Elliot Tucker-Drob

A UT psychology research project aims to compile and study a diverse registry of twins in hopes of better understanding the balance between a child’s genetic makeup and their environment.

The Twin Project, which started active recruitment of twins and other multiple births in 2010, asks participating children — and their parents — about the children’s personality, academic expectations, interests, peer groups and family environment. One-on-one testing is also done with each twin on their reasoning and memory abilities, as well as tendencies towards risk-taking and other behavioral indicators of maturity.

The project targets students enrolled in 32 school districts in the Houston and Austin areas, which contain over 1 million students. Approximately 54 percent of the students in the targeted districts are classified as economically disadvantaged, and 73.1 percent identify as members of racial minorities.

“We are interested in studying twins from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds,” Elliot Tucker-Drob, psychology assistant professor and co-director of the project, said. “This contrasts with many other twin studies, which tend to be composed mostly of white participants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Psychology graduate student Daniel Briley, who has focused on the effects of parental educational expectations on children, said he was surprised to discover that children’s behavioral characteristics often play a part in altering their parents’ expectations.

“Previous research has implied that parents generate expectations and then pass on these beliefs to their children,” Briley said. “My research suggests that the formation of expectations is a two-way street … My perspective is that children are active agents in their development and the parenting that they receive.”

Studio art freshman Katherine Ray said the constant comparison between her and her twin made them more competitive as children. 

“When we were younger, we would do sports together, so people would compare us,” Ray said. “Once we got older, we developed a lot of different interests, and that was a conscious decision.”

The research looks at gene-by-environment interaction, which is how genes and environments work together to influence development. An example of this interaction is that people who are genetically predisposed to high academic achievement perform even better if they’re raised in a supportive atmosphere.

“The gene-environment interaction framework that I described earlier is one that challenges old ways of thinking about ‘nature vs. nurture,’” Tucker-Drob said. “The new question is how nature and nurture go together.”

While many would predict humans develop more as they age through experiences rather than through gene development, recent studies by psychology professors Elliot Tucker-Drob and Paige Harden and psychology graduate student Daniel Briley suggest the opposite.

The three researchers collaborated on the study “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Cognition Across Development and Context,” focusing on how certain genes are dormant for a period of life, but when they become active, they reach different levels of potential depending on people’s living environment.

“People have these genes that have the potential for them to learn and thrive … but because they’re living in impoverished situations, they’re not able to make use of those genetic potentials they have and they’re just not realizing them,” Tucker-Drob said.   

A similar result is found when looking at the genetic relationship by age, Tucker-Drob said.

“At first they’re dormant — the kids have them, but they just haven’t become active and eventually what happens once when the kids are about 10 years old is that the genes are all turned on,” Tucker-Drob said.

Briley and Tucker-Drob worked on another project, where they found cognitive ability links more with genetic differences in people as they age.

“Our results indicate that in the very early stages of a child’s life, this increase in genetic influences can primarily be attributable to ‘novel’ genetic effects,” Briley said. “This could mean that certain genes are ‘turned on’ at specific developmental periods or that as children transition into new environments genetic influences that previously were unimportant become important.”

According to Briley, one explanation for the transition is that children gain more control over their academic choices as they age.

Briley and Tucker-Drob used meta-analysis — which combines data from multiple studies — to analyze the genetic cognition relationship. A portion of this data came from research done with the Texas Twin Project, which Tucker-Drob and Harden direct. Both studies involve the hotly-debated topic of nature versus nurture, according to Tucker-Drob.

“The goal of this research isn’t to try to take a side in the nature-nurture debate — it’s actually to try to reconcile things so we can look at how genes and environments work together,” Tucker-Drob said. 

Frank Mann, a graduate student who works with Tucker-Drob, said he finds this research helpful.

“It’s not nature versus nurture; it’s nature and nurture working in concert together,” Mann said. “I think it’s fascinating research. It provides a useful tool that can adds degree of nuisance to understand a variety of developmental processes.”

Elliot Tucker-Drob, one of UT’s psychology professors, lead a study which links test scores of youth and their attendance of preschool as children. Tucker-Drob’s results could help towards reducing the gap between children of privileged and underprivileged families.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Howeth | Daily Texan Staff

Preschool may be the answer to reducing the achievement gap between children from privileged and underprivileged families, according to a psychological study conducted by a UT professor.

Assistant professor of psychology Elliot Tucker-Drob said the study found that the environmental factors accounting for the differences in test scores between children from wealthier families and children from poorer families was about 70 percent for children who did not attend preschool. However, when children attended preschool, the percentage of environmental factors accounting for test scores dropped to 45 percent.

“That’s a pretty good reduction,” Tucker-Drob said. “But even amongst the kids who went to preschools, families were not [equal] with one another. There were still inequalities, they just weren’t accounting for as much variation.”

Tucker-Drob said the reduction in the percentage was seen after children had attended preschool, which increases the confidence that preschool is responsible for diminishing the test score gaps.

He said he got the idea for the study from previous research that showed the achievement gaps on test scores between kids from privileged and underprivileged families grew during the summer and shortened during the school year.

“Not everyone goes to preschool, it is a choice that parents make,” Tucker-Drob said. “A lot of kids do, but there are some that don’t.”

While Tucker-Drob said the results did not surprise him, he said others have argued that children who benefit the most from preschools are the ones who already have an economic advantage, therefore increasing the achievement gap.

“It’s kind of a rich-get-richer hypothesis,” Tucker-Drob said. “My rationale is the children from the poor families are getting something so much better than they would have otherwise gotten if they stayed at home; therefore, the achievement gap should shrink.”

Amanda Highfill, applied learning and development sophomore, said the results of the study did not surprise her.

“The lower-income families are normally kids who don’t speak English as their first language, so it also helps them start speaking that in the schools and preparing them for the grades to come,” Highfill said.

Avana Bree Garza, applied learning and development sophomore, said she thinks required schooling should start at preschool instead of kindergarten.

“I can see why they give parents the option because some parents like to prepare their children their own way, but I think it would be helpful if it was mandatory,” Garza said.

Printed on Monday, March 19, 2012 as: Preschool may help children's test scores