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Early Experiences Research Center


In the EERC we are focused on studying and understanding the long-term effects of early life experiences in multiple and diverse contexts. Our collaborative research is international, interdisciplinary, and integrates a diverse array of methodological approaches. Many of our studies employ prospective longitudinal designs and sophisticated statistical analysis techniques to identify developmental trajectories and model risk, resilience, and differential susceptibility.

We believe that parenting behavior represents one of the most influential environmental factors during a child’s first years of life. Moreover, the biological and cultural underpinnings of parenting are well known. Biological predisposition influences behavior, but caregivers are also influenced by the circumstances and expectations of their culture. Despite transdisciplinary acknowledgment of the importance of biology and culture for several decades, parenting and child development research that considers biological and cultural contexts in confluence is rare. Interdisciplinary perspectives and integration of multiple and mixed methods are needed to understand the mechanisms that shape early parenting and offspring development within larger ecological frameworks.

Current and Planned Projects

This qualitative pilot study focuses on African refugee mothers’ traditional infant care patterns. Data are currently being collected and analyzed.

Team members: Hillary Fouts, Julia Jaekel, Jennifer Ward, Lauren Bader (University of Michigan), Hayley Moran

Refugees, Displacement, and Resettlement: A UT Conference & Workshop

In February 2017, Associate Professor Tricia Redeker Hepner (Anthropology), Associate Professor Hillary Fouts, and Assistant Professor Julia Jaekel hosted the Refugees, Displacement, and Resettlement Conference and Workshop at the University of Tennessee. This event drew in approximately 100 faculty members, graduate students, and community agency members to discuss current and future research and outreach projects involving refugee communities. For more details about this event, read the Executive Conference Summary.

At a glance program - refugee workshop

*A directory of persons and institutions working with refugees in and around Knoxville will be made available on request, please contact Julia Jaekel if you are interested

In May 2017, Ph.D. student Jennifer Ward presented our research at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Conference in San Francisco, California.

woman with baby in carrier

The aim of this cross-cultural student project is to qualitatively assess mothers’ experiences with carrying their infants (‘babywearing’).

Team members: Hayley Moran, Kira Kusenberg (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany), Hillary Fouts, Julia Jaekel

This project is in its planning phase: Infants born preterm (<37 weeks gestational age) or with low birth weight (LBW, <2500g) are at risk for adverse long-term outcomes, but sensitive parenting and kangaroo mother care (KMC) can protect them from neurodevelopmental risk. The aim of this project is to use a new device that has been developed by the Max-Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, the MIRC (Multimodal Interaction Recorder for Children), to assess social interactions, kangaroo mother care, and physiological responses of African preterm/LBW infants and their caregivers in their natural home environments.

Team members: Julia Jaekel, Hillary Fouts, Monika Abels (Tilburg University, Netherlands), Markus Abels (Max-Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany)

Ethiopian child on scale

The aim of this project is to examine extrinsic environmental risk (i.e., population-level risk) in conjunction with parents’ personal experiences with risk and loss, community/cultural models of risk, and how these factors connect with young children’s experiences and health statuses in a rural community in Southern Ethiopia.  This project is funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.  The final phase of data collection is underway this summer (2017).

Team members: Hillary Fouts, Lauren Bader (University of Michigan), Dallas Broach, Lauran Gieske, Marissa McElrone, Meghan Parrish

The main purpose of this project is to examine cultural and individual variation in the caregiving of young children within an ethnically diverse community in severe poverty: urban informal settlements in Kenya. The longer-term research goal is to examine how, and the degree to which, cultural and individual variation in caregiver-child interactions that may mediate, moderate, or otherwise modify the impact of poverty on child development.  This project was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. This project is currently closed to enrollment and is limited to data analysis and writing up findings.

Team members: Hillary Fouts, Paul Erwin (UTK), Carin Neitzel, Denise Bates (Middle Tennessee State University), Dawn Coe (UTK), Maureen Mweru (Kenyatta University), Isaac Mwanzo (Kenyatta University)

Ethiopian mother and childThe purpose of this study is to understand the cultural values and beliefs surrounding parental perceptions of infant emotion and subsequent responses to these emotions among a small-scale agricultural society in Southern Ethiopia.

Team members: Lauren Bader (University of Michigan), Hillary Fouts, Julia Jaekel

The purpose of this project is to examine infant and young children’s (3 to 35 months of age) social-emotional and caregiving experiences with the aim of identifying how child, family, and community characteristics relate to variation in infant and young children’s experiences within a post-migration Burundian refugee population. The long-term goal of this study is to provide information that can be used to inform public health initiatives and increase the health and well being of infants and young children in refugee communities. This project is currently closed to enrollment and is limited to data analysis and writing up findings.

