Kim Ferguson (Kim Johnson)

On leave fall 2015; teaching abroad spring 2016

BA, Knox College. MA, PhD, Cornell University. Special interests include cultural-ecological approaches to infant and child development, children at risk (children in poverty, HIV/AIDS orphans, children in foster care and institutionalized care), health and cognitive development, and development in African contexts. Areas of academic specialization include infant categorization development and the influences of the task, the stimuli used, and infants’ culture, language, and socioeconomic status on their performance; infant face processing in African and American contexts; and relationships between the quality of southern African orphan care contexts and child outcomes. SLC, 2007–

Course Information

Previous courses

Babies, Birds, and ’bots: An Introduction to Developmental Cognitive Science


Do lemurs see red? Do you? What about newborns? Do you really have déjà vu? Does listening to Mozart in the womb really make children more intelligent? What about Metallica? What is intelligence, anyway? Why are phone numbers seven digits long? And why do children learn language better from an adult in person than from the same adult on television? In this course, we will attempt to answer all of these questions and many more that you may have about how we process visual and auditory information, first put things in categories, solve simple and complex problems, communicate with each other and with our pets, and remember how to ride a bicycle and how to get to New York City. To answer these questions, we will read and discuss both theory and research in developmental psychology, psychobiology, linguistics, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy on various aspects of cognitive development across the life span in different cultural contexts, focusing on infancy, childhood, and adolescence. We will also discuss both the usefulness and limitations of this research in light of the populations studied and the methodologies employed. Topics will include perception, categorization, reasoning, theory of mind and autism, language and thought, multilingualism and second-language acquisition, social cognition, memory, metacognition and metamemory, consciousness, and competence in context.


Global Child Development


The majority of the world’s children live in the global South, yet less than 10% of developmental science research has studied communities that account for 90% of the world’s population. There is thus a desperate need to better understand child and adolescent development outside of the United States and Western Europe. In this course, we will begin to do this by exploring what is currently known about children’s health, nutrition, and motor, cognitive, language, social, and emotional development across the globe. Where the research is limited, we will consider if and when research in the global North can be informative regarding child development in the global South. As we do this, we will discuss various bioecocultural approaches to better map out the connections between multiple factors at multiple levels impacting children’s developmental outcomes. Such holistic, multidisciplinary approaches will lay a foundation for sustainable, context-appropriate, community-based projects to better understand and reduce the aversive effects of multiple environmental risk factors on the development of children across the globe. These approaches will also help us  understand and build upon the opportunities afforded by different contexts. Readings will be drawn from both classic and contemporary research in developmental and cultural psychology, psychobiology, anthropology, sociology, and public health, with a critical eye toward understanding both the usefulness and the limitations of this research in light of the populations studied and the methodologies employed. We will also read the literary work of both classic and contemporary authors from the global South to better understand these contexts. Conference work will provide the opportunity for students to focus on a particular context of young children’s lives in greater detail. This may include fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or in another setting with children. 


Inequalities and Opportunities in Yonkers: Integrating Theory, Research, Policy, and Practice


This course is part of the Intensive Semester in Yonkers program and is no longer open for interviews and registration; interviews for the program take place in the previous spring semester.

This course will provide an introduction to the methodologies of community-based and participatory action research within the context of a service-learning course. All students will work for 15 hours per week in a community-based organization that addresses issues of inequality. In addition to their work in the community, students will participate in a weekly discussion-based seminar that will include invited guests from various members of the community-based organizations with which we are working, as well as Sarah Lawrence College faculty and staff and other local practitioners, politicians, and educators. Over the course of the semester, we will discuss participatory action and community-based research methods and practice, integrating theory and research, policy and practice, public health and public policy, nongovernmental organizations and private-public partnerships; understanding and addressing environmental inequalities for children and families; and integrating dance and the performing arts in community-based work (with Peggy Gould). Students will also attend monthly group conferences with other students working in their community-based organization and biweekly, one-on-one conference meetings, with associated reading and written work.


