Research Methods in Developmental Psychology

By and

University of Calfornia, Irvine

What do infants know about the world in which they live – and how do they grow and change with age? These are the kinds of questions answered by developmental scientists. This module describes different research techniques that are used to study psychological phenomena in infants and children, research designs that are used to examine age-related changes in development, and unique challenges and special issues associated with conducting research with infants and children. Child development is a fascinating field of study, and many interesting questions remain to be examined by future generations of developmental scientists – maybe you will be among them!

Learning Objectives

  • Describe different research methods used to study infant and child development
  • Discuss different research designs, as well as their strengths and limitations
  • Report on the unique challenges associated with conducting developmental research


A group of children were playing hide-and-seek in the yard. Pilar raced to her hiding spot as her six-year-old cousin, Lucas, loudly counted, “… six, seven, eight, nine, ten! Ready or not, here I come!”. Pilar let out a small giggle as Lucas ran over to find her – in the exact location where he had found his sister a short time before. At first glance, this behavior is puzzling: why would Pilar hide in exactly the same location where someone else was just found? Whereas older children and adults realize that it is likely best to hide in locations that have not been searched previously, young children do not have the same cognitive sophistication. But why not… and when do these abilities first develop?

A young girl smiles as she peeks out from a hiding place.
Children's games are more than just fun. They can be opportunities for researchers to learn about how children think, feel, and behave. [Image: gomattolson,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

Developmental psychologists investigate questions like these using research methods that are tailored to the particular capabilities of the infants and children being studied. Importantly, research in developmental psychology is more than simply examining how children behave during games of hide-and-seek – the results obtained from developmental research have been used to inform best practices in parenting, education, and policy.

This module describes different research techniques that are used to study psychological phenomena in infants and children, research designs that are used to examine age-related changes in developmental processes and changes over time, and unique challenges and special issues associated with conducting research with infants and children.

Research Methods

Infants and children—especially younger children—cannot be studied using the same research methods used in studies with adults. Researchers, therefore, have developed many creative ways to collect information about infant and child development. In this section, we highlight some of the methods that have been used by researchers who study infants and older children, separating them into three distinct categories: involuntary or obligatory responses, voluntary responses, and psychophysiological responses. We will also discuss other methods such as the use of surveys and questionnaires. At the end of this section, we give an example of how interview techniques can be used to study the beliefs and perceptions of older children and adults – a method that cannot be used with infants or very young children.

Involuntary or obligatory responses

One of the primary challenges in studying very young infants is that they have limited motor control– they cannot hold their heads up for short amounts of time, much less grab an interesting toy, play the piano, or turn a door knob. As a result, infants cannot actively engage with the environment in the same way as older children and adults. For this reason, developmental scientists have designed research methods that assess involuntary or obligatory responses. These are behaviors in which people engage without much conscious thought or effort. For example, think about the last time you heard your name at a party – you likely turned your head to see who was talking without even thinking about it. Infants and young children also demonstrate involuntary responses to stimuli in the environment. When infants hear the voice of their mother, for instance, their heart rate increases – whereas if they hear the voice of a stranger, their heart rate decreases (Kisilevsky et al., 2003). Researchers study involuntary behaviors to better understand what infants know about the world around them.

An infant lies on its back with its eyes fixed on a nearby object.
Even when infants are so young that they have very little motor control, researchers can observe and record involuntary responses, such as an infant's eye movements, to get valuable insight into what they understand about the world around them. [Image: Greg Kintz,, CC BY-NC-SA,]

One research method that capitalizes on involuntary or obligatory responses is a procedure known as habituation. In habituation studies, infants are presented with a stimulus such as a photograph of a face over and over again until they become bored with it. When infants become bored, they look away from the picture. If infants are then shown a new picture--such as a photograph of a different face-- their interest returns and they look at the new picture. This is a phenomenon known as dishabituation. Habituation procedures work because infants generally look longer at novel stimuli relative to items that are familiar to them. This research technique takes advantage of involuntary or obligatory responses because infants are constantly looking around and observing their environments; they do not have to be taught to engage with the world in this way.

