and how and why parents respond to their children’s learning differences. This research is key to identifying the processes and mechanisms that bring about children’s differences in cognitive and social-emotional development, which I believe will be generalisable to contexts other than the family home, for example schools and classrooms.

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