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Stumbling Blocks

Psychologists at the University of Potsdam study childhood development risks
Photo: GK „Intrapersonale Entwicklungsrisiken“
Photo : -
Photo: GK „Intrapersonale Entwicklungsrisiken“

Learning disabilities, aggressive behaviour, depressive moods – developmental disorders occur quite frequently in children and adolescents. Which personal qualities contribute to the development of such disorders and which ones protect against them? How do they actually take effect? How do they influence each other? These are questions raised by doctoral students in a research training group that was initiated by psychologists of the University of Potsdam in 2011. In order to get to the bottom of these kinds of questions, the doctoral students collect data in the context of a project called the PIER Study (Potsdamer Intrapersonale Entwicklungsrisiken). More than 3,000 children from schools in Brandenburg have already participated in the study. First results are now available.

Why does a child become anorexic when he or she reaches puberty while many others overcome the turbulence of hormones without any bigger problems on their way towards adulthood? Why can one child read fluently three years after starting school while others still have problems in understanding the content of a text? The research training group “Intrapersonal Developmental Risks in Childhood and Adolescence – A Longitudinal Perspective” is striving to answer these questions.

The scientific programme behind this title is ambitious. The research programme enables doctoral students of psychology at the University of Potsdam to deal with a wide range of questions in a still understudied field of research. “We already know many of the factors that can lead a child astray or may result in detours in his or her development,” says Birgit Elsner, spokesperson of the research training group, “but we do not know much about how these factors actually take effect and how they influence each other.” Elsner says that a PhD research programme is most suitable for examining these complex interactions. This way, the twelve doctoral students can investigate their research questions and assess a large variety of measures in one large sample of children: “Individual projects wouldn’t be able to achieve this.” Thirteen scientists of the Department of Psychology teamed up for this project. They all work in different psychological areas. Some have specialized in aggressive behaviour or in emotional processing; others concentrate on reading motivations or eating and weight disorders. In their joint research project they want to investigate why some people have more problems than others on the long and winding road of growing up.

The research training group does not focus on inherited dispositions or competencies, or external stumbling blocks, such as difficulties in the family or at school. Rather, the researchers concentrate on intrapersonal development risks such as cognitive and emotional information processing, or on individual ways of reaction to external events. External and internal factors interact in complex ways when it comes to developmental disorders. However, the project is based on the assumption that personal qualities like self-perception or a sense for injustice, which are formed during childhood, mediate between innate features and environmental factors. So far, there is not enough consolidated knowledge about the characteristics that make children prone to developmental disorders and about characteristics that protect them. Such disorders are quite common among children and adolescents. To know more about them might improve prevention and treatment.

The research training group focuses on three problem areas that are particularly important for everyday life at schools and in the family. The first field deals with learning disorders. The second group of problem behavior includes both externalizing problems, like aggressive behaviour, and internalizing problems, like anxiety and depression. Eating and weight-related disorders are examined in the third field.

The research project will only provide useful results if the scientists are able to obtain data from a large number of children and adolescents. In order to record changes and gain a longitudinal perspective, these examinations have to be repeated several times over the course of several years. This requires a considerable amount of time and effort. As a first step, the research training group was able to draw on a sample that was first investigated in 2005. This preceding study on children, who are between 11 and 19 years today, was financed by the University of Potsdam as part of a programme for doctoral candidates. As of today, this first group includes about 1,500 participants. A second sample with more than 1,600 children from first to third grade became part of the project in 2012. In order to compile and examine such a group, it was necessary to obtain the consent of the schools and parents first. Afterwards, about 40 student research assistants were recruited and thoroughly trained in a three-day instruction course. During individual two-hour sessions with the children, the experimenters, who are either doctoral students or student assistants, ask each child about his or her attitudes, ideas and feelings, and they record some of these procedures on tape. Additionally, they ask the children to solve some computer tasks that are presented in a playful way and are geared toward the children’s age. Parents and teachers fill in questionnaires about each child. All this is worth the effort. “The collected data form the basis for the work in the research groups,” explains Juliane Felber, who is one of the two coordinators of the project. “However, the researchers always also pay attention to the overall picture. The final result is more than just the sum of the different individual projects.”

