Brock researchers develop new tool for studying children’s future thinking

Thanks to a new paper out of Brock University’s Department of Psychology, anyone studying children’s ability to think about the future can now access a new research tool: an easy-to-administer and highly effective parent questionnaire.

The creation of the questionnaire, developed by Associate Professor Caitlin Mahy and PhD student Tessa Mazachowsky, is detailed in “Constructing the Children’s Future Thinking Questionnaire: A Reliable and Valid Measure of Children’s Future-Oriented Cognition,” currently in advance online publication at Developmental Psychology.

The questionnaire covers five domains, or categories of behaviour, that reflect a child’s ability to consider the future when making decisions. They include planning, saving, delaying gratification, prospective memory (the ability to remember to do something in the future), and episodic foresight (the ability to project oneself into future instances).

Taken together, the results of the questionnaire show that skills in all five of these domains can reflect a child’s overall ability to think in terms of the future.

The Children’s Future-Thinking Questionnaire can be freely obtained by contacting Mahy online via the Developing Memory and Cognition Lab.

The paper, authored by Mazachowsky and Mahy, details four studies conducted since Mahy was awarded a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for the project in 2016. Each study marked a key step in the extensive process of developing and vetting questions, testing them online and in the lab, cross-checking for accuracy over time, and finalizing the questionnaire by whittling down 88 possible questions to a final selection of 44 items.

“We wanted to know how sensitive the questionnaire is to children’s development,” says Mahy, describing the detailed analysis of each question’s validity. “We asked ourselves: is this actually capturing children’s real ability? Are parents accurate in assessing their children’s abilities in these areas? The results show that the answer is ‘yes’ for all of these things.”

The development of the questionnaire has proved to be a long journey for Mazachowsky, who began working with Mahy as a master’s student. The first two studies in the paper also made up Mazachowsky’s master’s work, while the third study will appear in her dissertation.

Mazachowsky believes that this publication has been worth the wait.

“I gained so many skills through the process, in terms of being able to look at all the domains of future thinking rather than just focusing on one of them,” she says, noting that she also developed several analytical skills and got experience measuring child behaviours in the lab.

Although the questionnaire is now complete, Mazachowsky will continue working in the area of children’s future thinking based on a gap in the literature that she discovered while working on this manuscript.

“There’s a lack of research into how children’s saving behaviour develops across the preschool years, and mixed findings in terms of whether children become better savers or stay the same through that preschool age group,” says Mazachowsky. “From that, I decided to look at saving on its own in my follow-up PhD studies.”

For Mahy, the completion of the project is, in some ways, just the beginning. She already has heard from researchers across North America and Europe interested in using the tool in their own studies, and the questionnaire has been translated into Turkish for use in labs in Turkey, suggesting interesting potential for cross-cultural studies and comparisons.

“As people use and cite this questionnaire, we can follow that and see how it’s being used and look at what it’s related to in other people’s work,” says Mahy, who plans to maintain a list of publications citing the questionnaire on her web site.

“That’s the most exciting thing — we want to see what’s going to happen next.”

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