One classic habituation study was conducted by Baillargeon and colleagues (1985). These researchers were interested in the concept of object permanence, or the understanding that objects exist even when they cannot be seen or heard. For example, you know your toothbrush exists even though you are probably not able to see it right this second. To investigate object permanence in 5-month-old infants, the researchers used a violation of expectation paradigm. The researchers first habituated infants to an opaque screen that moved back and forth like a drawbridge (using the same procedure you just learned about in the previous paragraph). Once the infants were bored with the moving screen, they were shown two different scenarios to test their understanding of physical events. In both of these test scenarios, an opaque box was placed behind the moving screen. What differed between these two scenarios, however, was whether they confirmed or violated the solidity principle – the idea that two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In the possible scenario, infants watched as the moving drawbridge stopped when it hit the opaque box (as would be expected based on the solidity principle). In the impossible scenario, the drawbridge appeared to move right through the space that was occupied by the opaque box! This impossible scenario violates the solidity principle in the same way as if you got out of your chair and walked through a wall, reappearing on the other side.

The results of this study revealed that infants looked longer at the impossible test event than at the possible test event. The authors suggested that the infants reacted in this way because they were surprised – the demonstration went against their expectation that two solids cannot move through one another. The findings indicated that 5-month-old infants understood that the box continued to exist even when they could not see it. Subsequent studies indicated that 3½- and 4½-month-old infants also demonstrate object permanence under similar test conditions (Baillargeon, 1987). These findings are notable because they suggest that infants understand object permanence much earlier than had been reported previously in research examining voluntary responses (although see more recent research by Cashon & Cohen, 2000).

Voluntary responses 

A woman inspects tomatoes as she puts them into a shopping bag.
Filling your basket at the supermarket is an example of a voluntary response behavior. The choices you make are under your control. [Image: Ikayama,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

As infants and children age, researchers are increasingly able to study their understanding of the world through their voluntary responses. Voluntary responses are behaviors that a person completes by choice. For example, think about how you act when you go to the grocery store: you select whether to use a shopping cart or a basket, you decide which sections of the store to walk through, and you choose whether to stick to your grocery list or splurge on a treat. Importantly, these behaviors are completely up to you (and are under your control). Although they do not do a lot of grocery shopping, infants and children also have voluntary control over their actions. Children, for instance, choose which toys to play with.

Researchers study the voluntary responses of infants and young children in many ways. For example, developmental scientists study recall memory in infants and young children by looking at voluntary responses. Recall memory is memory of past events or episodes, such as what you did yesterday afternoon or on your last birthday. Whereas older children and adults are simply asked to talk about their past experiences, recall memory has to be studied in a different way in infants and very young children who cannot discuss the past using language. To study memory in these subjects researchers use a behavioral method known as elicited imitation (Lukowski & Milojevich, in press).

In the elicited imitation procedure, infants play with toys that are designed in the lab to be unlike the kinds of things infants usually have at home. These toys (or event sequences, as researchers call them) can be put together in a certain way to produce an outcome that infants commonly enjoy. One of these events is called Find the Surprise. As shown in Figure 1, this toy has a door on the front that is held in place by a latch – and a small plastic figure is hidden on the inside. During the first part of the study, infants play with the toy in whichever way they want for a few minutes. The researcher then shows the infant how make the toy work by (1) flipping the latch out of the way and (2) opening the door, revealing the plastic toy inside. The infant is allowed to play with the toy again either immediately after the demonstration or after a longer delay. As the infant plays, the researcher records whether the infant finds the surprise using the same procedure that was demonstrated.

The two-step event sequence Find the Surprise. The picture on the left shows all of the toys needed to complete the event. The picture in the middle shows a hand flipping the latch out of the way so the door can be opened (step 1). The picture on the right shows a hand opening the door, ultimately revealing a plastic figurine hidden inside (step 2).
Figure 1. The two-step event sequence Find the Surprise. The picture on the left shows all of the toys needed to complete the event. The picture in the middle shows a hand flipping the latch out of the way so the door can be opened (step 1). The picture on the right shows a hand opening the door, ultimately revealing a plastic figurine hidden inside (step 2). These images are from a larger figure initially published in Lukowski and Milojevich (2013) (reprinted with permission).

