Researcher in Profile: Sophie Bridgers on Children’s Helping and Teaching Behaviors

By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator

Sophie Bridgers, a beloved Stanford researcher known to Bing Nursery School children as “game room teacher,” worked and interacted with 2-year-olds at Bing for the past three years. She often sat at the playdough table in the Twos room, smiling warmly, attentively narrating what children were doing and offering tools, all the while taking in their verbal and non-verbal cues. Her exceptional skills in connecting with young children made her a welcome presence in the classroom.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Bridgers’ first passion was ballet, but she was unable to pursue a career in dance due to injuries in adolescence. She majored in cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, and found a new passion in research. After graduation, she stayed at UC-Berkeley as the lab manager for psychology professor Alison Gopnik, who studies cognitive development in young children. This allowed her to develop her research skills and to figure out what she wanted to study in graduate school. In September 2014, Bridgers moved across the Bay to Stanford to start a PhD program in psychology under the mentorship of Hyowon Gweon. It was Gweon’s first year as a professor, and Bridgers says it was exciting to be one of her first students. Together with a fellow graduate student and a lab manager, they built what is now the Social Learning Lab.

Bridgers shared her research projects in the interview below.

What is the topic of your studies?

Broadly, our lab focuses on children’s social learning—how we are able to learn from other people’s words and actions. Humans are incredibly sophisticated social learners, but we wouldn’t be nearly as successful if we weren’t also sophisticated social teachers. We are able not only to learn from others, but we are also able to effectively communicate with, teach and help others. I am fascinated with how this ability develops. Young children are often thought of more as learners than as teachers, but as early as they are able to communicate with others, they are eager to share what they know and help. I study how children figure out how to help other people and what to teach them.

Tell us about the studies you’ve conducted at Bing.

Over the past three years, I have run two studies at Bing, and over 200 children have participated. In the first study, we explored 2- and 3-year-olds’ abilities to figure out why someone is failing to achieve a goal and to provide help that addresses the cause of failure. In the experiment, we use a box-shaped toy that plays music and observe how the children react when another person runs into trouble playing with the toy—either because it’s broken or it’s being used incorrectly. We find that children this age can recruit what they’ve just learned about how the toys work to diagnose another person’s problem and problem-solve on that person’s behalf.  For example, in cases in which the toy is broken, children will provide a new, functional toy. And when the person is trying to activate a toy, but doing so in an incorrect manner, children are less likely to get a new toy, but will instead show the person how to use the toy correctly. Many children also spontaneously produce behaviors that we might consider teaching. For instance, they point to the toy or the side of the toy that works and provide information (saying, “that toy’s not working,” or “try the other side”), suggesting that children are not just giving this person what they want (music), but are also sharing what they know to help this person learn about the toys. 

In the second study, we found that children (3-year-olds) can use their observations about another person’s physical constraints (for example, the person’s hands are too big to reach inside one box) to figure out what the person likely struggled with and help them with that task. Though young children are often thought of as learners, we see that from a young age they can also teach and help others effectively. These spontaneous teaching-like behaviors surprised us.

What got you interested in children’s helping and teaching behaviors?

So much of what humans do is making decisions with other people in mind. This means that much of our time is spent thinking about how to coordinate our minds and bodies to achieve joint goals and tasks. Of course, we can also use this social reasoning to support effective conflict and competition. I became really fascinated with how we break into the social world and begin to forge social partnerships and build community. I see helping as a basic unit of cooperation, and I was curious how children recruit their knowledge and skills to take actions that affect other people. I think a better understanding of how children engage in social interaction will give us better insight into how successful social coordination emerges, and what the basic social-cognitive mechanisms are that support human cooperation.

What was your experience conducting studies at Bing like?

Conducting research at Bing has been an absolute pleasure and an incredible learning experience. I really appreciate the time administrators take to sit down and help researchers think about their studies, and how to make them more engaging or appropriate for preschoolers. The teachers are also so welcoming and supportive. When conducting studies at other schools, I have always felt supported, but I also felt like a visitor. At Bing, I feel that I am part of the community: The teachers treat me like I am one of them, but with a slightly different role—I’m a game room teacher! This integration helps the children feel comfortable and excited about playing research games. I have also learned so much from spending time in the classroom and watching the teachers comfort children, engage them and mediate conflict. I think all developmentalists should spend time in classrooms, and Bing’s classrooms are a really magical and special place to spend this time.

What’s your next step?

This fall I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to join my fiancé, who was a graduate student at Stanford in psychology and now is a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. I’ll wrap up my PhD remotely, defend sometime between December and March, and then transition into a postdoctoral position myself at MIT and Harvard. I’m very sad to leave Stanford and Bing, but I’m excited to continue conducting research with young children in a new environment.

Anything else you’d like to share?

One of the greatest pleasures of working at Bing is that you get to see children grow up a little bit. I started at Bing in the Twos classrooms in fall 2016, and so I could see how children developed as they reached age 5. When they were 2, they were initially reserved about coming to the game room. It was exciting to see them shift, even just that year, from not making eye contact with me initially to running up to me and asking if it was their turn to go play a game. But it was also so much fun playing games with them when they were older: They acted like game room pros, they knew where all the rooms were and had played many different kinds of games. It’s also a magical experience to carry on full, rich conversations with them—while remembering that just two years earlier they were still learning how to communicate, let alone hold a conversation about their day, birthday parties and dreams. Parents and teachers have front-row seats to watching development happen, but ironically, as researchers, even though we study development, we rarely get to observe it unfold. Spending time at Bing has given me an opportunity to experience development in action. I’ve learned a lot, but it also has just been a remarkable joy to experience.