Positive Developmental Psychology

A Sample of Recent Research

Developmental psychology deals with human development throughout the lifespan, and is a vibrant, diverse field. Below is just a sample of the work being done in positive developmental psychology by faculty members who supervise the work of Claremont Graduate University students.

Follow this link for a listing of all graduate faculty members in positive developmental psychology, including links to their homepages.

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Dr. Mita Banerjee: Children's Understanding of Emotions

“My research has focused largely on children's early understanding of emotions,” says Dr. Mita Banerjee, “and it represents an interest in both social and cognitive aspects of this understanding. My most recent studies have examined children's knowledge about emotion regulation, as well as parents’ values and beliefs about emotion. The connection between parents’ ‘metaemotion theories’ and their emotion interactions with children is a focus of present work. Through the use of a natural language dataset, I am also examining the messages about emotions and their regulation that are contained in parents’ spontaneous speech to their children.”

Children’s literature and its meaning for the development of social cognition also play a role in Dr. Banerjee’s work. “As a way of extending my work on the socialization of emotion understanding,” she says, “I am examining the depiction of emotion regulation presented in children's storybooks, and the way in which mind and emotion are linked in these portrayals.

“In keeping with my interest in the way in which social cognition and social experiences interact, I am also researching cultural differences in children's understanding of the family. I have supervised a number of graduate students from Claremont Graduate University on research projects, as well as in my own research on children's understanding of emotion regulation and on children's concepts of the family.”


Dr. Tiffany Berry: Evaluating Educational Programs

K-12 education matters. Billions are spent yearly in the United States on programs (both in-class and extracurricular) that aim to improve grade school students’ chances for success. In a climate where every dollar matters, though, the evaluation of educational programs has become crucial. As a member of CGU’s Institute of Organizational and Program Evaluation Research, Dr. Tiffany Berry regularly takes on the task of evaluating educational programs, to let providers, the government, and parents know which programs are successfully meeting their goals. With her highly-trained team of graduate students, Dr. Berry measures multiple developmental outcomes for students across different educational contexts. “Over time,” she says, “this helps identify the extent to which developmental trajectories are being modified. I’m broadly interested in examining how the developmental trajectory of children at risk for academic failure is or is not modified by participating in the educational interventions being provided, both in school and out of school. I started down this path years ago with an evaluation project for one of the nation’s largest and most well-respected after-school programs, Los Angeles’s Better Educated Students for Tomorrow (LA’s BEST). Since then, I’ve worked on many programs, and have really enjoyed playing a meaningful role in school districts all over the country through the work." Dr. Berry has conducted a range of evaluations, including Randomized Control Trials on educational curricula, afterschool programs, and using evaluation to improve the effectiveness of community-based family literacy programs.

Results from Dr. Berry's educational program evaluation projects have contributed to bridging the gap between developmental theory and knowledge. For example, her work in afterschool programs has increased our understanding of how individual child characteristics interact with participation indices to moderate social developmental outcomes. Her evaluation work has also translated into multiple publications in leading evaluation journals, including American Journal of Evaluation and New Directions for Evaluation. For example, while many have argued the strengths and weaknesses of the No Child Left Behind legislation, Dr. Berry has focused on how evaluators can flourish within its guidelines. Her co-edited volume of New Directions for Evaluation entitled the “Consequences of No Child Left Behind for Educational Evaluation” (prepared alongside CGU’s Dr. Rebecca Eddy) specifically details how this legislation has affected, and continues to affect research and evaluation in the K-12 school system and community programs that are school-linked.


Dr. Jessica Borelli: Emotional Attachment (Parent/Child and Adult Relationships)

Dr. Jessica Borelli believes strongly that social relationships play a vital role in maintaining both our emotional and physical well-being. At her Pomona CARE Laboratory (short for Child Attachment, Relationships, and Emotion), Dr. Borelli and a team of approximately 25 research assistants examine the links between close relationships and emotional experience in both children and adults within an attachment theory framework. One particular area of her research explores how parent-child relationships influence future patterns of emotionality over the course of the life-span. “Attachment theory offers a compelling lens for understanding the links between early experiences, current relationships, and emotion regulation,” says Dr. Borelli. “Parents set the tone early by providing emotional regulation for their infants, according to attachment theorists. I’m looking at the link between children’s attachment relationships and three indicators of emotions being regulated: psychophysiological measures such as increases in perspiration, activation of the hypothalamus (measured in terms of an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol), and how parents and children self-report their own emotionality. In my work I use the recently-developed Child Attachment Interview as tool—a narrative measure of attachment security adapted from the Adult Attachment Interview. We are currently collecting data examining the association between the classification of a child's attachment and their emotional response to vulnerability.”