Use of the elicited imitation procedure has taught developmental scientists a lot about how recall memory develops. For example, we now know that 6-month-old infants remember one step of a 3-step sequence for 24 hours (Barr, Dowden, & Hayne, 1996; Collie & Hayne, 1999). Nine-month-olds remember the individual steps that make up a 2-step event sequence for 1 month, but only 50% of infants remember to do the first step of the sequence before the second (Bauer, Wiebe, Carver, Waters, & Nelson, 2003; Bauer, Wiebe, Waters, & Bangston, 2001; Carver & Bauer, 1999). When children are 20 months old, they remember the individual steps and temporal order of 4-step events for at least 12 months – the longest delay that has been tested to date (Bauer, Wenner, Dropik, & Wewerka, 2000).


Behavioral studies have taught us important information about what infants and children know about the world. Research on behavior alone, however, cannot tell scientists how brain development or biological changes impact (or are impacted by) behavior. For this reason, researchers may also record psychophysiological data, such as measures of heart rate, hormone levels, or brain activity. These measures may be recorded by themselves or in combination with behavioral data to better understand the bidirectional relations between biology and behavior.

An infant wears an EEG cap.
Special equipment has been developed to allow researchers to record the brain activity of very young and very small research subjects. [Image: Matt Cain,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

One manner of understanding associations between brain development and behavioral advances is through the recording of event-related potentials, or ERPs. ERPs are recorded by fitting a research participant with a stretchy cap that contains many small sensors or electrodes. These electrodes record tiny electrical currents on the scalp of the participant in response to the presentation of particular stimuli, such as a picture or a sound (for additional information on recording ERPs from infants and children, see DeBoer, Scott, & Nelson, 2005). The recorded responses are then amplified thousands of times using specialized equipment so that they look like squiggly lines with peaks and valleys. Some of these brain responses have been linked to psychological phenomena. For example, researchers have identified a negative peak in the recorded waveform that they have called the N170 (Bentin, Allison, Puce, Perez, & McCarthy, 2010). The peak is named in this way because it is negative (hence the N) and because it occurs about 140ms to 170ms after a stimulus is presented (hence the 170). This peak is particularly sensitive to the presentation of faces, as it is commonly more negative when participants are presented with photographs of faces rather than with photographs of objects. In this way, researchers are able to identify brain activity associated with real world thinking and behavior.

 The use of ERPs has provided important insight as to how infants and children understand the world around them. In one study (Webb, Dawson, Bernier, & Panagiotides, 2006), researchers examined face and object processing in children with autism spectrum disorders, those with developmental delays, and those who were typically developing. The children wore electrode caps and had their brain activity recorded as they watched still photographs of faces (of their mother or of a stranger) and objects (including those that were familiar or unfamiliar to them). The researchers examined differences in face and object processing by group by observing a component of the brainwave they called the prN170 (because it was believed to be a precursor to the adult N170). Their results showed that the height of the prN170 peak (commonly called the amplitude) did not differ when faces or objects were presented to typically developing children. When considering children with autism, however, the peaks were higher when objects were presented relative to when faces were shown. Differences were also found in how long it took the brain to reach the negative peak (commonly called the latency of the response). Whereas the peak was reached more quickly when typically developing children were presented with faces relative to objects, the opposite was true for children with autism. These findings suggest that children with autism are in some way processing faces differently than typically developing children (and, as reported in the manuscript, children with more general developmental delays).

Parent-report questionnaires 

A mother and infant lie together on the grass.
Parents spend countless hours together with children observing their behavior. Developmental psychologists sometimes use surveys to collect information from parents that can be used to answer important research questions. [Image: JerryLai0208,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

Developmental science has come a long way in assessing various aspects of infant and child development through behavior and psychophysiology – and new advances are happening every day. In many ways, however, the very youngest of research participants are still quite limited in the information they can provide about their own development. As such, researchers often ask the people who know infants and children best – commonly, their parents or guardians – to complete surveys or questionnaires about various aspects of their lives. These parent-report data can be analyzed by themselves or in combination with any collected behavioral or psychophysiological data.

