School of Health and Human Sciences

Esther Leerkes

Esther Leerkes, PhD
Jefferson-Pilot Excellence Professor, Associate Dean for Research
PhD, University of Vermont
Curriculum Vitae

Classes Taught

While in the role of Associate Dean for Research, I am not currently teaching courses. Below is a sample of the types of courses I typically teach.

I am accepting HDF 401 students and am happy to work with graduate students in independent study/research courses.

  • HDF 302: Infant and Child Development in the Family
  • HDF 721: Seminar in Parent Child Relations
  • HDF 667: Seminar in Infant Development
  • HDF 665 Social and Emotional Development
  • HDF 401: Special Topics.

I am always looking for motivated undergraduate students to work on my research project as independent study students. This can be done by enrolling in HDF 401: Special Problems.

You can only enroll in this course with instructor permission. This experience can be helpful if you are interested in gaining research experience prior to applying to graduate school or if you are interested in a career that involves working with parents and/or young children. This course counts toward your cognate. The tasks vary from semester to semester, so please come see me if you are interested. See a contract from a recent semester.

Here are a list of my current students and recent graduates.

Research Interests

My primary research focus centers around parent-child relations in infancy and early childhood.
Within this area, I have pursued three primary themes:

  1. identifying contextual, biological and psychological factors that contribute to sensitive maternal behavior, particularly in response to negative child emotions;
  2. examining links between maternal sensitivity and subsequent child outcomes such as emotion regulation, attachment security, behavior problems, adjustment to school, and obesity risk;
  3. examining the impact of parenting a child with unique temperamental characteristics on adult development, well-being, and relationships during the transition to parenthood.

I enjoy collaborating with students on a range of topics that fit their interests. In the recent past that has included examination of the links between marital conflict and infant outcomes and the role of race in parental emotion socialization and related child outcomes.

Current Projects

Read an overview(PDF) of Dr. Leerkes’ research from the 2013 edition of the UNCG research Magazine.
See a recent article about iGrow in the UNCG Research Magazine.

Infant Growth and Development Study

iGrow is a new study funded by NICHD that will be ongoing through 2023.  This is a multidisciplinary project in which we are testing a biopsychosocial model of the early development of risk for obesity.  We are focusing on several key biological (weight-related hormones, cortisol, vagal regulation, inflammatory markers), psychological (emotion regulation, depression), and social factors (various aspects of parenting) during pregnancy and the first 2 years of life.

We are testing this model with an innovative, multi-method, longitudinal study of infants and their families (n = 300) beginning in the prenatal period that addresses these factors across the first two years of life.

Other investigators on this collaborative project include Susan Calkins and Cheryl Buehler (Human Development & Family Studies), Lenka Shriver (Nutrition) and Laurie Wideman (Kinesiology).  There are multiple opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to be involved in this project.

Noise, Emotion and Thinking (NET) Study

In the NET study, we are examining:

  • the extent to which different noises, including infant cries, disrupt college women’s executive functioning and the extent to which such disruptions are linked with neural activity, physiological reactivity and regulation, and reported emotions.
  • the extent to which cognitive disruption, emotional reactivity and regulation, and neural process when exposed to crying predict social cognition about crying; and
  • personal and contextual characteristics that may predict individual differences in cognitive disruptions.

This is a pilot study funded by UNCG and the HHS Foundation that will inform a larger study with mothers of infants. Dr. Margaret Swingler is a co-investigator.

Triad Child Study

In this NICHD funded project, we are examining maternal responses to infant negative emotions in a sample of 250 first-time mothers. The goals of the project are to identify predictors of maternal sensitivity to infant distress, to determine if sensitivity to distress predicts unique variation in infant emotional well-being over and above sensitivity to non-distress, and to examine racial differences in early emotion socialization beliefs, practices, and outcomes.

We received additional funding to collect DNA from participating mothers and infants to examine molecular genetic predictors or maternal sensitivity and child well-being.  Data collection for this project ended when children were approximately 4.

We collected a range of data on the mothers(e.g., personality, emotional characteristics, childhood experiences, current romantic relationships and social support, parenting beliefs, parenting behavior) and their children (e.g.,attachment, emotion regulation, temperament, early behavior problems). See a list of publications and presentations stemming from this project. Data analysis and manuscript preparation are ongoing and there are continuing opportunities to collaborate on these efforts.

School Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR)

In the first NICHD funded project, we examined emotional and cognitive precursors to early school success in a sample of 250 children and families.  Subsequently, we were awarded a new grant from NICHD to extend this work in a new sample of children by including measures of children’s neural processing while completing challenging tasks and measures of their learning engagement in school. To do so, we followed a new group of children from age 4 through the completion of 1st grade. Data collection for this project has ended; but data analysis and manuscript preparation are ongoing.  Review a list of manuscripts that stemmed from these projects.