In addition to researching how parent-child relationships influence emotional regulation, Dr. Borelli is also pursuing a line of research to see if attachment models can help in understanding relationship transitions in adult couples. “I am collaborating with Dr. David Sbarra (University of Arizona) and Dr. Dana McMakin (Western Psychiatric Institute) on some studies examining how adults adjust to significant changes in romantic relationships,” Jessica reports. “Using a longitudinal design, we are examining couples' adjustment to military deployment as a function of internal working models of attachment. We want to see if deployment and the separation that results effects one’s internalized, secure base regarding one's spouse, and the quality of a marital relationship.” Another research project she is working on in this area involves testing the impact of an attachment-based savoring intervention designed to enhance relationship security among non-deployed spouses. Specifically, during the savoring task she asks non-deployed spouses to reflect upon a time during which they felt strong feelings of security (e.g., safety, protection, comfort) in their relationship with their spouse. “We hypothesize that by mentally activating feelings of attachment security through this savoring exercise, non-deployed spouses will be better able to maintain feelings of closeness with their spouse during the deployment,” Dr. Borelli predicts. These studies are supported by grants from the International Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association.


Dr. Ray Buriel: Children Who Translate for their Parents

In recent years, Dr. Ray Buriel’s research on immigrant acculturation has turned towards "language brokering"—the translation services performed by the children of immigrants for their parents, particularly among Spanish-speaking populations. "We've interviewed parents and their children, finding out who is involved in language brokering and how the process makes them feel," he says. "We've been fortunate to have ten families right here in the campus area who can help contribute to the study, and have been framing their experience within the psychological literature about family obligations."

Recently, though, an interesting wrinkle has arisen. "There's a difference between 'obligaciones de los niños' and 'children's obligations'," Dr. Buriel explains. "We often overlook emic concepts in psychological research, but there are a lot of cultural concepts attached to family duty. It seems that many parents see language brokering as a deber, similar to 'duty', but with the added concept that this is a part of your role in life. With this viewpoint, interpreting for their parents would be a part of the children's role, part of the way they can thank their parents for providing for them. The parents appear to feel they’re doing the children a favor by providing them an opportunity to fulfill their deber, a way of demonstrating that they are bien educado. We’re just beginning to look into this phenomenon, but it’s been very interesting."

Another current research stream, done in conjunction with Dr. Will Perez of Claremont Graduate University, looks at immigrants who are native to Oaxaca, where the indigenous population speaks Zapotec. "We're looking into trilingual subjects in local populations. Are they more comfortable translating from Zapotec into Spanish, or does that hearken back to a reduced status in Mexican society back in Oaxaca? Are they more comfortable translating directly into English? Does the supposedly unstigmatized nature of European-Americans elevate Zapotec speakers when speaking English, or does that make the transition even more difficult?"


Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow and Creativity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the Division of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University, and is co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC). He is a former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, and of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Maine, and also at universities in Finland, Brazil, Canada, and Italy.

He is a developmental psychologist best noted for his work on the study of happiness, creativity, and flow. His 1990 book on the topic: Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, has been translated into 29 languages. He is also a leading researcher on creativity, optimism, intrinsic motivation, responsibility and happiness. He explored the lives of more than 90 of the world's most creative people to find out how creativity has been a force in their lives. He is also considered one of the world's leading scientists on positive psychology, a sub-field he founded in the year 2000 with Prof. Martin Seligman.

Csikszentmihalyi is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Leisure Sciences. In 2000 he was the winner of the Thinker of the Year award.

Currently Professor Csikszentmihalyi is a) working to help define the future of positive psychology, including the doctoral program at CGU; b) continuing research and publication on creativity; c) ditto on flow; d) helping institutions such as schools and businesses to enhance flow and creativity in their organizations.


Dr. Tomoe Kanaya: How Environmental Contexts Affect Education 

Dr. Tomoe Kanaya’s program of research lies at the intersection of developmental psychology and educational policy, particularly on how social and environmental contexts can affect school performance. One particular area of interest is in memory recall among bilingual students. “We know that a bilingual adult is most likely to recall information more quickly and accurately in the language it was first experienced in,” she explains, “but little is known about how the relationship between memory and language develops in bilingual children. Compared to monolinguals, bilingual children experience delaysin some of their language milestones throughout childhood because they are forced to negotiate and learn two languages at once. Among bilingual children, these milestones have their own norms.

“I have created a series of studies to examine the role of language in memory and suggestibility development among bilingual Latino children, as compared to monolingual European-American children. We’re looking at 4 to 7 year olds. The work will also look at the role of the language(s) used by each family member in the home on bilingual children’s language and memory development. I’m hopeful that the findings from this research will have immediate implications for the practice of bilingual education programs and the use of bilingual children’s eyewitness testimony in legal cases. These studies will also add to the limited research on Latino children—a surprisingly under-researched area in psychology, when you consider that Latino children represent the fastest growing minority group in the United States (Garcia & Jenson, 2009).” This work is currently in its early stages.

In a different strain of research, Dr. Kanaya is also examining potential effects of what is termed the “Flynn Effect” on school children who qualify for special education services. The Flynn Effect refers to an upward shift in the average IQ scores each year. This shift can go undetected however, because it is ‘erased’ with each new iteration of the IQ exam every ten to fifteen years. While having a minimal impact on the average adult, this shift in scores can mean a dramatic difference in diagnosis for children on the lower registers of the IQ scale. In addition to eligibility for special education curricula as a child, diagnosis of Mental Retardation impacts an individual’s legal status and other life-changing factors. Dr. Kanaya is looking to see, among other things, if there are significant differences between the Flynn Effect’s impact on different ethnic groups. This project is in its final stages.

