Laboratory for Social-Emotional Development and Intervention


Child Development in Marginalized Communities (CDMC)

In developing countries, many children are born in families that are marginalized due to reasons such as poverty, rural-to-urban migration, and internal and external displacement. Growing up in marginalized communities exposes children not only to poverty, but also to violence, inadequate care, limited access to health services, and so on. Early exposure to these risk factors can have detrimental, and sometimes even irreversible, effects on child development and health, such as delayed social-emotional development, lower cognitive capacities, and behavioural challenges. Thus, intervention is required early in life for children facing adversity in order to break the cycle.


This project focuses on children from birth to 24 months in a marginalized urban informal settlement with residents from mixed backgrounds (e.g., refugee, rural migrants, and poor indigenous people) in Nairobi, Kenya. We aim to adapt, implement, and evaluate an integrated, evidence-based intervention to support children’s early development in social-emotional, cognitive, and health domains. In the first phase, we will conduct a feasibility study to understand child development, maternal and child health, breastfeeding and child rearing practices in this context. We will also collect information on the infrastructure and demography in this community. In the second phase, we will use a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) as well as implement an integrated intervention which will be adapted from information gained through our literature review and findings from the feasibility study (the first phase). In the third phase, we will assess and monitor child development and evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention. Ultimately, we hope to contribute to the ongoing discussion of what we, as researchers, can do to support the development of vulnerable children in marginalized contexts.


This project is collaborated with the Alliance for Human Development (AHD) at Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, in Toronto and the Institute for Human Development (IHD) at the Aga Khan University, in Nairobi. For more information, please visit the → project website





One of our central research themes focuses on the impact of adversity, such as poverty, exposure to violence, or experiences of war, on children and adolescents. We explore how experiencing adversities influences the development of kindness and aggression, and how we can reduce aggression and enhance kindness in children and adolescents experiencing varying levels of adversity.

Below you will find our ongoing research projects on adversity and its effect on kindness and aggression.



CDMC Project Illustration by Erinn Acland

Study of Prosocial Development and Resilience in Newcomer Transitions(SPRINT)

With many refugees arriving in Canada, it is important to understand how to best help these children and families successfully integrate and resettle into society. What are the refugee children’s and caregivers’ experiences surrounding support, prosociality, and challenging situations during their transition? What personal characteristics and interpersonal experiences make the transition easier for some than for others? How do these factors affect the children’s resilience, development, and health? SPRINT is a community-based project that addresses these questions. In a sample of  newcomer children ages 5 to 12, and their caregivers, we collect information on the children’s emotional and behavioural characteristics, social interactions, and psychological well-being using questionnaires. We also interview them about some of the challenges and positive experiences they have had (such as receiving support and helping others) during their transition. We aim to understand how refugee children and families deal with their transition to Canada and the factors that contribute to their resilience and health, helping them to adjust and thrive. To better comprehend the information gathered from working with the refugee families, we also collect information from a comparison group of age-matched non-refugee Canadian children and families using the same measures and procedures. This comparison can help identify unique challenges and strengths in refugee children and inform systems of support tailored to the needs of the children and families in a developmentally and culturally sensitive way. The findings from this project will inform the development and implementation of practices designed to help with the social adjustment and integration of refugee families in Canada.


Illustration SPRINT project, Illustration by Erinn Acland

Social-Emotional Responding Screening and Assessment Project (SER)

Many children face social and emotional challenges that jeopardize their healthy development, potential, and behavioural adaptation. Information about children’s normative social-emotional development is critical to addressing their needs, gauging their strengths and overcoming their challenges early to ensure positive long-term outcomes. Our laboratory is committed to the generation of cutting-edge knowledge and creation of new screening and assessment tools that are based in our social-emotional developmental theory. These tools measure core dimensions of children’s social-emotional capacities in age-appropriate ways, using multiple methods, informants, and approaches. Working closely with community partners and organizations, we are currently implementing this instrument suite in a systematic way across different areas of practice.  We also offer training for practitioners and innovative data visualization strategies to help clinicians, practitioners, and educators integrate children’s social-emotional strengths and needs into decisions made about the child’s health, care, and education. Ultimately, professionals are better able to employ developmentally tailored intervention strategies that address the social-emotional needs of each child and capitalize on existing strengths.



Illustration SER Project, Illustration by Erinn Acland

Adversity and the Development of Affective and Prosocial Trajectories (ADAPT)

How do kind emotions and behaviours develop across the early years? Do early emotional experiences affect behaviour trajectories? How does exposure to adversity, such as poverty, family conflict, or community violence, affect pathways of kindness?

These are the core questions of ADAPT. They are timely because our understanding of the origins and antecedents of kindness is limited. Simultaneously, we live in times of increasing adversity, such as exposure to conflict, disagreement, and violence. The development of kindness is foundational for children’s and adolescents’ wellbeing, positive relationships, and peace in our communities. Our previous research has shown that prosocial emotions, such as sympathy, motivate kindness. In this study we adopt a longitudinal design to study the trajectories of kind emotions and behaviours in children 2 to 6 years of age, and how pathways and their relations differ for children facing adversity in the family (e.g., parental conflict) and/or in the community (e.g., neighborhood violence). We use a multi-method, multi-informant approach including observations, behavioural tasks, physiological assessments, questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews. Ultimately, this study will help us understand the emergence and predictors of kindness in humans. Working in partnership with community leaders and practitioners, findings from our research will inform developmentally-sensitive strategies that will nurture kindness in children with diverse needs.



University of Toronto Mississauga