One commonly used parent-report questionnaire is the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach & Rescorla, 2000). Parents complete the preschooler version of this questionnaire by answering questions about child strengths, behavior problems, and disabilities, among other things. The responses provided by parents are used to identify whether the child has any behavioral issues, such as sleep difficulties, aggressive behaviors, depression, or attention deficit/hyperactivity problems.

A recent study used the CBCL-Preschool questionnaire (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2000) to examine preschooler functioning in relation to levels of stress experienced by their mothers while they were pregnant (Ronald, Pennell, & Whitehouse, 2011). Almost 3,000 pregnant women were recruited into the study during their pregnancy and were interviewed about their stressful life experiences. Later, when their children were 2 years old, mothers completed the CBCL-Preschool questionnaire. The results of the study showed that higher levels of maternal stress during pregnancy (such as a divorce or moving to a new house) were associated with increased attention deficit/hyperactivity problems in children over 2 years later. These findings suggest that stressful events experienced during prenatal development may be associated with problematic child behavioral functioning years later – although additional research is needed.

Interview techniques 

Whereas infants and very young children are unable to talk about their own thoughts and behaviors, older children and adults are commonly asked to use language to discuss their thoughts and knowledge about the world. In fact, these verbal report paradigms are among the most widely used in psychological research. For instance, a researcher might present a child with a vignette or short story describing a moral dilemma, and the child would be asked to give their own thoughts and beliefs (Walrath, 2011). For example, children might react to the following:

“Mr. Kohut’s wife is sick and only one medication can save her life. The medicine is extremely expensive and Mr. Kohut cannot afford it. The druggist will not lower the price. What should Mr. Kohut do, and why?”

Children can provide written or verbal answers to these types of scenarios. They can also offer their perspectives on issues ranging from attitudes towards drug use to the experience of fear while falling asleep to their memories of getting lost in public places – the possibilities are endless. Verbal reports such as interviews and surveys allow children to describe their own experience of the world.

Research Design

Now you know about some tools used to conduct research with infants and young children. Remember, research methods are the tools that are used to collect information. But it is easy to confuse research methods and research design. Research design is the strategy or blueprint for deciding how to collect and analyze information. Research design dictates which methods are used and how.

Researchers typically focus on two distinct types of comparisons when conducting research with infants and children. The first kind of comparison examines change within individuals. As the name suggests, this type of analysis measures the ways in which a specific person changes (or remains the same) over time. For example, a developmental scientist might be interested in studying the same group of infants at 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months to examine how vocabulary and grammar change over time. This kind of question would be best answered using a longitudinal research design. Another sort of comparison focuses on changes between groups. In this type of analysis, researchers study average changes in behavior between groups of different ages. Returning to the language example, a scientist might study the vocabulary and grammar used by 12-month-olds, 18-month-olds, and 24-month-olds to examine how language abilities change with age. This kind of question would be best answered using a cross-sectional research design. 

Longitudinal research designs

Longitudinal research designs are used to examine behavior in the same infants and children over time. For example, when considering our example of hide-and-seek behaviors in preschoolers, a researcher might conduct a longitudinal study to examine whether 2-year-olds develop into better hiders over time. To this end, a researcher might observe a group of 2-year-old children playing hide-and-seek with plans to observe them again when they are 4 years old – and again when they are 6 years old. This study is longitudinal in nature because the researcher plans to study the same children as they age. Based on her data, the researcher might conclude that 2-year-olds develop more mature hiding abilities with age. Remember, researchers examine games such as hide-and-seek not because they are interested in the games themselves, but because they offer clues to how children think, feel and behave at various ages.

