Research Highlight: Chris Trentacosta

Growing up in poverty is stressful for young children. Children raised in an impoverished environment frequently face a multitude of co-occurring risk factors like living in a high-crime neighborhood while being raised by a teenage parent who has not earned a high school diploma. Importantly, the presence of multiple co-occurring risk factors increases the likelihood of later difficulties that range from serious behavior problems to academic failure.

For the past 15 years, Associate Professor of Psychology Chris Trentacosta has studied how young children respond to the presence of multiple risk factors. He is especially interested in understanding the role of self-regulatory difficulties in problems that stem from experiencing these risk factors. He has also evaluated preventive intervention programs to promote self-regulation and reduce behavior problems among children living in stressful environments. 

Self-regulation is a broad term that encompasses efforts to effectively manage attention, emotions, and behavior. While pursuing his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Delaware and as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Trentacosta published multiple articles demonstrating the importance of self-regulation during early childhood for later academic and behavioral adjustment. For example, in a study of kindergarten children attending schools that serve low-income urban communities, Dr. Trentacosta found that emotional self-regulation predicted children’s academic achievement in first grade by improving their ability to pay attention to academic tasks. Furthermore, using data from Dr. Daniel Shaw’s longitudinal study of at-risk boys, Dr. Trentacosta found that self-regulation difficulties in early childhood predicted boys’ later rejection by peers and their subsequent delinquent behavior during early adolescence. These findings were viewed as providing further support for preventive intervention programs geared toward promoting self-regulation during early childhood. 

Dr. Trentacosta has also been fortunate to study two novel preventive intervention programs for young children and their families. Dr. Trentacosta worked with his doctoral advisor, Dr. Carroll Izard, on evaluations of the Emotions Course, a set of lessons delivered by preschool teachers in Head Start programs and other preschool settings. Dr. Trentacosta contributed to the earliest research evaluations of the Emotions Course that showed positive effects of the program on children’s emotional competence and reductions in their behavior problems. Dr. Trentacosta also collaborated with Dr. Shaw and his colleagues on research evaluations of the Family Check-Up. The Family Check-Up is a program focused on preventing behavior among young children by engaging families in an initial assessment of the child’s behavior and the family context. Then, families receive feedback from the assessment prior to setting goals that range from addressing basic needs (e.g., assistance with transportation and finances) to seeking support for parenting. Involvement in the Family Check-Up predicts reductions in young children’s behavior problems, and Dr. Trentacosta was a co-author on a study demonstrating that the Family Check-Up worked just as well for the highest-risk families. 

Upon arriving at Wayne State University in 2008, Dr. Trentacosta continued investigating the roles of contextual risk factors and self-regulation in at-risk young children’s academic adjustment and behavior problems. He received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a study of over 100 low-income young mothers and their toddlers. These families were recruited from waiting rooms of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) at multiple locations in Detroit, and the families were assessed at multiple time points. In an analysis of this study led by graduate student Laura Northerner, Dr. Trentacosta and his team found that the presence of multiple risk factors like single parenthood and low maternal education increased toddlers’ risk for internalizing problems like anxiety and depression, but only among toddlers with high levels of negative emotionality. In another analysis led by graduate students Benjamin Goodlett and Laura Crespo and other members of his research team, maternal 

depressive symptoms were linked to toddlers’ internalizing problems, but only when mothers engaged in few positive parenting strategies like affection and encouragement. These findings provide important information about potential sources of resilience within at-risk families, including the child’s temperament and the mother’s parenting style. 

Dr. Trentacosta has initiated several other studies of children and their families during his time at Wayne State. For example, Dr. Trentacosta conducted a longitudinal study of kindergarten children attending charter schools in Detroit with assistance from Dr. Joanne Smith-Darden of the WSU School of Social Work and graduate student Caitlin McLear. This study was similar to Dr. Trentacosta’s earlier study of emotional self-regulation and academic achievement, but in this study observational assessments of children’s self-regulation were conducted rather than relying on teachers’ reports of children’s self-regulation. In addition, Dr. Trentacosta’s research team was able to interview most of the children’s parents to learn about the family context and the parents’ mindsets regarding parent-child relationships. In an analysis of these data led by Caitlin McLear, both children’s self-regulation and the parents’ positive mindsets about security within parent-child relationships predicted children’s academic achievement at the end of kindergarten. Like the findings from Dr. Trentacosta’s NIH-funded study, this study of kindergarteners also helped to pinpoint sources of resilience among at-risk young children and their parents. 

More recently, Dr. Trentacosta began laying the groundwork for novel research on preventive interventions that are designed to promote academic and behavioral adjustment among children living in Detroit. In one study, Dr. Trentacosta is collaborating with Dr. Douglas Barnett from the Department of Psychology and Dr. Francesca Pernice-Duca of the College of Education on a program to promote school-age children’s academic achievement. This program will adapt aspects of the Family Check-Up to focus on factors linked to academic achievement, including self-regulation. This study is being conducted at three Detroit Public Schools. For another project, Dr. Trentacosta recently submitted a grant to the NIH with a colleague from Colorado State University to adapt the Emotions Course to include more coverage of “self-conscious” emotions like shame and guilt and to add a component focusing on children’s mindfulness. Dr. Trentacosta hopes that this adaptation of the Emotions Course will be implemented at preschool centers in the Detroit area in the near future. Dr. Trentacosta and his collaborators are looking forward to assessing the extent to which these programs improve at-risk children’s academic performance and behavioral functioning. 

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Research Highlight: Chris Trentacosta 5/6/2015
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