Women, Work and Wee Ones

This NICHD funded project was a collaborative effort involving faculty from other institutions (e.g., the Wake Forest University School of Medicine) and UNCG’s Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships and Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

The goals of the study were to examine the impact of mothers’ working a nonstandard schedule (anything other than the standard 9 to 5 arrangement) on mothers’ well- being, parenting behavior, and infant health and social emotional development in a low income sample and to identify individual, familial, and social factors that promote resilience in this type of work arrangement.

Esther Leerkes is a co-investigator along with Drs. Chris Payne, Charles Randall Clinch, and Beth Reboussin. The primary investigators are Joseph Grzywacz and Stephanie Daniel. Data collection for this project has ended, but data analysis and manuscript preparation are ongoing. A variety of data was collected from the mothers and children, who were followed from 3 months to 30 months of age. There may be opportunities for graduate students to collaborate on research using this dataset.

Infant Parent Project

In this NICHD funded project, we followed 100 first-time expectant couples from the third trimester of pregnancy until their children were 3 ½ years old.

The goals of this project were fourfold: 1) to identify personality characteristics and family factors that influence mothers’ beliefs, goals, and feelings about infant emotions; 2) to determine if these beliefs, goals, and feelings in conjunction with infant temperament influence maternal sensitivity to negative infant emotions in a diverse sample; 3) to examine the influence of early parenting behavior and beliefs on subsequent child outcomes; and 4) to identify characteristics of mothers, fathers, and the parenting context that affect marital/partner satisfaction and individual adjustment during the transition to parenthood. Please review this list of works that stemmed from this project.

Selected Publications

An asterisk (*) denotes a current or former graduate student advisee.

Peer Reviewed Articles

Leerkes, E.M., *Su, J., *Sommer, S. (in press). Mothers’ self-reported emotion dysregulation: A potentially valid method in the field of infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal.

*Cao, H., *Zhou, N., Su, J., & Leerkes, E.M. (in press). The etiologiy of maternal postpartum depressive symptoms: Childhood emotional maltreatment, couple relationship satisfaction, and genes. Journal of Family Psychology.

Rodriguez, C.M., Granger, D. A. & Leerkes, E.M. (in press). Testosterone associations with parents’ child abuse risk and at-risk parenting: A multimethod longitudinal examination. Child Maltreatment.

*Cao, H., *Zhou, N. & Leerkes, E.M. (in press). Childhood emotional maltreatment and couple functioning among women across the transition to parenthood: A process model integrating attachment, emotion regulation, and psychological distress perspectives. Journal of Family Psychology.

Verhage, M.L., Schuengel, C., Duschinsky, R., van IJzendoorn, M.H., Pasco Fearon, R.M., Madigan, S. …..& The Collaboration on Attachment Transmission Synthesis. The collaboration of attachment transmission synthesis (CATS): A move to the level of individual participant data meta-analysis. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences.

*Zeytinoglu, S., Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (in press). Autonomic nervous system functioning in early childhood: Responses to cognitive and negatively valenced emotional challenges. Developmental Psychobiology.

Leerkes, E.M. & *Qu, J. (2020). The My Emotions Questionnaire: A new self-report of
mothers’ emotional reactions to infant crying. Infant Mental Health Journal, 41, 94-107.

Leerkes, E.M., *Bailes, L. G. & *Augustine, M. (2020). The intergenerational
transmission of emotion socialization. Developmental Psychology, 56, Special Issue: Parental Socialization of Emotion and Self-Regulation: Understanding Processes and Application, 390-402.

Cote-Arsenault, D., Leerkes, E.M., & *Zhou, N. (2020). Individual differences in maternal, marital, parenting and child outcomes following perinatal loss: A longitudinal study. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 38, 3-15.

*Su, J., Supple, A., Leerkes, E.M., & I-Chun Kuo, S. (2019). Latent trajectories of
alcohol use from early adolescence to young adulthood: Interaction effects between 5-httlpr and parenting quality and gender differences. Development and Psychopathology, 31, 457-469.

Augustine, M. & Leerkes, E.M. (2019). Associations between maternal physiology and maternal sensitivity vary depending on infant distress and emotion context. Journal of Family Psychology, 33, 412-421.

*Zeytinoglu, S., Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (2019). Maternal emotional support but not cognitive support during problem-solving predicts increases in cognitive flexibility in early childhood. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 43, 12-23.

