Culture may influence willingness to help others Lucia Alcalá, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, receives the Spencer Foundation Research Grant on Education

Recently awarded the Spencer Foundation Research Grant on Education, Lucia Alcalá’s research interest is centered on understanding how culture guides social and cognitive development in early childhood and, more recently, in college students. She is exploring the impact of children’s contributions to household work on their collaborative and problem-solving skills. She is also examining the impact of service-learning (local and international) on college students’ civic development, identity development, and social responsibility.

After obtaining her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from USCS as a first-generation college student, Alcalá spent two years working in several Maya communities in Yucatan. She was interested in understanding how mothers and children in these communities conceptualize learning and helping.

Alcalá conducted weekly visits to these communities to observe children helping at school and participating in household chores and community events. She wanted to understand why children help so extensively there and what motivates them to help others. In many indigenous communities, children take the initiative to help, learn, and contribute. In contrast, children in middle-class American communities have limited access to work and are involved in adult-controlled activities.

After conducting interviews with children and mothers, it was clear that for them, helping is a community responsibility, and children are eager to help others. This is not the case in middle-class communities in Mexico and the USA, where children help minimally, and their help is often contingent on rewards or negotiation.

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“My children are my inspiration,” says Alcalá, who grew up in a small rural town in Mexico and immigrated to California during her teen years. Her research interest arose out of her experience as an immigrant trying to figure out the cultural values and norms in her host community. “I was trying to raise my children with some cultural values, but we were in a predominantly white community, and some of those cultural practices were not a good fit in this context. So, through my research, I’ve been trying to understand the role of culture in development and trying to figure out how to successfully participate in the American society without loosing my Mexican-heritage,” she continues.

Alcalá’s award will allow her to evaluate and explore the impact of cultural values and bilingualism on the development of Executive Function skills in Maya children in Yucatan and European-American children in California. “Executive Function skills (attention, working memory, and mental flexibility) work as the ‘Air-Traffic’ controller of our minds responsible for successfully engaging in goal-oriented behavior,” she explains. She will be assessing Executive Function skills using a series of standardized and exploratory tasks, as well as ethnographic observations of children’s participation in family and community activities. She hopes that findings from this project could inform educators on the ways they can support children’s development of Executive Function skills building on the cultural practices that children bring into the classroom.

“Find what research question speaks to you, to pay attention to what brings you joy and passion when you are learning in class or reading your textbook, and pursue this passion. Look for research experience to explore different areas of research to find what works for you.”

Photo credits: Lucia Alcalá and photo of 3 children sitting with books by Deira Jiménez-Balam

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