Dr. Jennifer Jenkins is the Atkinson Chair of Early Child Development & Education at the University of Toronto. Jenkins is internationally known for her research on the family processes that promote lifelong learning and mental health in young children, as well as the study of resilience amongst siblings for children living in high-risk environments. She runs the Kids, Families, Places Study, a birth-cohort, longitudinal study of 500 children, their older siblings and parents, followed into middle childhood. She carries out intervention studies in the home and childcare environments to improve children’s experiences in close relationships. She does meta-analytic studies to synthesize intervention and observational findings about children’s close relationships. She works with statisticians to improve statistical models for analyzing family data. She is currently collaborating with governments and NGOs to offer online training that works to enhance parent and sibling responsivity in low-income settings. Her scientific work has appeared in over 100 peer reviewed publications. She has won awards for her contributions to teaching, scholarship and leadership in developmental psychology. She is a co-author of Understanding Emotions, now in its 4th edition.
I study the environmental stressors that have an impact on children’s development. Experiences in families are the most important stressors in children’s lives. In my research lab we have investigated stressors such as low parental education and poverty, marital conflict and separation, harshness in the parent-child relationship, siblings experiencing very different parental treatment from one another and parental psychiatric problems. Most problematic for children is when these environmental stresses occur together: although children can deal with single risks in their lives when these multiply their ability to maintain a healthy developmental trajectory is compromised. These stressors do not occur randomly to families. Societies that are less equal in how they apportion resources to families, have more negative child outcomes. When parents struggle with economic disadvantage, they provide less good parenting to their children. Cross-generational cycles of disadvantage are evident: parents who have experienced adversity in their own growing up are more likely to expose their children to the same adversities.
Brain development occurs within relationships and we now know a lot about the interactions that foster brain development. Our goal is to foster what has been called a mutually responsive orientation: encouraging cooperation between two people in a relationship so that they get inside one another’s minds, understand the other and foster one another’s goals. Behaviors that are critical are sensitive responding, teaching just above the child’s level of competence, internal state talk, reflecting on the other person’s experience. These behaviors have been shown to be important in parent-child, sibling, peer and teacher-child relationships.