Tina Malti

Psychology Professor Tina MaltiChild's play is strongly encouraged in Tina Malti's lab. But when the play turns into a tug-of-war over a much coveted toy it is time to draw on Malti's expertise in developmental psychology. As the director of the Social-Emotional Development and Intervention lab at U of T Mississauga, Malti has an enduring engagement with the healthy development and welfare of children and youth.

“What we really want to do in this lab is developmental research that informs educators, parents and policymakers about how social and emotional development occurs from early childhood to adolescence,” says Malti, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. Linking to this idea, on Tuesday, November 20, 2012, which marks Universal Children's Day, Malti will be spending part of the day delivering a talk on social inclusion and child development to educators and policymakers in Austria.

Malti’s lab at UTM explores several lines of inquiry related to social and moral emotions such as empathy, guilt, trust and respect, and she also examines links between these emotions and social conflicts like aggression and bullying in children. To counter aggressive behaviour, Malti’s work encourages children to “positively adapt” to certain situations and exhibit prosocial behaviour. “When we say ‘adaptive development,’ what we really mean is how can we help children understand and regulate their emotions and behaviour in conflict situations with parents and peers,” says Malti. “We try to develop, based on our developmental knowledge, strategies to help teach children what they can do in those situations.” With the example of the conflict over the toy, Malti explains that her work focuses on trying to find the most effective ways to foster empathy, perspective-taking skills, and encourage children to regulate their emotions and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

With a broad range of ages from three to 18 years of age represented in Malti's lab, she covers a lot of ground from early childhood to adolescence. “We start with an early age because early emotional and social development is crucial for understanding later behaviour and health outcomes,” says Malti. “We consider adaptive outcomes, healthy outcomes, but also behaviour problems, such as aggression and antisocial behaviour.” 

The shift from childhood to youth aggression has long held Malti’s interest since her own young years growing up in Germany at the house where most of the neighbourhood children congregated to play. Malti says she became fascinated with the divergences in disposition, with some children exhibiting caring behaviour while others took a more combative attitude with one another. Her fate in this field was sealed once she was in the thick of her undergraduate studies at the Free University Berlin, and also as a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. She was inspired by the work she was doing, the children she was interviewing, and by her colleagues, so much so that she decided that this was her life's path. Malti also cites her father, an immigrant from Palestine to Germany, as a significant influence on her career for his model of inclusion and acceptance of others despite their differences.

Now having worked in this field for about 15 years, Malti is still fascinated by the various lines of research that she pursues, the advances she has seen in her field with regards to the part that biology along with social environment plays in shaping behaviour, and with the increased awareness the public has for child development and their own roles in creating a more benevolent society.

Completing studies with children in several countries including Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Chile, China, Iceland, the U.S. and now in Canada, Malti has seen similar emotional and behavioural issues for children in all these countries. Bullying and aggression, unfortunately, are also common threads but she is ever optimistic, refusing to see an entirely bleak picture because she avers that child and adolescent resilience and prosocial behaviour are more prevalent than youth violence. Malti is very clear about her role and purpose in this field and she is enthusiastically committed to seeing it through. “I am a researcher, and I also serve on not-for-profit organizations in this field,” says Malti. “I am a huge advocate for healthy child development in general, and I feel my life is dedicated to this cause.”

By Carla DeMarco