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Research Network on Adaptations to Childhood Stress: A Strength-Based Approach to Enhancing Productivity and Health in the Context of Adversity


Because people who grow up in harsh environments tend to score lower on tests of social and cognitive abilities, it is commonly assumed that exposures to such environments impair development. Our work has challenged this deficit approach by showing that harsh environments do not only impair development; rather, people adapt their skills and abilities for solving problems that are ecologically relevant in such environments (e.g., Ellis, Bianchi, Griskevicius, & Frankenhuis, 2016; Ellis & Del Giudice, 2014; Frankenhuis & de Weerth, 2013), potentially resulting in enhanced performance. The crucial problem addressed by the current Research Network on Adaptations to Childhood Stress is the lacuna of knowledge regarding what youth from high-risk environments do well. We seek to develop a research network that investigates the attention, learning, memory, problem-solving, and decision-making strategies that are promoted by growing up under stressful childhood conditions, focusing on skills and abilities that can benefit at-risk youth. The better we understand these skills and abilities, the more effectively we can tailor education, jobs, and interventions to meet the needs and potentials of at-risk youth. Leveraging these skills and abilities is critical for enhancing the capacity of all members of a community to access the resources and opportunities needed to lead a healthier life. Our goal is to generate the main ideas, hypotheses, and predictions for guiding future research on adaptations to high-risk childhood environments. We will hold 4 research network meetings that yield top-quality reports for skills of interest, describing the relevant sources of information as accurately and completely as possible. We complement this information with qualitative data collection in at-risk youth and community workers.

Research opportunities will be available for students interested in conducting research on social and cognitive adaptations to harsh environments. Please contact Bruce Ellis.

Selected Publications

Ellis, B.J., Bianchi, J., Griskevicius, V., & Frankenhuis, W.E. (2017). Beyond risk and protective factors: An adaptation-based approach to resilience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 561–587.

Ellis, B.J., & Del Giudice, M. (2014). Beyond allostatic load: Rethinking the role of stress in regulating human development. Development and Psychopathology, 26, 1–20.

Frankenhuis, & de Weerth, C. (2013). Does early-life exposure to stress shape or impair cognition? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 407-412.



Funding Organization

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (with support from the University of Utah)

Last Updated: 4/4/23