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Same child, different family perspectives, OISE researcher Jenny Jenkins finds

 

by Fred Michah Rynor

Professor Jennifer JenkinsIt's long been known that a child's early development takes place within the family context but if we want to have an impact on children’s learning and well-being then we have to understand how families operate, states OISE Professor Jenny Jenkins. However, researchers have usually studied family influences by examining only one dyad in the family: typically the one parent-child dyad or one sibling dyad. 

 

This methodology is now being challenged by Jenkins, a professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development and Chair of the Atkinson Centre. 

Jenkins has found that researchers can’t rely on one dyad to represent the entire family unit. "All family members must be included in research and we have to think about the family as a set of individuals nested within dyads and a set of dyads nested within the whole family." 

Family researchers, Jenkins maintains, too often study one child per family "but our method is to observe and question the whole family for more accurate statistical and other results. What one child says is often not relevant for the whole family. Our methodology is unique because we use new, specifically developed tools to look at a particular family and implement multi-level modelling and statistical techniques – tools that weren’t available before.” 

Jenkins has translated research methods that were first used in education to study children in classrooms and now, in partnership with British experts and her OISE lab, she has refined these techniques to study family life. 

“We’re excited by these new techniques because, as a clinical psychologist myself, it’s important that we have a high level of scientific knowledge on how children develop and that we use these tools to deliver programs that will help change children’s lives for the better,” says Jenkins, a professor with OISE for 22 years. 

A clinical and developmental psychologist, she has also worked as a family therapist and believes that combining results from family research with findings from prevention and intervention research will help experts build better systems of care for very young children.

“Before we can intervene with children we need to pinpoint what it is about relationships with parents and siblings that makes a real difference for children’s early learning and brain development," Jenkins believes. "By studying everyone in the family and tracking children’s development over time we're learning important lessons about prevention. Our goal is to provide children and families with the supports they need in the first few years of children’s lives so that they manage well when entering school.” 

Jenkins has become the ‘go-to person’ when it comes to family relationship issues through her years of extensive research and Time magazine recently singled her out for her groundbreaking work. 

“My studies with children have definitely been my life’s calling,” she states. “I’ve long been fascinated by how relationships work and how people are affected when mental health issues are tied up with that whole family dynamic and I’m concerned with how we can do better at putting research into practice." 

Jenkins says it's important to differentiate how various members of families affect children individually. 

"I don’t want to assume that one person has the same effect on every member of the family unit. For example, how does one child in the family impact on say, the mother and one other sibling or parent while the child’s interactions with other members of the family are completely different? We can’t presuppose that studying one child will speak for all siblings.” 

Even though families have been studied in incredible depth for decades, Jenkins maintains that there is still much we don’t know. 

“We’re constantly improving our research methodology and these new tools give us new – and often surprising – discoveries such as the role of siblings in development and emerging studies on how genetic influences impact on family relationships.” 

Jenkins has found that what she and her team are studying (and accomplishing) in their lab is “absolutely innovative globally speaking. What we’re doing is helping parents and children in difficult circumstances by developing new methodologies that will aid us in realizing the unique and individual stressors that cause these problems.” 

Funding for Jenkins’ research comes through the Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development at U of T, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation and the Connaught Global Challenge Award. 

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