’HumanKind’: Exploring children’s psychodiversity, strengthen their emotional intelligence

Some children are particularly brave, others very compassionate. And then there are the temperamental ones - all with their own unique strengths. Tina Malti calls these different human potentials psychodiversity, taking her cue from biodiversity in nature. "It’s like a garden with different plants: in order to fully develop their special qualities, each child needs to be nurtured individually," says the developmental and clinical psychologist, who joined Leipzig University as an Alexander von Humboldt Professor at the beginning of 2023. A few days ago, the Humboldt Science Centre for Child Development - also known as HumanKind - started its work at Leipzig University. Professor Malti’s main aim as director of the new centre is to promote positive child development.

Born out of the Leipzig Research Center for Early Childhood Development, HumanKind is breaking new ground. Tina Malti and her team of scientists, doctoral researchers, therapists, and technical and administrative staff want to strengthen children’s mental health before problems arise in the first place. What may sound simple at first can be challenging in practice. "We want to work with day-care centres and schools to, for example, develop strategies to prevent or reduce aggression and violence." She knows from experience that children who are prone to aggression are less able to empathise with other children. "Children with high levels of empathy can help their peers. We look for children with positive potential to serve as role models," explains the developmental psychologist. And children’s diverse life experiences are acknowledged: "Our aim is to strengthen the emotional capacities of children who experience trauma," says Professor Malti. "It is important that children with traumatic experiences develop a sense of compassion for themselves and healthy self-esteem."

Describing her vision, Malti explains that every child’s potential must be recognised and harnessed to support their mental health and humaneness. HumanKind on the Jahnallee campus aims to become a global beacon for basic and applied research in this field. The developmental period of focus is birth through to adolescence, with an extended look at how early development affects thriving across the lifespan.

"Child development is the most fascinating, magical and complex thing there is," says the professor, summing up the tasks ahead for the new Humboldt Science Centre. In addition to collaborating with other research groups within the University, Malti wants to open the centre’s doors to the wider community, incorporating students’, teachers’ and parents’ perspectives on complex research questions. Where appropriate, the aim is to offer training and education programmes to people from children’s social environment, such as developing novel therapeutic exercises for parents and educators to help children master important social-emotional skills like emotion regulation and empathy.

In the long term, Malti aims to strengthen children’s emotional intelligence by supporting their social and emotional development so that they can cope with the diverse demands of society. Malti will draw on research and practice experience she gained as a professor and director at the University of Toronto in Canada. There, her work included supporting the positive development of children and families affected by war and other traumatic experiences. "Targeted support during childhood is the best strategy for minimising costs," says Professor Malti, pointing out that therapy and treatment for one person who is prone to violence or who has been exposed to severe violence and abuse can cost the state at least three million euros over the course of their lifetime. This is why the work of HumanKind is so important, she says, because she and her team focus on the strengths of each child, including those "who have not yet committed an act of violence or been exposed to repeated violence, but are at risk of crossing these thresholds".

The studies at the Humboldt Science Centre for Child Development are due to start in October this year. Until then, Professor Malti and her team of 20 staff members have a lot of work to do: before the studies can begin, children and families need to be recruited and partnerships established. Initially, Malti is also looking to grow her team to 50 people in the first year.

"The opening of HumanKind marks an important step for our faculty and Leipzig University as a whole. The commitment of our Humboldt Professor Tina Malti and her team to researching psychodiversity and promoting children’s mental health is invaluable," says Professor Brigitte Latzko, Dean of the Faculty of Education. "Children are the future of our society. It is vital that we support their mental health and humaneness to ensure positive development. HumanKind will play an important role in developing and implementing innovative approaches to securing a positive future for children. The interdisciplinary collaborations at the centre will help advance basic and applied research to find new solutions to pressing societal challenges in the areas of child development and mental health."