Dr. Jeanne Nakamura: Good Mentoring in Adulthood

Dr. Jeanne Nakamura is trained as a lifespan developmental researcher. Her research focuses on positive adult development and reflects the view that both as basic science and as a platform for action in the world, psychology should address not only “how things typically go and how things typically go wrong” but human flourishing, as well.

She has investigated two phenomena that contribute to both individual and societal wellbeing. The first is engagement, which encompasses the state of flow and enduring interests; the second is meaning, particularly in the sense of other-focused purpose. She currently studies engagement and meaning in the context of work.

In one ongoing line of research, Dr. Nakamura’s lab is studying mentoring, a major context of positive adult development. She became interested in the topic of mentoring while collaborating with colleagues at Claremont, Stanford, and Harvard to clarify the nature and conditions of good work – work dedicated to excellence in pursuit of a profession’s defining mission. In earlier research, Dr. Nakamura and her colleagues investigated the impact of being mentored by professionals who are committed to good work themselves, finding that these “good mentors” are remembered as sources of values and practices important to the wellbeing of their profession, such as honesty and fairness in the workplace. Whereas mentoring usually is conceptualized only in relation to individual development, this research considered its implications for professions and societies, as well. Dr. Nakamura’s research group is currently studying the formative influences of mentoring and how good mentors are formed.

In a second line of research, Dr. Nakamura is interested in the emerging period of life – now decades long – between middle adulthood and frail old age, and the possibilities it offers for engagement and meaning. Pathways through this period of the life course are still ill defined. As the baby boom generation enters these decades – 79 million people were born between 1946 and 1964, and are now entering their sixties – the paths that they take will have major social, cultural, and economic impact. She is currently planning research on positive aging, in particular the paths that lead to good work after sixty, with a focus on social innovation and civic engagement.

Dr. Kathy Pezdek: Children's Memories in Court

Cognitive psychologist Dr. Kathy Pezdek has long explored conditions that affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in the courtroom. Erroneous eyewitness testimony can result from a range of situational factors as well as from suggestive circumstances such as biased lineups and suggestive interrogation. Suggestive interrogation can be an even greater danger when dealing with child witnesses, who appear to be highly susceptible to implanted memories caused by well-meaning trial preparation procedures. Dr. Pezdek has an ongoing program of cognitive development research on this topic.

“It’s called ‘Forced Confabulation,’” Dr. Pezdek explains. “When you ask a child to speculate on the answer to a question, later, they are much more likely to add their speculated response to what they believe is their ‘real’ memory. In experiments we’ve run, we’ve asked children to consider what might have happened in a situation. Later, when asked to recall that situation, a large percentage of the children have described the speculated events alongside what they actually witnessed. In the courtroom, it’s easy to see how this could contaminate testimony, especially when prompting by interviewers plays a common role in the pre-trial process.”


Dr. Patricia Smiley: Dealing with Challenges to Acheivement; Language and Self

Dr. Patricia Smiley’s current research concerns how children aged 9 to 12 years respond to challenging achievement tasks. The primary goal of the project is to understand the emotions and problem-solving strategies of those children who worry about how well they are performing on a difficult task. More specifically, Dr. Smiley and her team expect that children who are concerned about performance, and particularly those who pin their self-worth on their performance, will feel more shame and forget to use strategies they learned when they are experiencing failure. They also expect that such children will strive to perform very well on a subsequent, easier task, and will feel relief once their self-worth is restored. In comparison, those who feel challenged by the initial difficult task, and who maintain feelings of self-worth despite failure, should work more strategically and express more interest during and after failure, and feel interested or happy, rather than relieved, after the easy task. The study will contribute to an emerging literature on contingent self-worth and emotion regulation in relation to achievement goals.

Other work is proceeding using a data set collected to explore mother-child and father-child interactions, child temperament, and self-regulation in 4- to 5-year-olds. Dr. Smiley’s lab videotaped interactions between parents and children that can be coded for parent control under conditions of low and high pressure as well as measures of child temperament and child helplessness and shame. Three studies have been completed from this project but there are still additional data analyses that Dr. Smiley and her lab plan to do, including a short-term longitudinal study to see whether child temperament and parent control predict helplessness one year after the initial videos were made.

Throughout her career, Dr. Smiley has also pursued her interest in language among young children (from 1 to 2 ½ years old). These projects have been directed primarily at understanding how language (e.g., personal pronouns and action verbs) expresses and might shape the young child’s emerging sense of self. Currently, lab members are working on a study of toddlers’ means of making requests for objects that are out of reach, contrasting behavior in naturalistic and laboratory settings. She welcomes student ideas for child language acquisition projects in English or in other languages, as long as students are fluent in the proposed language.