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AMES: Assessment of Motivation, Effort, and Self-regulation

Our lab has created an iPad app — the Assessment of Motivation, Effort, and Self-regulation (AMES) — which uses five brief games to measure intrapersonal SEL skills, including persistence, challenge preference, delay of gratification, and executive functions (EFs). We are using AMES to study how these skills change over time and how they support learning in diverse groups of children. This work is funded by Technology for Equity in Learning Opportunities at Stanford (TELOS), the Spencer Foundation, and an SRCD-Jacobs Foundation initiative, Development in the Digital Age.


In 2018, we conducted an initial field test of these games with 675 four- to twelve-year-old children at museums and summer camps in the Bay Area. 

We found that a Boys and Girls Clubs of America afterschool literacy program had positive effects on second and third graders' cognitive flexibility and working memory, which were measured using the AMES app.

We have adapted AMES for use in low- and middle-income countries. We have used the app to collect executive functioning data with school-age children in Ghana and Ivory Coast. 

Early Childhood Educational Experiences

In partnership with the SFUSD Early Education Department, we are examining how different aspects of the Pre-K classroom experience uniquely relate to the growth of children’s academic, social, and emotional learning skills, and whether these associations vary by children’s ethnic background, language proficiency, or initial skill levels. Further, we are evaluating the effects of a new social and emotional curriculum in 25 transitional kindergarten (T-K) classrooms. This research is supported by an SFUSD-Stanford Partnership grant.

Early Childhood Educational Experiences Publications


Leveraging SFUSD classroom- and student-level data, we are examining whether observed classroom quality (instructional, organizational, and emotional support) is uniquely related to gains in children’s school readiness skills across the preschool year.

By comparing kindergarten students who attended the district's need-based preschool or universal age-based transitional kindergarten (TK) program to demographically similar comparison students, we found that the district's preschool and TK programs have positive impacts on students literacy skills and cognitive/motor skills at kindergarten entry.

Using a universal screening measure of child health at kindergarten entry, we found that that racial/ethnic disparities in teacher-reported child health partially explain racial/ethnic disparities in kindergarten readiness skills.

We found that district-designed formative assessments of socioemotional and academic skills in kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 have predictive validity for children’s outcomes on statewide, mandated standardized assessments of reading and mathematics in Grade 3. We are currently examining these relations through Grade 5.

We found that SFUSD’s needs-based pre-K program supported the learning of early pre-literacy skills compared to demographically-similar kindergarteners who did not attend SFUSD pre-K or transitional kindergaren (TK). SFUSD’s universal age-based TK program supported the learning of early pre-literacy skills, more advanced reading skills, and early numeracy skills compared to demographically-similar kindergarteners who did not attend SFUSD preK or TK. The TK program also supported more advanced reading skills through the winter of Grade 1.

Stress Physiology and Self-regulation in Children

We are studying how the dynamic interplay between children’s physiological arousal, self-regulatory skills, and the quality of caregiving environments relates to children’s health, learning, and well-being over time. This work points toward the possibility of harnessing stress physiology to promote resilience in at-risk children (Obradović, 2016). Thus, we are testing whether brief interventions can change young children’s physiological responses to emotional and cognitive challenges. This work was supported by a grant from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and it is currently funded by the Jacobs Foundation.


We demonstrated differential susceptibility at the level of basic self-regulatory skills, shedding light on potential mechanisms through which biological sensitivity operates on long-term adaptation (Obradović, Portilla, & Ballard, 2016). 

We conceptualized physiological response as a dynamic process that encompasses multiple stages and found that children's executive functions were linked to reactivity and recovery trajectories of physiological response (Obradović & Finch, 2017).

We found that parents’ own self-regulation skills are crucial for responsive and engaged caregiving (Shaffer & Obradović, 2017), whereas dynamic measures of parent-child co-regulation are linked to teacher reports of self-regulated classroom behavior (Bardack, Herbers, & Obradović, 2017).

