Willem Frankenhuis is an evolutionary and developmental psychologist. He argues that people who grow up in harsh and unpredictable environments develop enhanced social-cognitive abilities for solving problems in high-adversity contexts. This approach both complements and challenges prevailing deficit models, which focus on impairments in learning and behavior. Why should knowledge about the strengths of stress-adjusted youth (of which we know so little) be any less useful than knowledge about their impairments (of which we know so much)? Ultimately, Willem Frankenhuis hopes to uncover a high-resolution map of the social-cognitive skills and abilities of stress-adapted youth.
My plans for the fellowship period
I seek to promote basic knowledge about the learning abilities of stress-adapted youth. First, I will study what contents best facilitate learning. For instance, if perceptions of social rank are especially relevant to youth from low socioeconomic conditions, then they may display enhanced abilities to reason about social-dominance relationships compared with more abstract contents (e.g., symbols, numbers). Second, I will determine which methods of information delivery best facilitate learning. For example, if stress-adapted individuals have difficulty sustaining attention but are skilled at shifting their attention between different tasks, then approaches that leverage this distinct quality could facilitate learning (e.g., stress-adapted students may learn more effectively from dynamic touch-screens rather than static print). Third, I will assess how to enhance teachers’ instructional practices, focusing on what testing conditions enable stress-adapted populations to display their true capabilities. This approach fits with work in other populations, such as children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Their school performance is enhanced when they are allowed to learn while moving in the classroom, potentially because they are better able to concentrate under those conditions. For stress-adapted youth to live up to their potential, we need innovative research to delineate the contexts that maximize their performance.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Right now, empirical data on what stress-adapted youth are good at is still missing to a large extent. Accordingly, the field lacks an empirical basis for developing interventions that leverage the unique strengths that develop in response to stressful environments. This gap in knowledge provides a critical opportunity and agenda for the future: we need to examine and discover the enhanced social-cognitive skills and abilities of stress-adapted youth, and to use this knowledge to build applications that reduce educational inequalities – thus counteracting disparities in socio-economic, health, and other essential life outcomes.
My research seeks to discover innovative, implementable ways of optimizing learning in stress-adapted youth by tailoring curricular content, information delivery, and instructional practices to fit their needs and potentials. The better we understand social-cognitive adaptations to harsh and unpredictable environments—including the strengths of stress-adapted youth—the more effectively we can tailor education, policy, jobs, and interventions to fit their needs and potentials.
Ultimately, I hope to develop an assessment battery that captures the cognitive strengths and abilities (“hidden talents”) of stress-adapted individuals. This assessment battery would be available for researchers, clinicians, and educators working with stress-adapted individuals. But first, we need solid scientific foundations.