Team members: Hillary Fouts, Denise Bates (Middle Tennessee State University), Carin Neitzel

The aim of this project is to evaluate effects of Turkish immigrant children’s bilingual abilities on cognitive and academic outcomes. This research is situated within a larger project called SIMCUR – Social Integration of Immigrant Children, Uncovering family and school factors promoting Resilience. SIMCUR aims to uncover the processes underlying developmental resilience in children from immigrant families during the transitions to primary and secondary education.

Team members: Julia Jaekel, Nils Jaekel (UTK), Birgit Leyendecker (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany), Jessica Willard (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany)

Project website:

The BLS is a large long-term study of neonatal at-risk individuals’ developmental trajectories. We are working on analyses and publications with international colleagues from the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands.

UTK team members: Julia Jaekel, Lucia Miranda, Tobey Nichols

Team Retreat

The UTK BLS Team spent a productive and exciting 5-day retreat with Professor Dieter Wolke (University of Warwick, UK) and PhD student Katharina Heuser (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany) in San Francisco in May 2017. During their time together, the team participated in the Adults born Preterm International Collaboration (APIC) meeting, successfully presented their research at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Conference, socialized with many international research leaders, and did some sight seeing. Shown in the group dinner pictures below are Professor Peter Anderson (Monash University, Australia), Professor Eero Kajantie (National Institute for Health and Welfare, Finland), Professor Erik Verrips (TNO, Netherlands) and Professor S. A. (Menno) Reijnefeld (University of Groningen, Netherlands).


Dr. Julia Jaekel and Lucia Miranda with Poster

Julia Jaekel and Lucia Miranda

Tobey Nichols

Katharina Heuser

Children exposed to adversity in-utero and early life are at risk for a number of neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems, but the mechanisms through which early biological and environmental conditions shape long-term development are still unclear. In particular, difficulties with behavioral inhibition and social relationships have been associated with both preterm birth and severe institutional deprivation. Unknown is whether initial social inhibition, a trait in reacting to new people, may explain the links between early adversity and long-term problems. We are investigating the specific mechanisms underlying the development of social inhibition/disinhibition, by comparing and cross-validating data from two large-scale, longitudinal samples of children who experienced two different adverse conditions in early life: preterm birth (Bavarian Longitudinal Study, BLS) and institutionalization (English and Romanian Adoptee Study, ERA).

Team members: Lucia Miranda, Julia Jaekel, Jana Kreppner (University of Southampton, UK)

Assistant Professof Julia Jaekel and Graduate Student Lucia MirandaLucia Miranda and Julia Jaekel have received a competitive Student/Faculty Research Award from the UT Graduate School which allowed Miranda to travel to the UK in the summer of 2017 to establish an exciting collaboration with researchers from the University of Southampton and King’s College London

This project is in its planning phase: Preterm birth is associated with adverse outcomes across multiple functional domains, including high risk for a cluster of attention, emotional and socio-communicative problems. The aim of this project is to investigate stability and change in social, emotional and attention problems in preterm children and adolescents via individual participant data (IPD) meta-analyses.

Team members: Julia Jaekel, Samantha Johnson (University of Leicester, UK), Dieter Wolke (University of Warwick, UK), Neil Marlow (University College London, UK)

Adults Born Preterm International Collaboration (APIC) website:

Preterm birth is prospectively related to working memory deficits, and these are a major factor of the repeatedly recorded academic achievement problems (special educational needs, lower overall attainment, and lower rates of postsecondary education). This significantly impacts the life chances of preterm children ranging from lower income to less financially independent living and lower quality of life. These effects have large financial implications for the affected families and society as a whole. Our objective is to test whether adaptive working memory or online maths training improve preterm children’s academic performance in a prospective, randomized, double-blind, multi-center trial.

Team members: Julia Jaekel, Britta Huening (University Hospital Essen, Germany), Ursula Felderhoff-Mueser (University Hospital Essen, Germany), Katharina Heuser (Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany)

Project website:

This project is in its planning phase: In collaboration with Knox County Schools, we Math on iPadwill evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of adaptive online training programs via large-scale assessments and a randomized controlled trial design. Primary research questions are concerned with training feasibility and training-induced growth in arithmetic fact recall and maths performance.

UTK team members: Julia Jaekel, Tobey Nichols

10-12% of children in the Unites States are born preterm and most attend mainstream schools. A previous study in the UK showed that teachers have poor knowledge of preterm children’s needs in school (Johnson et al., 2015). We have assessed knowledge and information needs of teachers and teachers-in-training in the United States. Data was collected as part of a student team research project in Spring 2016 (CFS 511) and is currently being analyzed.

Team members: Julia Jaekel, Samantha Johnson (University of Leicester, UK), Dieter Wolke (University of Warwick, UK)

Co-Director Contact Information


Hillary Fouts

Hillary N. Fouts
Child and Family Studies
Jessie Harris Building
Room 116/421


Julia Jaekel
Child and Family Studies
Jessie Harris Building
Room 116/417