We found that children with more positive, reciprocal relationships with their parents exhibited greater withdrawal of the parasympathetic nervous system while receiving critical feedback from an unfamiliar adult. Children with lower levels of independent self-regulated behavior showed greater withdrawal of the parasympathetic nervous system after the critical feedback ceased, suggesting that this post-task period was physiologically challenging for them (Armstrong, Sulik, & Obradović, 2020).

 We found that parents and five-year-old children synchronized their physiological responses while they were completing puzzles and problem solving together, such that parent parasympathetic arousal was positively associated with child parasympathetic arousal across time, accounting for between-subject differences (Armstrong-Carter, Miller, Obradović, 2022).

STAR Project: School Transition and Readiness in Rural Pakistan

With Dr. Aisha Yousafzai and a research team at Aga Khan University, in Karachi, Pakistan, we are studying how an early parenting intervention, family processes, and antecedent development relate to emergent executive functions (EFs) and related school readiness skills in disadvantaged preschoolers. Our goal is to further the understand of early childhood development in low-and middle-income countries (LMIC) where children face high levels of adversity, including infections, malnutrition, and inadequate stimulation. This work was funded by the Grand Challenges Canada, Saving Brains Program.

View a list of all STAR publications.


We found that EFs in preschoolers were uniquely predicted by physical growth status at age two, number of older siblings, and an early parenting intervention, after controlling for child IQ (Obradović et al., 2019).

We found that observed maternal scaffolding behaviors and quality of home environment mediated the longitudinal effects of the early parenting intervention on preschooler’s EFs (Obradović, Yousafzai, Finch, & Rasheed 2016).

We found that maternal working memory, short-term memory, and verbal intelligence have been shown to uniquely predict maternal scaffolding behaviors (Obradović et al., 2017).

We found that girls with lower cortisol concentrations displayed greater cognitive skills if they came from relatively wealthier families, but lower cognitive skills if they came from very poor families - this work supports the theory of Biological Sensitivity to Context among young children in rural Pakistan (Armstrong-Carter et al., 2020).

Among four year old children in rural Pakistan, we showed that children with access to greater home stimulation at 18 months exhibited growth in motor skills motor skills from ages 2 to 4, over and above family socioeconomic resources (Armstrong-carter et al., 2021).

PLUS Project: Promoting Learning, Understanding Self-regulation

We studied executive functions (EFs) in upper elementary school grades, an age when students are expected to manage their own classroom behaviors with less direct input from teachers and when peer influences become more salient. We showed that EF skills are uniquely related to both adaptive classroom behaviors and academic achievement, over and above related, but conceptually distinct skills. We identified how specific aspects of the classroom context relate to changes in EF skills across an academic school year. This work was funded by a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation.

View a list of all PLUS publications.


We developed and validated a pragmatic, cost-effective way to directly assess children’s EF skills using tablet computers, enabling group-based classroom assessments at scale (Obradović, Sulik, Finch, & Tirado-Strayer, 2017).

We developed a novel ranking procedure to quickly obtain teacher report of EF skills on all students in a classroom. These rankings showed high convergence with teachers’ ratings of EF, and similarly predicted school outcomes, but they took less time to complete (Sulik & Obradović, 2018).

We found persistent, systematic disparities (by gender, ethnicity, and ELL status) in teachers’ reports of students’ EFs, when compared to the direct assessment of these skills (Garcia, Sulik, & Obradović, 2018).

We developed an observation measure, Teachers’ Displays and Scaffolding of Executive Function (T-DSEF) , to help study how teacher behaviors relate to students' EF skills. Teachers' displays of impulsivity, distraction, or disorganization were linked to student EFs in the fall, whereas teachers’ scaffolding practices were linked to student EFs in the spring (Bardack & Obradović, 2019).

We found that having classmates with higher average EFs is associated with growth in individual student EFs (Finch, Garcia, Sulik & Obradović, 2019).