Ellen Skinner, Ph.D., Professor of Human Development, Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology
I locate my work within life-span developmental psychology and developmental systems theory. My research focuses on the dynamics of motivational development, and examines how these dynamics contribute to the development of children's self-system processes, engagement, and coping. I am interested in how the self can exert so powerful an influence on children's motivation, including their ongoing engagement and coping with obstacles and setbacks. I am convinced that social contexts and close relationships with parents and teachers play a critical role in promoting or undermining the motivational resources children draw upon when they encounter challenges and failures. I view school as a natural laboratory of "challenges and failures," and I am especially interested in school transitions, like the third grade transition and the transition to middle school. In the last several years, I have become very interested in the development of children's coping.
My background in lifespan development and developmental systems meta-theories has meant that, over the years, an ongoing task has been building (and elaborating) an integrative conceptual framework for my research. Hence, I enjoy spending time on theory development and measurement construction. I seem to approach each new area which seems relevant by first constructing or refining "developmentally-friendly" theories, and then creating corresponding measures. Hence, sprinkled among my empirical studies are a series of papers on theories and measures of perceived control, engagement, parenting, and coping.
Current projects. I think of my current work as involving three intertwined strands. The first focuses on "engagement" and uses a large longitudinal data set, focusing on children and their parents, teachers, and peers, over four years and eight measurement points from the beginning of third to the end of seventh grade. The project, which I am working on with Thomas Kindermann, Carrie Furrer, and Gwen Marchand, contributes to ongoing debates about "engagement" as an indicator and facilitator of academic success and resilience by (1) proposing a motivational conceptualization of engagement, (2) arguing for its central role in the dynamics of motivational development, (3) presenting a psychometrically sound assessment, and (4) empirically exploring the antecedents and consequences of constructive engagement in the classroom. Cutting edge analyses, which I am working on with my doctoral students, examine engagement as a precursor to the development of a sense of children's "ownership" of their academic progress (with Gwen Marchand), and explore the synergistic and antagonistic roles in shaping self-systems and engagement that are played by parents, teachers, and peers (with Tatiana Snyder). I also continue to focus on the role of perceived control in the development of engagement and coping (with Teresa Greene).
The second strand of my work is a newly-formed collaborative project that involves an interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students, not only from psychology but also from the Graduate School of Education, and the departments of English, mathematics, and biology. The core group of faculty includes Dilafruz Williams, Pramod Parajuli, Dae Yeop Kim, and Thomas Kindermann. The focus of the research is a community project, captured broadly under the name "Learning Gardens," that is taking place in several elementary and middle schools who serve low-income and minority youth. This project involves culturally diverse children and adolescents, their families and communities and addresses issues of food security through the creation of food-based and garden-based education. Our research team (which includes graduate students Lorraine Escribano, Amy Lacey, Jennifer Pitzer, and Una Chi) was recruited to help design and conduct research on the effects of students' participation in Learning Gardens on the development of their academic engagement, motivation, and coping. We have started working with one middle school as a pilot to allow the new team to become oriented and organized.
The third strand, and my current passion, is the construction of a lifespan theory of the development of coping, which I am working on with Melanie Zimmer-Gembeck (Griffith University, Australia). We are trying to figure out how developments in underlying processes, such as language, self-regulation, cognition, and ego development, contribute to qualitative shifts in how people react to and deal with stressful events. I belong to a loosely affiliated group of scholars, the Coping Consortium (which includes Irwin Sandler, Bruce Compas, Nancy Eisenberg, Patrick Tolan, and Tim Ayers), who are working together to articulate the newly emerging area focusing on the development of coping. Over the past ten years, we have participated in five work-shops that have been dedicated to theory building, research planning, problem-solving, and exchange of ideas on coping during childhood and adolescence.
I also work with graduate students on applied topics that are closely related to issues of motivation and coping, such as research that supports the constructive engagement of marginalized groups, like homeless persons, in self-governance activities to bring about social change (with Heather Mosher), that examines how social contexts support or undermine the coping of parents of children who have serious self-regulatory challenges (with Theresa Rice), and that considers spiritual development as a resource for coping (with Glen Richardson).
Developmental Science and Education (DeSE). The Psychology Department has recently begun to offer training in the interdisciplinary specialty of developmental science and education. Core faculty include Thomas Kindermann, Robert Roeser, Ellen Skinner, Dalton Miller-Jones, Gabriela Martorell, Keith James, and Yves Labissiere. DeSE focuses on the study of educational systems as contexts for the development of students, teachers, and staff. It is also concerned with the application of research strategies and knowledge from the developmental disciplines to address issues facing educators and parents. DeSE is particularly interested in working with schools who serve students from racial and ethnic minority, immigrant, and low income families. DeSE training is available to students in all areas of psychology as well as students from other fields. Ph.D. students may complete a minor in DeSE which usually includes working with faculty and taking courses from outside of psychology, such as from education, sociology, anthropology, social work, criminal justice, or urban and public affairs.