Chart of a longitudinal research design. Child "A" is first observed in 2004 at the age of two. Child "A' is next observed in 2006 at age four. The next observation is in 2008 when Child "A" is six. Finally, in 2010 at the age of eight Child "A" is observed again.
Example of longitudinal research design

Longitudinal studies may be conducted over the short term (over a span of months, as in Wiebe, Lukowski, & Bauer, 2010) or over much longer durations (years or decades, as in Lukowski et al., 2010). For these reasons, longitudinal research designs are optimal for studying stability and change over time. Longitudinal research also has limitations, however. For one, longitudinal studies are expensive: they require that researchers maintain continued contact with participants over time, and they necessitate that scientists have funding to conduct their work over extended durations (from infancy to when participants were 19 years old in Lukowski et al., 2010). An additional risk is attrition. Attrition occurs when participants fail to complete all portions of a study. Participants may move, change their phone numbers, or simply become disinterested in participating over time. Researchers should account for the possibility of attrition by enrolling a larger sample into their study initially, as some participants will likely drop out over time.

The results from longitudinal studies may also be impacted by repeated assessments. Consider how well you would do on a math test if you were given the exact same exam every day for a week. Your performance would likely improve over time not necessarily because you developed better math abilities, but because you were continuously practicing the same math problems. This phenomenon is known as a practice effect. Practice effects occur when participants become better at a task over time because they have done it again and again; not due to natural psychological development. A final limitation of longitudinal research is that the results may be impacted by cohort effects. Cohort effects occur when the results of the study are affected by the particular point in historical time during which participants are tested. As an example, think about how peer relationships in childhood have likely changed since February 2004 – the month and year Facebook was founded. Cohort effects can be problematic in longitudinal research because only one group of participants are tested at one point in time – different findings might be expected if participants of the same ages were tested at different points in historical time.

Cross-sectional designs 

Cross-sectional research designs are used to examine behavior in participants of different ages who are tested at the same point in time. When considering our example of hide-and-seek behaviors in children, for example, a researcher might want to examine whether older children more often hide in novel locations (those in which another child in the same game has never hidden before) when compared to younger children. In this case, the researcher might observe 2-, 4-, and 6-year-old children as they play the game (the various age groups represent the “cross sections”). This research is cross-sectional in nature because the researcher plans to examine the behavior of children of different ages within the same study at the same time. Based on her data, the researcher might conclude that 2-year-olds more commonly hide in previously-searched locations relative to 6-year-olds.

A chart shows an example of a cross-sectional design. The year is 2004 and three separate cohorts are included in a study. Participants in Cohort "A" are two tears old. Participants in Cohort "B" are six years old. Participants in Cohort "C" are eight years old.
Example of cross-sectional research design

Cross-sectional designs are useful for many reasons. Because participants of different ages are tested at the same point in time, data collection can proceed at a rapid pace. In addition, because participants are only tested at one point in time, practice effects are not an issue – children do not have the opportunity to become better at the task over time. Cross-sectional designs are also more cost-effective than longitudinal research designs because there is no need to maintain contact with and follow-up on participants over time.

One of the primary limitations of cross-sectional research, however, is that the results yield information on age-related change, not development per se. That is, although the study described above can show that 6-year-olds are more advanced in their hiding behavior than 2-year-olds, the data used to come up with this conclusion were collected from different children. It could be, for instance, that this specific sample of 6-year-olds just happened to be particularly clever at hide-and-seek. As such, the researcher cannot conclude that 2-year-olds develop into better hiders with age; she can only state that 6-year-olds, on average, are more sophisticated hiders relative to children 4 years younger.

Sequential research designs

Sequential research designs include elements of both longitudinal and cross-sectional research designs. Similar to longitudinal designs, sequential research features participants who are followed over time; similar to cross-sectional designs, sequential work includes participants of different ages. This research design is also distinct from those that have been discussed previously in that children of different ages are enrolled into a study at various points in time to examine age-related changes, development within the same individuals as they age, and account for the possibility of cohort effects.

Consider, once again, our example of hide-and-seek behaviors. In a study with a sequential design, a researcher might enroll three separate groups of children (Groups A, B, and C). Children in Group A would be enrolled when they are 2 years old and would be tested again when they are 4 and 6 years old (similar in design to the longitudinal study described previously). Children in Group B would be enrolled when they are 4 years old and would be tested again when they are 6 and 8 years old. Finally, children in Group C would be enrolled when they are 6 years old and would be tested again when they are 8 and 10 years old.