Juliane Felber and Rebecca Bondü are the ones who coordinate the logistics and organisational details. The shelves of Felber’s office are filled with rows of neatly labelled stacks of documents. People often knock at the door to pick up documents, to discuss questions or to arrange appointments.

The first doctoral candidates started their research work in spring 2011. By now, a dozen junior scientists are working on their own projects. Fidan Sahyazici-Knaak, for instance, examines the connection between certain attitudes – like an excessive striving for perfection or a continuous feeling of helplessness – and the development of depressions after crucial life events. Therefore, she looks into the findings of those children who show typical signs of inner withdrawal, like lethargy and sadness, and contrasts them with the information children gave about their perceptions and feelings. “For a long time it was thought that children and adolescents hardly ever suffer from depressions. This is why the research on this topic has only been done for about 20 years and is comparably young,” Sahyazici-Knaak says. The suspected connection could already be deduced from the data of the first survey. Only the longitudinal perspective, however, will show whether unfavourable attitudes promote the withdrawal into an inner world or whether they are formed as a consequence of depressive moods.

In her dissertation, Franziska Stutz wants to empirically analyse the assumption that reading motivation in its different forms is closely linked to reading competence. “How often do you read?” is one of the standard questions of the survey. The children can answer this question by pointing to circles of various sizes. Furthermore, interviewers will ask them, why they read: Do they read for fun? Or because they hope to be appreciated for it? Do they want to keep up with others? We know from older children that the joy of reading is more important for their reading competence than external incentives because it makes them pick up a book more often. It is assumed that frequent reading in early emergent readers automatizes the reading process. Automatization in reading is a prerequisite for freeing capacities in our brain which, in turn, allow for a deeper processing and complex understanding of the text. The first results of Franziska Stutz’s research suggest that reading motivation enhances later reading competence already among first to third graders. The research work of Anja Sperlich takes place in the “EyeLab” of the university. While the children read ageappropriate sentences, a special camera takes pictures of the eye movement every millisecond. A computer programme analyses the movement of the pupils, records how long the gaze remains on one position or whether it just skips a word. Data analyses give some information about how many words per minute the participants read and how many letters they were able to process simultaneously. Anja Sperlich relates her lab findings to reading skills that Franziska Stutz assesses as well. When the research training group finishes their work in September 2015, all present doctoral students will have completed their work and the next cohort will have started their task. If the research programme will be prolonged by another four and a half years as intended, a data record over a period of nine years will be available. This would cover the entire period of children’s development from the start of school to the end of puberty. “These data are definitely interesting for other scientists and field workers,” spokesperson Birgit Elsner says. In any case, the joint programme of the psychologists from Potsdam will contribute to our knowledge in this field. Birgit Elsner underlines, “Childhood and adolescence are significant phases of human development. Our research will help to identify problems at an early stage and, what is even better, to prevent their occurrence. Thus, the research training group is an important investment into the future of our society.”

The Project

Research Training Group “Intrapersonal Developmental Risks in Childhood and Adolescence – A Longitudinal Perspective” (“Intrapersonale Entwicklungsrisiken des Kindes- und Jugendalters in längsschnittlicher Sicht”)

The research training group is funded by the German Research Foundation. The group was initiated by thirteen psychologists of the University of Potsdam in 2011. Twelve young scientists are preparing their doctoral theses in this group. The empirical data are collected in the PIER Study affiliated to the research group. The word PIER stands for “Potsdamer intrapersonale Entwicklungsrisiken“ ( It is a largescale study with more than 3,000 pupils from Potsdam and the surrounding areas. A wide-ranging accompanying programme with seminars, workshops, and a summer school provides the doctoral candidates with methodological tools and methods and gives them an overall perspective of project and research fields.

The Scientist

Professor Birgit Elsner has lectured and done research at the Department of Psychology of the University of Potsdam since 2007. Since 2008 she has been chair of the Division Developmental Psychology. Her research interests focus on cognitive processes in early infancy. With her work in the research training group, whose spokesperson she is, she has extended her field of research into the age group of school children and adolescents.


Universität Potsdam
Department Psychologie
Karl-Liebknecht Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
E-Mail: birgit.elsneruni-potsdamde

Text: Sabine Sütterlin, Web Content Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translation: Susanne Voigt



Sabine Sütterlin

Online editorial

Julia Schwaibold