Professor of Development Psychology
P. Michiel Westenberg is full professor in the unit Developmental and Educational Psychology of the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University.
Amsterdam: BSc Psychology & MSc Clinical Psychology, Vrije Universiteit
St. Louis: PhD Developmental Psychology, Washington University
Berkeley: Postdoctoral fellow NIMH, University of California
Leiden: Assistant professor Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Curium-LUMC
Leiden: Associate and Full professor, Institute of Psychology, FSW
Several administrative activities, including:
- Chair Management Team Leiden University Treatment and Expertise Center (LUBEC-Leids Universitair Behandel en Expertise Centrum).
- Scientific Director and Chair of the Institute of Psychology, Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Leiden University
- Chair of the Unit Developmental and Educational Psychology, Institute of Psychology, Leiden University (with Prof. Crone en Prof. Güroğlu)
- Scientific Director National Research Institute for the Study of Education and Human Development (ISED; accredited by the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences)
For more information about my career and administrative activities, please go to my CV.
Teaching focus: School Psychology
All kinds of developments are taking place at school: academic, cognitive, social-emotional and physical. School is also a place where various problems may emerge or come to light. Therefore it is of crucial importance that our students understand the world of the school and that they learn how to intervene on behalf of all students in order to foster positive development in all domains.
This is why we now offer a master specialization fully dedicated to School Psychology (since the 2016/17 academic year). Our students receive instruction on how to assist schools and their pupils. This instruction is strongly tied to our own research and the research of our colleagues of the Unit of Developmental and Educational Psychology at Leiden University.
For more information about my teaching activities throughout my career, please go to my CV.
Research focus: Adolescence
Adolescence is my specialization - the phase of life from the onset of puberty to adulthood according to societal standards (approx. age 9 -25). I presented my vision of adolescence in the Leiden University Dies Oration in 2008. In some respects developments during adolescence take longer than we thought. This insight should not lead to complacency among educators and parents: puberty does not simply pass by, early adolescent school pupils will not become more motivated by themselves, fears and sombre moods will not suddenly disappear. By its very nature, adolescence is the best possible moment for a stimulation of positive development, for tackling psychological difficulties and to improve motivation for success at school.
My research comprises three main topics::
1. SOCIAL ANXIETY. The SAND project (Social Anxiety and Normal Development). Together with colleagues and students I studied the course of typical and atypical social anxiety in a sample of over 300 youths at the age of 9 to 21 years. The central research question concerns the similarities and differences between typical and atypical social anxiety. To study this question from a subjective, behavioral and biological perspective we built a new research lab: the Leiden Public Speaking Task. This is a standardized but naturalistic setting for observing youths while they are giving a speech, and allowing for the assessment of feelings, thoughts, skills, and physiology (heart rate, skin conductance, stress hormones). This project produced new insights about the development of social anxiety, as is shown by the extensive attention given to our research in two comprehensive review articles from leading international experts in the field: Spence & Rapee (2016), Leigh & Clark (2018).
The SAND-project laid the foundation for new research of neurocognitive correlates of social anxiety and to explore new avenues for more effective detection and intervention possibilities: can we detect social anxiety at an earlier stage and how can we best offer preventative interventions. This is wat we investigate in a number of related research projects.
FAMILY: The LFLSAD project (Leiden Family Lab Study on Social Anxiety Disorder) was designed to investigate the neurocognitive basis of social anxiety. Does social anxiety symptoms run in families and are these symptoms connected with specific neurocognitive characteristics? So called ‘endophenotypes’ are the connecting elements between the genotype and overt behavior (the phenotype). LFLSAD yields important insights into endophenotypes of social anxiety. These insights can be used to investigate specific hypotheses about the genetic basis of social anxiety on the one hand and for the development of early intervention procedures on the other hand. Ina new research project, which has just been launched, we are studying whether neurocognitive characteristics are malleable in the context of personality and social interactions (the Changing Minds project).