A chart of a sequential design: The study begins in 2002 with Cohort "A" who are two years old. The study continues in 2004. Cohort "A" are now fours years old. They are joined in the study by Cohort "B" who are two years old. The final year of the study is 2006. Cohort "A" is six years old, Cohort "B" is four years old, and third cohort is added, Cohort "C" who are two years old.
Example of sequential research design

Studies with sequential designs are powerful because they allow for both longitudinal and cross-sectional comparisons. This research design also allows for the examination of cohort effects. For example, the researcher could examine the hide-and-seek behavior of 6-year-olds in Groups A, B, and C to determine whether performance differed by group when participants were the same age. If performance differences were found, there would be evidence for a cohort effect. In the hide-and-seek example, this might mean that children from different time periods varied in the amount they giggled or how patient they are when waiting to be found. Sequential designs are also appealing because they allow researchers to learn a lot about development in a relatively short amount of time. In the previous example, a four-year research study would provide information about 8 years of developmental time by enrolling children ranging in age from two to ten years old.

Because they include elements of longitudinal and cross-sectional designs, sequential research has many of the same strengths and limitations as these other approaches. For example, sequential work may require less time and effort than longitudinal research, but more time and effort than cross-sectional research. Although practice effects may be an issue if participants are asked to complete the same tasks or assessments over time, attrition may be less problematic than what is commonly experienced in longitudinal research since participants may not have to remain involved in the study for such a long period of time.

When considering the best research design to use in their research, scientists think about their main research question and the best way to come up with an answer. A table of advantages and disadvantages for each of the described research designs is provided here to help you as you consider what sorts of studies would be best conducted using each of these different approaches.

Advantages and disadvantages of different research designs are summarized from the text
Advantages and disadvantages of different research designs

Challenges Associated with Conducting Developmental Research

The previous sections describe research tools to assess development in infancy and early childhood, as well as the ways that research designs can be used to track age-related changes and development over time. Before you begin conducting developmental research, however, you must also be aware that testing infants and children comes with its own unique set of challenges. In the final section of this module, we review some of the main issues that are encountered when conducting research with the youngest of human participants. In particular, we focus our discussion on ethical concerns, recruitment issues, and participant attrition.

Ethical concerns 

As a student of psychological science, you may already know that Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) review and approve of all research projects that are conducted at universities, hospitals, and other institutions. An IRB is typically a panel of experts who read and evaluate proposals for research. IRB members want to ensure that the proposed research will be carried out ethically and that the potential benefits of the research outweigh the risks and harm for participants. What you may not know though, is that the IRB considers some groups of participants to be more vulnerable or at-risk than others. Whereas university students are generally not viewed as vulnerable or at-risk, infants and young children commonly fall into this category. What makes infants and young children more vulnerable during research than young adults? One reason infants and young children are perceived as being at increased risk is due to their limited cognitive capabilities, which makes them unable to state their willingness to participate in research or tell researchers when they would like to drop out of a study. For these reasons, infants and young children require special accommodations as they participate in the research process.

When thinking about special accommodations in developmental research, consider the informed consent process. If you have ever participated in psychological research, you may know through your own experience that adults commonly sign an informed consent statement (a contract stating that they agree to participate in research) after learning about a study. As part of this process, participants are informed of the procedures to be used in the research, along with any expected risks or benefits. Infants and young children cannot verbally indicate their willingness to participate, much less understand the balance of potential risks and benefits. As such, researchers are oftentimes required to obtain written informed consent from the parent or legal guardian of the child participant, an adult who is almost always present as the study is conducted. In fact, children are not asked to indicate whether they would like to be involved in a study at all (a process known as assent) until they are approximately seven years old. Because infants and young children also cannot easily indicate if they would like to discontinue their participation in a study, researchers must be sensitive to changes in the state of the participant (determining whether a child is too tired or upset to continue) as well as to parent desires (in some cases, parents might want to discontinue their involvement in the research). As in adult studies, researchers must always strive to protect the rights and well-being of the minor participants and their parents when conducting developmental science.


