The Risk Inside – Psychologists examine which traits promote critical development.
The first data was collected in 2005. By now about 3,000 children and adolescents have participated in the PIER (Potsdamer intrapersonale Entwicklungsrisiken) Study. The large-scale study, funded by the German Research Association (DFG), is based on the initiative of 13 psychologists at the University of Potsdam. In a research training group, 12 PhD candidates and post-docs are examining the development of participants over time, paying special attention to intrapersonal risk factors, i.e. those psychological qualities that may promote critical development. The researchers are examining whether depression, eating disorders or learning disabilities are triggered or enhanced by exaggerated perfectionism or low self-esteem. Heike Kampe talked to spokesperson Prof. Dr. Birgit Elsner and project coordinator Dr. Juliane Felber.
Since 2005 researchers have been continuously examining the development of children and adolescents in the PIER study. The 4- to 11-year-old subjects of the first test group are now adolescents or young adults. A second test group of 6- to 11-year-old children was started in 2011. What is it that you want to find out?
ELSNER: We want to identify the factors that determine whether a child develops in line with standards or developmental problems occur. We consider three broad fields. The first focuses on learning and achievement disabilities, for example in reading and math. The second field includes the so-called externalizing and internalizing psychological problems. Here we mainly look at aggressiveness and depression symptoms. The third field refers to problems related to eating and weight disorders. Although we do acknowledge the influence of the environment, family, and school, we concentrate on intrapersonal risk factors.
Why do you address these internal risk factors in particular in the PIER Study?
ELSNER: These risk factors have not been examined to such an extent and in such a comprehensively systematic way. The specific analysis of individual factors is still lacking. We are examining the ability to concentrate, control one’s behavior, handle negative emotions, and individual motivation. Different environments influence children differently, but how a similar environment affects different children depends on how children can cope with, for example, stressors.
FELBER: We do not deny the influence of environment. It is always about an interaction between a person and his or her environment. We concentrate on the internal psychological factors in order to make substantiated and comprehensive statements that have not yet been made. A major advantage of our study is that we can look at the individual factors in their interaction: To what extent do risk factors interrelate, and where might they neutralize each other? You can examine these aspects much better when you look at different internal psychological factors.
What kind of data do you collect in order to draw conclusions about internal risk factors?
ELSNER: We have compiled a comprehensive test battery of very different thematic components. From each child we collect all the variables that interest us. In addition to extensive questionnaires, we also use test procedures to establish the children’s performances in math and reading. We also have computer-based tasks to measure the speed of a child’s reaction and decision making.
FELBER: We record a child’s motivation and physical symptoms in our questionnaires. The children can indicate whether statements like “I often have a headache.” or “I like reading.” apply to them. They also answer questions about their eating habits. “How often did you secretly eat last week?” or about social behavior “I have spread rumors about someone.” Parents and teachers also get questionnaires that ask about strengths, weaknesses, and behavioral patterns of their children.
Which criteria did you use to choose the participants for the study?
FELBER: Children from about 100 schools in Potsdam and its surrounding area are participating. We made sure that the group is rather heterogeneous and representative. The children are from the city and from rural areas as well as from different types of schools. We did not preselect them based on school performance.
ELSNER: It is important to mention that the project has been very well received by schools. Teachers, secretary offices, and principals have been very helpful. Without their support such a study would be impossible. The PIER Study has become a well-established name. It is a positive signal that both parents and teachers appreciate the study and associate it with the University of Potsdam, which is also the result of the friendly and professional approach of the 40 student assistants and research assistants as well as PhD candidates, who go to the schools to conduct the tests.
FELBER: The children are also very happy that they get little presents for their participation. The older ones get cinema or book gift certificates; the younger ones sometimes get sweets or little things for school.
What will happen to the collected data?
ELSNER: We first have to define whether the risk factors and problem areas are systematically connected. We are confronted with a complex network of various, mutually interacting factors. Our central question is the course of the causal chain. What is the hen, and what is the egg?
In other words: Are children depressive because of bad school marks or do they underperform at school because they are depressive?
ELSNER: Yes, this is a good example. The third question would be: Are all children with poor achievement depressed or does there have to be a third element, e.g. self-control issues? We are trying to identify such causal connections in our projects. For this we need a longitudinal perspective, in other words data collection at different points of time. Then we can analyze whether children who are performing poorly at school will become depressive or vice versa. We already have four reference dates from the test series started in 2005. The new test group of 2011 already has two. This allows us to research long-term effects.
Have you already gotten any results from these analyses?
ELSNER: Altogether we have 12 projects. Each one has already produced interesting results. We can already say that reading motivation influences reading competence. Children who read a lot because they enjoy it, read better than those who read for competitive reasons, in other words because they want to be better than others.
FELBER: The point is to support the joy of reading.
ELSNER: With regard to aggressive behavior, it is important how well a person can empathize with others. The better children can understand others’ thoughts and feelings, the less aggressive they are. Also important is how children handle anger. Children who try to distract themselves in frustrating situations or look for a solution are less aggressive than those who focus on stimulus that triggered the anger. For eating we can say: overweight children have a poorer self-perception. They often use eating to regulate their emotions. Such findings can be important for parents and teachers.
Do you use the results to develop better and more efficient prevention programs and identify risk groups more quickly?
ELSNER: During the first project stage we will not go into these follow-up areas. Our aim is to identify the connections between relationships and effects and the most important related factors. Based on our findings we will be able to develop prevention programs and interventions.
The German Research Association (DFG) funds the program until 2015. What will happen afterwards?
ELSNER: We are preparing a renewal proposal. If approved, we will have another 4½ years to continue the project starting in October 2015. Our first PhD candidates are in the final stage of their doctoral theses. We are currently attracting new PhD candidates to continue our PIER Study research.
Prof. Birgit Elsner studied psychology at the University of Göttingen. She has been Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Potsdam since 2008.
Dr. Juliane Felber studied psychology at the University of Potsdam and University of Sussex in Brighton/UK. Since 2011 she has been coordinator of the of the DFG Graduate School 1668 Intrapersonal Development Risks for Children and Adolescents - A Longitudinal Perspective.