PEERS: Same-age peers play a crucial role in the development of social anxiety. Socially anxious adolescents appear to lack certain social skills (e.g., avoidant eye gazing) and are very sensitive towards negative peer feedback. In the Eye Tracking project we are investigating eye gazing in socially anxious adolescents with the latest mobile eye tracking technology fitted in a pair of glasses. In the Luca me! project we investigate a new ‘blended care’ treatment: combination of group-CBT with an app. From our research in the SAND-study it appears that same-age peers tend to reject socially anxious adolescents. This rejection plays a role in the negative cognitions about social interactions. In the treatment of social anxiety it seems to be key to work on social skills (such as eye gazing) in the company of same-age peers. The addition of an app is meant to augment the effect of the treatment and to prevent regression after treatment. This project is carried out at LUBEC (Leiden University Treatment and Expertise Center).
SCHOOL: The StressLess project. Secondary school students frequently experience feelings of stress over school related activities, such as homework, assessments, oral presentations, collaboration with other students, and social interactions and friendships. Such situations are particularly stressful for socially anxious students, who might want to avoid these situations altogether. In some cases this may lead to frequent absences from school. For the Dutch Science Foundation we investigate the most effective and efficient way to recognize unhealthy stress levels and reduce stress by means of informal and accessible interventions at the schools. For this purpose we developed a series of lessons about stress for all students (primary prevention aspect) and a set of brief training programmes for students who are indicating a need for more support (secondary prevention aspect).
FAMILY DOCTOR: The Close the Gap project. Social anxiety tends to go unnoticed for a long time, partly because social fear is a normative human experience. This is especially the case during adolescence with its increased sensitivity for negative social feedback. This is why social anxiety disorder (SAD) has the longest delay between onset and treatment in comparison with other mental health problems. From other research it appears that the family doctor often does not recognize the presence or severity of social anxiety symptoms in patients who may present with other mental or physical ailments. We study the referral letters from family doctors for teenagers who had been referred to a mental health provider and who, later in the diagnostic process, appeared to suffer from SAD. We do this with existing data in a retrospective and a prospective design.
2. MOTIVATION TO LEARN. The GUTS-project (Differentiated Challenging of Talent at School). The motivation for learning at school shows a declining trend during early secondary education. This is an international phenomenon and appears to have a detrimental effect on academic performance. The Dutch inspectorate for education expressed serious concerns about this apparent lack of motivation to learn and excel at school. We developed a new programme to improve motivation and performance by means of a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators: (a) students had to obtain a higher grade average at the end of the school year to be promoted to the next grade (extrinsic incentive), and (b) students followed more intensive and personal coaching in a school subject of their own choosing (intrinsic incentive). The research showed that this mix led to an overall motivation and performance increase while the downward trend was not stopped. The students’ stress levels were not affected, except for less confidence on tests. This project demonstrates that adolescents are able and willing to go the extra mile.
3. EGO DEVELOPMENT Social-emotional development in adolescence is the common thread in all my research projects. My interest in this particular aspect of human development was piqued by Jane Loevinger’s ego development theory, and it encouraged me to apply for a PhD position at Washington University. Her theory presents a comprehensive and compelling account of development from early childhood and all the way into adulthood. Her theory was grounded in a psychometrically valid instrument allowing for an age-independent yardstick of developmental maturity. In various studies I used her theory and instrument for studying the relationship with other variables such as personality and social fear level. The finding that social fear is related to ego development, irrespective of chronological age, was the source of the SAND study (see above).
The SCT-Y. In the course of this research including other variables we worked on a youth version of Loevinger’s description and measure of ego development (her model was predominantly based on studies with adults aged 18 and up). This resulted in the Sentence Completion Test for Youth (SCT-Y). This instrument facilitates a reliable impression of social-emotional developmental level of youths between 9 and 25 years of age. A proper assessment of developmental level is a useful diagnostic tool in the hands of trained professionals at schools or in clinical practice.
Research team at Leiden
Anne Miers, PhD (Assistant Professor [AP]); Esther van den Bos, PhD (AP); Melle van der Molen, PhD (AP); Anke Blöte, PhD (AP); Janna-Marie Bas-Hoogendam, MSc (PhD candidate); Sara Jakobsson Mansson, MSc (PhD candidate), Semiha Aydin, MSc (PhD candidate); Jiemiao Chen, MSc (PhD candidate); Simone Vogelaar, MSc (PhD candidate); Elise Kortink, MSc (PhD candidate)