An additional challenge in developmental science is participant recruitment. Recruiting university students to participate in adult studies is typically easy. Many colleges and universities offer extra credit for participation in research and have locations such as bulletin boards and school newspapers where research can be advertised. Unfortunately, young children cannot be recruited by making announcements in Introduction to Psychology courses, by posting ads on campuses, or through online platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. Given these limitations, how do researchers go about finding infants and young children to be in their studies?

The answer to this question varies along multiple dimensions. Researchers must consider the number of participants they need and the financial resources available to them, among other things. Location may also be an important consideration. Researchers who need large numbers of infants and children may attempt to do so by obtaining infant birth records from the state, county, or province in which they reside. Some areas make this information publicly available for free, whereas birth records must be purchased in other areas (and in some locations birth records may be entirely unavailable as a recruitment tool). If birth records are available, researchers can use the obtained information to call families by phone or mail them letters describing possible research opportunities. All is not lost if this recruitment strategy is unavailable, however. Researchers can choose to pay a recruitment agency to contact and recruit families for them. Although these methods tend to be quick and effective, they can also be quite expensive. More economical recruitment options include posting advertisements and fliers in locations frequented by families, such as mommy-and-me classes, local malls, and preschools or day care centers. Researchers can also utilize online social media outlets like Facebook, which allows users to post recruitment advertisements for a small fee. Of course, each of these different recruitment techniques requires IRB approval.


A tired looking mother closes her eyes and rubs her forehead as her baby cries.
Participating in developmental research can sometimes be difficult for both children and their parents. This can contribute to a higher attrition rate than is typical in other types of research. [Image: Tina Franklin,, CC BY 2.0,]

Another important consideration when conducting research with infants and young children is attrition. Although attrition is quite common in longitudinal research in particular, it is also problematic in developmental science more generally, as studies with infants and young children tend to have higher attrition rates than studies with adults. For example, high attrition rates in ERP studies oftentimes result from the demands of the task: infants are required to sit still and have a tight, wet cap placed on their heads before watching still photographs on a computer screen in a dark, quiet room. In other cases, attrition may be due to motivation (or a lack thereof). Whereas adults may be motivated to participate in research in order to receive money or extra course credit, infants and young children are not as easily enticed. In addition, infants and young children are more likely to tire easily, become fussy, and lose interest in the study procedures than are adults. For these reasons, research studies should be designed to be as short as possible – it is likely better to break up a large study into multiple short sessions rather than cram all of the tasks into one long visit to the lab. Researchers should also allow time for breaks in their study protocols so that infants can rest or have snacks as needed. Happy, comfortable participants provide the best data.


Child development is a fascinating field of study – but care must be taken to ensure that researchers use appropriate methods to examine infant and child behavior, use the correct experimental design to answer their questions, and be aware of the special challenges that are part-and-parcel of developmental research. After reading this module, you should have a solid understanding of these various issues and be ready to think more critically about research questions that interest you. For example, when considering our initial example of hide-and-seek behaviors in preschoolers, you might ask questions about what other factors might contribute to hiding behaviors in children. Do children with older siblings hide in locations that were previously searched less often than children without siblings? What other abilities are associated with the development of hiding skills? Do children who use more sophisticated hiding strategies as preschoolers do better on other tests of cognitive functioning in high school? Many interesting questions remain to be examined by future generations of developmental scientists – maybe you will make one of the next big discoveries!

Outside Resources

Sample Child Behavior Checklist for Ages 6-18
Video: A 3 and a half minute video depicting the violation of expectation paradigm.
Video: A popular TED talk by Dr. Laura Schulz on the topic of how babies make decisions.
Video: A popular TED talk by Dr. Patricia Kuhl on the topic of how babies learn language.
Video: A two and a half minute video showing how ERP (brain activity) can be measured with children in the laboratory.
Web: A link to Angela Lukowski’s research laboratory. The site includes descriptions of the research and researchers as well as a list of publications.
Web: The International Congress on Infant Studies - a professional society focused on infant research
Web: The Society for Research on Adolescence - a professional society focused on research on adolescence
Web: The Society for Research on Child Development - a professional society focused on child development research

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to conduct research on infants and children?
  2. What are some possible benefits and limitations of the various research methods discussed in this module?
  3. Why is it important to examine cohort effects in developmental research?
  4. Think about additional challenges or unique issues that might be experienced by developmental scientists. How would they handle the challenges and issues you’ve addressed?
  5. Work with your peers to design a study to identify whether children who were good hiders as preschoolers are more cognitively advanced in high school. What research design would you use and why? What are the advantages and limitations of the design you selected?


