University of Virginia, USA
What does your research focus on?
Nearly all people can remember someone from his or her own childhood who didn’t get along with the peer group. Yet, when asked why this child had difficulty, most people name behaviors within the disliked child as the source of the problem (e.g., that child couldn’t share; that child told lies). Few consider social contextual factors, such as prejudice in the peer group, or a peer climate that discourages inclusion, that also affect the likelihood that a child will be accepted. I am fascinated by the understudied idea that social contextual factors may influence peer relationships.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
Growing up, I moved nine times between birth and age 18 and saw firsthand the dramatic variability in school and neighborhood social norms. Some behaviors that would lead to peer group acceptance in one location would fail in another location. Current conceptual models of peer problems neglect such social contextual influences like peer-group norms, instead predominantly focusing on behaviors on the part of the disliked child. I am excited by the prospect of expanding existing models to include such social contextual factors.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I entered college knowing nothing about graduate school or what academic research entailed and wanted my psychology degree to become a therapist. Despite this, my undergraduate advisor Ian Gotlib patiently educated me about the research process and was the person who first suggested to me that I was capable of undertaking graduate training. I have deep appreciation for my graduate and postdoctoral mentors, Stephen Hinshaw and Linda Pfiffner. Both invested endless energy into helping shape my ideas, writing, and statistical skills. I model my approach after theirs, and I would not be a scientist today without their tremendous efforts.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
No matter how inspired I am by my overarching research questions, there is often a point in a study or in the writing process where I lose motivation. Typically, I look at how much work is needed to complete the task and I feel discouraged. The most helpful trick I have found is to pursue that task for one focused hour each weekday and then be sure to stop when the hour is done. One hour is substantially low so that it is a manageable daily goal, yet at the end of two weeks of this process, I usually see the light at the end of the tunnel.
What’s your future research agenda?
I am creating interventions to change the social context of children’s peer interactions. Specifically, I am training teachers to encourage a peer-group environment that is inclusive and welcoming so as to make it unlikely that any child will be peer-rejected. I am also instructing parents in how to arrange fun playdates that maximize the probability that the children will get along, as a way to encourage friendship development. Currently, most interventions for peer problems draw from the predominant conceptual model of deficits within the disliked child as the source of the difficulties, and attempt to remediate such deficits through medication or social skills training. Yet I think that intervening in the social context of peer relationships can be an addition to child-level treatments that may augment effectiveness.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Remember to laugh a lot and relax with the people (and pets) you care about. In our field, it is always possible to submit another paper. However, even if you did publish one more paper than you have now, you could still publish one more paper beyond that, or that paper could be in a higher-tier journal. Knowing when to stop working is equally important as is knowing when to when to start working.
What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Mikami, A.Y., Lerner, M.D., Griggs, M.S., McGrath, A., & Calhoun, C.D. (2010). Parental influences on children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: II. A pilot intervention training parents as friendship coaches for their children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 737-749.
With the help of my students, I designed, implemented, and evaluated an intervention to change the social contextual factors that I hypothesize contribute to peer problems. Children randomly assigned to the intervention improved in their peer relationships relative to a no-treatment control group. This research supports the theoretical proposition that social contextual factors, not only problem behaviors within disliked children, affect peer relationships.