Researcher in Profile: Mika Asaba on How Children Develop a Sense of Self

By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator 

How might children develop a sense of self through social interactions with others? This is a topic Mika Asaba explored as a graduate student in developmental psychology at Stanford University. More than 600 children at Bing Nursery School participated in her studies over five years. 

A fourth-generation Japanese American, Asaba grew up in a tight-knit and supportive environment with her immediate and extended family in the Seattle area. Playing tennis was a major part of her life from elementary school on, and in high school she volunteered to teach preschool-aged children how to play. She received a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at Wellesley College and a doctorate in psychology from Stanford, where her adviser was Hyowon Gweon, director of the Social Learning Lab. Asaba was the inaugural manager of the lab and worked with approximately 200 children for various projects. 

An avid hiker, Asaba and her father have been on many hiking adventures around the world, including trips to the Italian Alps and to Virunga National Park in Rwanda to see gorillas in their natural habitat. She also enjoys baking, which she has been doing almost every weekend during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent favorites are sourdough bread and vegan scones.

Asaba shared her research projects in the interview below. 

What is the topic of your studies?

I am fascinated by how children develop a sense of self through their social interactions. Broadly, my research focuses on the cognitive capacities that support how children learn and communicate about themselves.  

What got you interested in children’s sense of self?

I went to college very far away from home, on the other side of the country. In the first few weeks at college, I distinctly remember wondering “Who am I?” in this new context where no one else knew me previously. This feeling sparked my interest in how we develop our understanding of the self––it seemed to me that it is very dependent on our environment and who we surround ourselves with. 

Tell us about the studies you conducted at Bing. 

Mika Asaba's research design

One line of work investigated how children decide what and to whom to communicate about themselves and their abilities. In one study, 3- and 4-year-old children played with a toy that played music when two buttons were hit in the right way—though a researcher actually controlled the toy with a remote device. During the first part of the session, one researcher watched as the children tried but failed to make the music play. In the second part of the session, another researcher watched the children as they succeeded at getting the toy to play. At the end of the session, we asked children which researcher they wanted to tell that they could make the toy go. We found that most of the children chose to tell the researcher who had not seen them successfully make the toy go. This was exciting to us, because it suggested that children could track others’ prior observations of their performance: They were sensitive to whether others had seen them succeed or not. These results also showed that children selected information that would change or improve what others thought of them and their performance. These findings suggest that from a young age, children not only care about what others think of them but also strategically communicate about their performance to others.

In a different line of work, I investigated how 4- to 5-year-old children understand whose praise is informative. In one study, we showed participants videos of two teachers giving feedback to a student on his tracings: a teacher who praised all the tracings regardless of quality (Overpraise Teacher) and a teacher who praised only the higher quality tracings (Selective Teacher). Later, participants made their own tracings of simple shapes. We then told participants that the teachers were nearby and could tell them how they did on their tracings, and then we briefly stepped outside the room while keeping an eye on them. We then told participants that each teacher provided praise of one of the tracings (e.g., “Teacher Jane said that this one is great!” and “Teacher Susan said that this one is great!”) We found that participants were more likely to trust praise from the Selective Teacher and reported that the Overpraise Teacher was trying to be nice. These findings are exciting because they suggest that young children are sensitive to who is providing praise to them and how that person has previously provided praise.  

What was it like to conduct studies at Bing?

Conducting studies at Bing was an absolute joy! I have many fond memories of sitting in the observation rooms watching children play the games that we had created. Many of our toys were controlled by a remote switch, with one researcher in the game room with the participant and another researcher in the observation room with the remote control. We always had to make sure that the toy “worked” at exactly the right moment! 
It also was an amazing place to train undergraduate research assistants––everyone I have worked with loved the school. I trained approximately 10 research assistants during grad school. Students also really enjoyed being in the classrooms with the children and developing relationships with them. They learned a lot from observing the teachers interact with the children and from observing how other research assistants establish rapport with the children in the room. Many of them took the “Observation of Young Children” class at Bing before working with me, and that course really helped them to not only understand the Bing approach, but also to better understand children’s behaviors in the classroom and in the game rooms.  
Here is a quote from Jessa Stegall, a post-bachelor research assistant: “Generally I’d say Bing is a really special place in that it was both fun and generative for research! I got to see children learning new things, solving problems and forming relationships first-hand, which inspired more potential research questions than I had imagined it would. It’s a really innovative and wholesome environment.”

What’s your next step?

I am now a postdoctoral associate in the psychology department at Yale. I will continue my research with preschool children, but I will also conduct studies with adolescents. A current project investigates whose encouragement is motivating for middle and high school students.