When minor participants are asked to indicate their willingness to participate in a study. This is usually obtained from participants who are at least 7 years old, in addition to parent or guardian consent.
When a participant drops out, or fails to complete, all parts of a study.
Bidirectional relations
When one variable is likely both cause and consequence of another variable.
Cohort effects
When research findings differ for participants of the same age tested at different points in historical time.
Cross-sectional research
A research design used to examine behavior in participants of different ages who are tested at the same point in time.
When participants demonstrated increased attention (through looking or listening behavior) to a new stimulus after having been habituated to a different stimulus.
Elicited imitation
A behavioral method used to examine recall memory in infants and young children.
The recording of participant brain activity using a stretchy cap with small electrodes or sensors as participants engage in a particular task (commonly viewing photographs or listening to auditory stimuli).
When participants demonstrated decreased attention (through looking or listening behavior) to repeatedly-presented stimuli.
The process of getting permission from adults for themselves and their children to take part in research.
Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)
A committee that reviews and approves research procedures involving human participants and animal subjects to ensure that the research is conducted in accordance with federal, institutional, and ethical guidelines.
Interview techniques
A research method in which participants are asked to report on their experiences using language, commonly by engaging in conversation with a researcher (participants may also be asked to record their responses in writing).
Involuntary or obligatory responses
Behaviors in which individuals engage that do not require much conscious thought or effort.
Longitudinal research
A research design used to examine behavior in the same participants over short (months) or long (decades) periods of time.
Motor control
The use of thinking to direct muscles and limbs to perform a desired action.
Object permanence
The understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be directly observed (e.g., that a pen continues to exist even when it is hidden under a piece of paper).
Practice effect
When participants get better at a task over time by “practicing” it through repeated assessments instead of due to actual developmental change (practice effects can be particularly problematic in longitudinal and sequential research designs).
Psychophysiological responses
Recording of biological measures (such as heart rate and hormone levels) and neurological responses (such as brain activity) that may be associated with observable behaviors.
Recall memory
The process of remembering discrete episodes or events from the past, including encoding, consolidation and storage, and retrieval.
Research design
The strategy (or “blueprint”) for deciding how to collect and analyze research information.
Research methods
The specific tools and techniques used by researchers to collect information.
Sequential research designs
A research design that includes elements of cross-sectional and longitudinal research designs. Similar to cross-sectional designs, sequential research designs include participants of different ages within one study; similar to longitudinal designs, participants of different ages are followed over time.
Solidity principle
The idea that two solid masses should not be able to move through one another.
Verbal report paradigms
Research methods that require participants to report on their experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc., using language.
A short story that presents a situation that participants are asked to respond to.
Violation of expectation paradigm
A research method in which infants are expected to respond in a particular way because one of two conditions violates or goes against what they should expect based on their everyday experiences (e.g., it violates our expectations that Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff but does not immediately fall to the ground below).
Voluntary responses
Behaviors that a person has control over and completes by choice.


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  • Angela Lukowski
    Angela Lukowski is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California-Irvine. Her research examines how early cognitive abilities are shaped by the social context in which children are raised. She is a previous recipient of the UCI Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.
  • Helen Milojevich
    Helen Milojevich is a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Irvine. Her research focuses on cognitive and emotional development in maltreated children and children with developmental delays. She will be joining the Center for Developmental Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as a postdoctoral fellow in Fall 2016.

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How to cite this Noba module using APA Style

Lukowski, A. & Milojevich, H. (2024). Research methods in developmental psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from