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Family Development

The family is central to HDFS. The family is a primary context in which individual socialization and development take place. It is, perhaps, the principal medium through which culture, society, and social change affect the individual. And it is a social fact in itself that feeds back and can accelerate or mitigate changes occurring in the broader society. Graduate study at Penn State offers students a unique opportunity to develop the substantive, methodological, and theoretical skills necessary to study human families.

Individual Development: Childhood

A variety of core concerns underlie child development research conducted in HDFS. Much of the research is motivated by questions about individual differences in children’s health and psychological development as well as he origins and consequences of such variation. Another core issue is the way children change over time and the degree to which earlier developmental patterns and experiences can predict future growth and development. Because the department has a multidisciplinary orientation, faculty are interested not only in biological and experiential causes and consequences, but also in working at multiple levels of analysis. Researchers take into account biology, genetics, psychophysiology, and health, as well as sociocultural factors, environment, and moment-to-moment interactions in the family and beyond. They study the broader settings in which parents and children develop, including day care and the workplace, and the historical and societal context in which the child, the family, and these settings themselves are embedded.

Individual Development: Adolescence

Adolescent Development faculty in HDFS pursue programs of research that span this developmental period, from the transition into adolescence through emerging adulthood. Their work cuts across all areas of the department, including family relationships, prevention, and methodology, and utilizes a range of methods, including surveys, diaries, interviews, and observations. Examples of current research projects include: Community-based violence prevention in adolescents; Heavy alcohol use among college students; Gender, ethnicity, and sexual behavior among college students; Links between parenting practice and adolescent dieting and eating problems; The development of sexual orientation; Family relationships and adolescent gender socialization.

Individual Development: Adulthood and Aging

Graduate study in adult development and aging allows students to explore topics in emerging adulthood, midlife, and old age. The program emphasizes the complex ways that personal characteristics, social partners, and organizations interact to influence development and change throughout the adult years. Students conduct research within a broad framework for understanding relations between developing people and the key contexts of their lives: family, workplace, community, and society. Faculty research interests include predictors of the transition to adulthood, parent-child and other family relationships, economic factors and well-being, predictors and consequences of stressful events, maintenance and enhancement of cognitive abilities, and psychosocial contributions to functional capacity in later life. Opportunities for international experience are available in several countries including Australia, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. Students may combine their specialization in adult development and aging with emphases in prevention research, family studies, or methodology.

Intervention and Prevention

In HDFS, intervention research is the science of designing, implementing, and evaluating a broad array of approaches for improving the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities. Typically, interventions in HDFS are developmental in focus, meaning they are designed to prevent problems or to enhance healthy development, rather than to remediate long-standing personal, relational, or family problems. HDFS interventions often target the contexts in which people develop including families, schools, health and human service agencies, workplaces, and communities.


Research methodology is one area of study in the graduate program in Human Development and Family Studies. Research methodology is a topic that is relevant to every research endeavor in the study of human development and the family. In fact, research in our field is methodologically challenging for many reasons. Studies must be designed with the utmost care in order to narrow down the list of possible explanations for results; the highly complex behaviors that are often of interest are difficult to measure; and sophisticated state-of-the-art statistical procedures often are required. Research related to the improvement of designs and measurement models and the development and extension of statistical models has become an important area of intellectual inquiry in the developmental sciences. The field of human development and family studies needs researchers who not only understand the critical substantive issues driving our search for knowledge, but who also have the expertise in statistical methods and research design that enable us to address these issues fruitfully. Areas of statistical and methodological research such as structural equation modeling, multilevel and growth curve modeling, time series and dynamical systems modeling, latent class and latent transitions analysis, growth mixture modeling, missing data analysis, and observational methodology represent some of the exciting areas of research currently under investigation by faculty in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.