Language Research Seminar


“The baby, assailed by eye, ear, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” —William James (1890)

The acquisition of our first language is “doubtless the greatest intellectual feat any of us is ever required to perform” (Bloomfield), yet this feat was essentially accomplished by the time we were three years old—and we likely have no memory of it. Furthermore, human language fundamentally influences human ecology, culture, and evolution. Thus, many contemporary researchers in the interdisciplinary field of psycholinguistics argue that our language abilities are a large part of what makes us uniquely human. Are we, in fact, the only species with true language? And how would we begin to answer this question? In this course, we will attempt to answer this and other key questions in the broad field of language development through both our discussions of current and contemporary research and theory and the development of new research in this field. Current “hot” research topics include whether bilingual children have better control over what they pay attention to than monolingual children do (attention and language); whether language influences thought; whether language acquisition is biologically programmed; and why children learn language better from an adult in person than the same adult on television. Over the course of the semester, you will have the opportunity to design an independent research project that investigates one of these key questions or another question of interest to you in the broad area of language development. In doing this, you will learn how to outline the rationale for a research project, develop an effective research methodology, collect data, analyze the data, interpret your results, and communicate your findings in a persuasive yet objective manner. This course thus serves as an introduction to research methods, with a specific focus on research methods in psycholinguistics, through your own research. Topics will include experimental research design, case studies, observational techniques, survey development, and hypothesis testing. To help you design and implement your own research, we will discuss your conference research projects in class throughout the semester; you will obtain feedback from your colleagues on your questions, methods, analyses of the data, and interpretation of the results. This project could include fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or in another setting with children.


Poverty in America: Integrating Theory, Research, Policy, and Practice


One-fifth of all American children live in poverty. Why? And what can be done about it? In this course, we will take an ecological and psychobiological approach to poverty in America and its relationship to public policy, with a focus on child poverty. We will discuss how physical and psychosocial environments differ for poor and nonpoor children and their families in both rural and urban contexts, specifically rural Upstate New York and urban Yonkers. We will explore how these differences affect mental and physical health and motor, cognitive, language, and socioemotional development. We will also discuss individual and environmental protective factors that buffer some children from the adverse effects of poverty, as well as the impacts of public policy on poor children and their families, including recent welfare, health, and educational policy reforms in the United States. Topics will include environmental chaos, cumulative risk and its relationship to chronic stress, and unequal access to health-care services. This course will also serve as an introduction to the methodologies of community-based and participatory action research within the context of a service-learning course. Students will be expected to participate in a community partnership addressing issues related to poverty as part of their conference work. In the first semester, we will discuss the nature of these research and practice methodologies, and students will develop a proposal for community-based work in partnership with their community organization. In the second semester, students will implement and evaluate this project.


Teaching the Environment Summer Program


Teaching the Environment is a week-long intensive environmental studies program for educators working with children in early childhood, elementary, and middle school settings. Set on the banks of the Hudson River in downtown Yonkers at the Center for the Urban River at Beczak and Sarah Lawrence College campus, this collaborative program will have an interdisciplinary curriculum including hands-on workshops and field trips to Hudson River community-based organizations. This year’s theme will be Discovering Urban Landscapes and feature experiential workshops ranging from the arts to physical and social sciences. Participants will receive a certificate with in-service credit hours. Upon successful completion of the program and final written project, participants will receive one graduate credit in Art of Teaching.


Theories of Development

The field of developmental psychology has been shaped by several different, and often conflicting, visions of childhood experience. These visions have, in turn, influenced early childhood and childhood education practice. In this course, we will study the classical theories—behaviorist, psychoanalytic, and cognitive-developmental—as they were originally formulated and in light of subsequent critiques and revisions. We will focus on the kinds of questions that each theory asks and the “image of the child” that each puts forth. Recent challenges within the field have highlighted specific conceptual problems, which we will address. Are patterns of development universal or culture-specific? Can childhood experiences be thought of as proceeding in a series of stages? How do we construct methods for studying children that will recognize and validate the significance of differing social and cultural experiences? How can we forge a multicultural view of development such that development is understood in terms of how it is experienced within a given cultural context? The goal of the course is to prepare students to integrate theory and practice into their work with children. Required papers will reflect this integration.