Our researchers address critical issues facing families and communities while promoting healthy human development and productive relationships. This work touches all of our lives. These discoveries are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars. 

Below, we showcase recent examples of our most impactful research in the area of family and communities. You can also view and download a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research. 

Discover Our Family & Communities Research

Child Development Lab Leading Early Childhood Research for Over 80 Years

drawing of the Early Childhood Development building

Housed in the College of ACES, the Child Development Laboratory (CDL) is a nationally accredited, university-based early care and education program. As a laboratory school, the CDL's mission is to support and facilitate teaching, research, outreach, and engagement activities of faculty, staff, and students at the University of Illinois. In the 2021/2022 academic year, the CDL supported projects from five colleges and 10 departments across campus. Through the CDL, researchers studied how young children share resources, tested a mindfulness curriculum for 2-year-olds, investigated new instructional modalities for early numeracy and language building, validated biophysiological sensor technology, examined school readiness, and explored parent perspectives on biological data collection for research purposes. These projects are emblematic of many groundbreaking discoveries made at CDL over its 80-year history.

Funding: CDL research projects are funded individually through various federal, state, and private sources.

ACES investigators and departments:
Brent McBride, Human Development and Family Studies
Meghan Fisher, Human Development and Family Studies

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Poor Diet, Household Chaos May Impair Young Children’s Cognitive Skills

Graphic showing a child in front of a messy kitchen

Poor nutrition coupled with a chaotic household environment may negatively impact young children’s executive functioning, the higher-order cognitive skills that govern memory, attention, and emotional control, according to ACES researchers. Children 18 months to 2 years old who ate greater quantities of sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with core components of executive functioning such as inhibition, working memory, and planning and organizing abilities, according to surveys completed by their caregivers. The researchers hypothesized that calmer households with predictable routines might buffer the effects of a poor diet on children’s executive function, but chaos had an independent correlation with children’s cognitive skills. The findings suggest prevention programs should focus on activities and supports that help parents establish healthy routines and limit their children’s consumption of snacks and less healthy foods.

Funding: This research was funded by grants from the National Dairy Council, the Gerber Foundation, the Christopher Family Foundation, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health. 

ACES investigators and departments:
Kelly Bost, Human Development and Family Studies
Samantha Irwinski, Human Development and Family Studies
Sharon Donovan, Human Development and Family Studies
Barbara Fiese, Human Development and Family Studies

Related news stories:

Poor diet, household chaos may impair young children’s cognitive skills

Study: Families spend half of their evening meal distracted by technology, tasks

Evaluating How Intimate Partner Violence Affects Custody Cases

Image of a woman holding a baby

Intimate partner violence can have significant implications for the wellbeing of mothers and children during and after separation and divorce. Yet, it is often not included in custody cases or factored into court decisions. ACES researchers received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate the effectiveness of training attorneys to identify and address intimate partner violence in divorce and custody cases. They partnered with the Battered Women’s Justice Project to evaluate the SAFeR (Screening, Assessing, Focusing on the Effects, and Responding to Abuse) training program, developed to help legal professionals better understand the role of intimate partner violence in their cases. The four-year project will include 1,440 attorneys from urban and rural areas nationwide. If the study shows the training is effective, it could lead to increased federal funding allowing an expansion of the program nationwide.

Attorneys interested in learning more about the study can contact asap-study@illinois.edu or visit https://publish.illinois.edu/makeitlab/asap/.

Funding: Department of Justice, $1.2 million

ACES investigator and department:
Jennifer Hardesty, Human Development and Family Studies
Brian Ogolsky, Human Development and Family Studies

Related news stories:

DOJ grant funds study of domestic violence awareness training for divorce attorneys

How intimate partner violence affects custody decisions

Contextual Engineering Combines Technology With Local Knowledge

image of a hand holding a drop of water

Contextual engineering is a novel approach that infuses technological expertise with a deep understanding of communities' cultural and societal conditions. ACES researcher Ann-Perry Witmer developed the concept based on her years of experience in water design engineering, working with marginalized populations around the world to address safe water needs. Contextual engineering is inspired by the social sciences and incorporates multiple components including communities and stakeholders, local conditions, global influences, and the engineering design process. Witmer’s research group is currently engaged in activities associated with climate change adaptation around the world and in the U.S. They received a National Science Foundation grant to work with the Navajo Nation in investigating and developing place-based solutions to cope with water shortages within the territory.

Funding: This project is supported by the National Science Foundation.

ACES investigator and department:
Ann-Perry Witmer, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Related news stories:

Contextual engineering improves success of projects in non-industrial societies

Contextual engineering adds deeper perspective to local projects

What is contextual engineering? New book explores technology and culture

What is place-based adaptation to climate change?