Our research team addresses social-emotional development, primarily in early childhood, with an emphasis on identifying typical trajectories of temperament development, as well as risk and protective factors relevant to the development of psychopathology. In addition, parental contributions to both temperament development and the emergence of symptoms/behavior problems are routinely examined. We have been fortunate to collaborate with a number of wonderful colleagues at WSU, in the US, and abroad, with the latter group contributing to another area of research – cross-cultural study of temperament development and developmental psychopathology.
Our work with temperament emphasizes areas related to methodology (i.e., how do we ask meaningful questions about this domain of individual differences?) as well as development (examining trajectories of fear, and other characteristics, in early childhood). Along the way issues related to how much temperament changes over time, vs. how stable attributes appear to be, how much parents agree with each other about their infants’ temperament, and how parental attributes influence their ratings of children’s behavior and emotions, have been addressed. Most recently, attention has turned to applying this information, offering parents of infants an opportunity to learn more about temperament in general, and their baby’s profile more specifically, in an effort to increase their sensitivity/responsiveness, and lower the risk for child behavior problems, maltreatment, and likely other adverse outcomes.
Here the goal has been twofold: (1) how to understand the interplay between different temperament attributes in predicting early signs/symptoms of behavioral and emotional difficulties, and (2) how to make sense of the parent related factors, as these interact with temperament and help shape the development of symptoms/behavior problems. The temperament feedback program mentioned earlier represents an attempt to prevent these difficulties from coming online, by intervening in the first year of life, providing a psycho-educational parent guidance program, which is currently being evaluated.
In the last 5 years we have focused on enhancing the understanding of biological underpinnings of temperament. Several current projects with this aim in mind are currently in progress. In one study, we are recording infant electroencephalogram (EEG) in the context of several laboratory activities that are designed to mimic every day situations that elicit specific emotional reactions, such as a game of peek-a-boo. In another investigation we are examining how maternal wellbeing during pregnancy effects infant temperament development, considering both psychosocial and physiological stress reactivity (i.e., chronic cortisol levels). The Gartstein laboratory is also participating in two multi-disciplinary studies funded by the WSU Grand Challenges initiatives. The Seed grant funded investigation, entitled: “Developmental origins of health and disease: Identifying potential mechanisms for intergenerational transmission of risk and resilience” is currently underway and involved an evaluation of prenatal factors, including epigenetic effects. The WSU Health Equity Risk and Resilience Consortium (HERRC) funded project entitled: “Childcare choices, microbiomes, and infant behavior – are they related?” will enable us to link temperament markers to microbiome genomic properties, contributing to our understanding of the brain-gut-axis.
So much of the social-emotional development literature has been based on the assumption that discerned effects could be easily generalized to people/populations around the world. More recently, cross-cultural differences in the development of temperament and behavior problems have been identified, with noted variability attributed to differences in the “developmental niche”, which represents a set of factors related to the settings available to the child, caregivers’ characteristics, and daily activities, that are culturally influenced and shape the developmental process.