*Isbell, E., Calkins, S. D., *Swingler, M.S., & Leerkes, E. M. (2019). Longitudinal
associations between cognitive control and academic performance in early childhood: an event-related potentials study. Development and Psychobiology, 61, 495-512.

Verhage, M.L., Pasco Fearon, R.M., Schuengel, C., van IJzendoorn, M.H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J…..& The Collaboration on Attachment Transmission Synthesis. (2018). Examining ecological constraints on the intergenerational transmission of attachment via individual participant data meta-analysis. Child Development, 89, 2023-2037.

*Augustine, M., Leerkes, E.M., & Calkins, S.D. (2018). Relations between early maternal sensitivity and toddler self-regulation: Exploring variation by oxytocin and dopamine D2 receptor genes. Developmental Psychobiology, 60, 789-804.

*Su, J., *Augustine, M.E., & Leerkes, E.M. (2018). DRD4 interacts with adverse life
events in predicting maternal sensitivity via emotion regulation. Journal of Family
Psychology, 32, 783-792.

Leerkes, E.M., & *Zhou, N. (2018). Maternal sensitivity to distress and attachment outcomes: Interactions with sensitivity to non-distress and infant temperament. Journal of Family Psychology, 32, 753-761.

*Qu, J. & Leerkes, E.M. (2018). The joint effect of infants’ vagal tone and distress in predicting behavior problems at preschool: A person-centered approach. Developmental Psychobiology, 60, 707-721.

Swingler, M.M., Isbell, E., Zeytinoglu, S., Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E.M. (2018). Maternal behavior predicts neural underpinnings of inhibitory control in preschoolers. Developmental Psychobiology, 60, 692-706.

*Cao, H., *Zhou, N., *Qu, J. & Leerkes, E.M. (2018). Multiple domains of new mothers’ adaptation: Interrelations and roots in childhood maternal non-supportive emotion socialization. The Journal of Family Psychology, 32, 575-587.

*Halliday, S. E., Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (2018). Measuring preschool learning
engagement in the laboratory. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 167, 93-116.

*Isbell, E., Calkins, S. D., Swingler, M. M., & Leerkes, E. M. (2018). Attentional fluctuations in preschoolers: Direct and indirect relations with task accuracy, academic readiness, and school performance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 167, 388-403.
Middlemiss, W. Grzywacz, J., Leerkes, E.M., Reboussin, B.A., & Suerken, C. (2018). Supporting lower-income wokring women to initiate breastfeeding: Learning who is breatfeeding and what helps. Journal of the American Association of Nure Practitioners, 30, 519-528.

Invited Chapters

Leerkes, E.M., Parade, S., & *Benito-Gomez, M. (under review). Parenting during infancy and early childhood. To appear in A.S. Morris & J. M. Smith (Eds), Handbook of Parenting: Interdisciplinary Research and Application. Cambridge University Press.

Leerkes, E.M. & *Bailes, L.G. (2019). Early emotional development in the family
context. In V. LoBue, K. Perez-Edgar, & K. Buss (Eds.). Handbook of Emotional Development (pp. 627-651). Springer.

Leerkes, E.M. & *Augustine, M. (2019). Parenting and emotions. In M. H. Bornstein
(Ed)., Handbook of Parenting, 3rd ed, Vol 3. Being and Becoming a Parent (pp. 620-653). New York: Routledge.

Leerkes, E. M., & *Qu, J. (2019). Families with infants and young children. In B. H. Fiese, M.
Celano, K. Deater-Deckard, E. N. Jouriles, & M. A. Whisman (Eds.), APA handbook of
contemporary family psychology: Foundations, methods, and contemporary issues across
the lifespan., Vol. 1. (pp. 575–591). Washington, DC: American Psychological

Leerkes, E.M., *Gedaly, L. & *Su, J. (2016). Parental sensitivity and infant attachment. In L.
Balter & C.S. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds). Child Psychology: A Handbook of Contemporary Issues, 3rd edition. (pp. 21-41). New York: Psychology Press.

Leerkes, E.M. & *Parade, S.H. (2015). A psychobiological perspective on emotional
development within the family context. In S.D. Calkins (Ed). Handbook of infant development: Biopsychosocial perspectives (pp. 206-231). New York: Guilford.

Publicly Available Measures

We are happy to share measures we have developed with other investigators. Any of the materials available via the below links may be used at no cost. We simply ask that the original source be referenced. Given copyright laws, we provide the PubMedCentral Versions of relevant manuscripts when possible, but final citations are listed. There is no need to seek permission to use or adapt these measures.