Human Development and Family Studies

Esther Leerkes, Ph.D.

Current/Recent Projects

Read an overview of Dr. Leerkes' research from the 2013 edition of the UNCG research Magazine.

Noise, Emotion, and Thinking Study Logo

Noise, Emotion and Thinking (NET) Study

In the NET study, we are examining:

  1. 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.
  2. the extent to which cognitive disruption, emotional reactivity and regulation, and neural process when exposed to crying predict social cognition about crying; and
  3. 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 Logo

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.

STAR Project

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.  Review a list of manuscripts that stemmed from this project.

Recently, 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 learn more about this study, visit our website: We followed these children from age 4 through the completion of 1 st grade. Data collection for this project has ended; data analysis and manuscript preparation are ongoing. There are multiple opportunities for graduate students to collaborate on research using this data. There are multiple opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to be involved in this project as research assistants.  Please contact us at

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.