Sara Harkness, HDFS Faculty Spotlight, July 2024

Sara HarknessSara Harkness has always been fascinated by other languages and cultures, and how culture shapes human development and families. She has lived, studied, and worked in many different cultural places including Sweden, Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, and The Netherlands, and has collaborated on research with colleagues in Italy, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, Poland, Australia, and Korea. Sara’s first research project, as a doctoral student in social anthropology at Harvard, was a study of children’s acquisition of basic color terms in two different language communities in Guatemala, one Spanish-speaking and the other Mam (a Mayan language) (Harkness, 1973). At Harvard, Sara met and married the love of her life, Charlie Super, and together they travelled to Kenya where for the next three years they carried out research on children and families in a rural Kipsigis village. This work led to the formulation of the “developmental niche” framework for studying the cultural construction of children’s development (Super & Harkness, 1986).

Informed by this framework and its further elaboration in “parental ethnotheories,” Sara and Charlie, together with colleagues in The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Australia, and the U.S. carried out research, supported by the Spencer Foundation, on parenting and children’s development in Western societies, with a particular focus on home-school relations (Harkness et al., 2007). Subsequent studies, supported in part by NIH, have explored cultural patterns in regulation of state of arousal in infants and their mothers in The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Korea, and the U.S. as measured by salivary cortisol (Super, 2011).

Since 1996, Sara has served as professor in HDFS and Pediatrics, and Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Health, and Human Development (CHHD). The CHHD’s Graduate Certificate program has provided research training for students in five departments; four CHHD students presented their projects at the June 2024 meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development. Through the CHHD, UConn has established relationships with Radboud University (The Netherlands), and the University of Botswana, including an online exchange program for graduate students. The CHHD has also partnered since 2000 with the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC); the latest 3-year contract includes research on racial/ethnic disparities in perinatal health, and the development of a new program to train home visitors in the use of temperament assessments and tips for parents.

In addition to her work at UConn, Sara spent 2012-2013 in Washington D.C. as a Jefferson Science Fellow, working as a Senior Advisor in Education and Health in the Latin American and Caribbean Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Sara and Charlie’s work has been jointly recognized by an award from the Society for Research in Child Development for “Distinguished contributions to cultural and contextual factors in child development” (2009), and by Division 52 of the American Psychological Association’s Jean Lau Chin Award for Outstanding Psychologist in International Leadership Contributions (2022).