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Chad Shenk
Chad E. Shenk
Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (joint)
  • Human Development and Family Studies - HDFS
  • Research
  • Child Development
  • Adolescent Development
  • Intervention and Prevention
  • Graduate Program
  • Sustainability Council
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  • 2010—NIH T32 Postdoctoral Fellowship, Child Maltreatment, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center;
  • 2007—Doctor of Philosophy/Master of Arts, Clinical Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno;
  • 2007—Pre-Doctoral Clinical Internship, University of Rochester Medical Center;
  • 1998—Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University
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Currently Accepting Graduate Students
Office Address
230 Health and Human Development Building
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802
Professional Credentials



It is well known that child maltreatment affects long-term health and human development. However, important scientific questions about the impact of child maltreatment remain and require answers if we are to allocate resources commensurate with the risks and health consequences these children face. For instance, what are the contributors to replication failures and variation in effect size magnitudes across studies of child maltreatment examining the same health outcome?  What are the causal pathways that explain why child maltreatment leads to diverse outcomes across the health spectrum?  How can we improve the effectiveness of interventions, both preventive and treatment, for those children affected by maltreatment?  These questions spur three interrelated aims in my research laboratory: 1) advance methods that facilitate the accurate estimation of the impact of child maltreatment across adverse health outcomes, 2) identify mechanisms leading to multiple adverse health outcomes in the child maltreatment population, and 3) optimize the prevention and treatment of psychiatric disorders by targeting and engaging identified mechanisms.

Professional Experience

2017- Associate Professor, The Pennsylvania State University
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Department of Pediatrics (Joint)

2013-2017 Assistant Professor, The Pennsylvania State University
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Department of Pediatrics (Joint)

2010-2013 Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology
Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology (Joint)

Grants and Research Projects

Grants and research projects where postdoctoral fellow, graduate, and undergraduate student support is needed:

1. Detecting and Controlling Contamination Bias in Prospective Cohort Research on Child Maltreatment

Contamination occurs in many different experimental designs outside the field of child maltreatment. In this project, contamination refers to the presence of child maltreatment in an already established, non-child maltreatment comparison condition. Research has shown that failure to detect and control contamination biases effect size estimates for child maltreatment outcomes and leads to variation in the significance and magnitude of those estimates within and across studies, increasing the chances of discovery and replication failures. The Detecting and Controlling Contamination Bias Project (Shenk, PI; Shores and Ram, Co-I’s) is supported by an NIH award (R03HD104739) examining contamination in prospective cohort studies of child maltreatment. The current project is using existing data from a large, multi-site, multi-wave prospective cohort study of confirmed child maltreatment (N=1354) to accomplish two specific aims: 1) estimate the prevalence of contamination, defined as any self-reported instance of child maltreatment by members of the established comparison condition, and 2) test five different statistical approaches for reducing bias in risk estimates for child behavior problems attributable to contamination. Finally, this project will conduct extensive data simulations based on these results to extend inferences across different research conditions, including variations in sample size, contamination prevalence, statistical power, and effect size magnitude. The end product of this project will be to disseminate to the larger scientific field the optimal methods for detecting and controlling contamination bias across a range of research conditions in order to minimize variation in the significance and magnitude of effect size estimates reported across prospective studies. Postdoctoral fellow and graduate student positions are open for this project.

2. Caregiver-Child Dyadic Communication as a Mechanism of Resilience to Adverse Health Following Child Maltreatment

The Caregiver-Child Communication (C3) Project is supported by an active, multi-wave, NIH-funded prospective cohort study, the Child Health Study (CHS; Shenk, Co-I), which is examining the impact of child maltreatment on multiple biological systems and subsequent pediatric health. One of my laboratory’s contributions to the CHS is the use of observational methods to quantify caregiver-child dyadic communication and establish how specific patterns of communication are involved in promoting resilience to adverse health following exposure to child maltreatment. Caregivers and their children participating in the CHS (N=500 and counting!) complete three separate interaction tasks designed to promote relationship quality and dyadic problem-solving. Caregiver-child communication is then sampled using a multilevel, intensive longitudinal design, where specific processes are quantified in 30-second epochs to estimate dynamic change within and across tasks. Furthermore, families in the CHS complete waves of data collection every two years with the same three interaction tasks administered at each wave, allowing for inferences about how specific caregiver-child communication patterns change from childhood to adulthood and in response to child maltreatment. Following a deep phenotyping and multiple levels of analysis approach, data obtained from these observational methods will ultimately be included with biological, behavioral, and other environmental mechanisms of adverse health being measured in the CHS, such as structural and functional MRI, genome-wide DNA methylation, immune function, cognitive development, psychiatric function, and more. The data generated from the C3 project will inform models of how the experience of child maltreatment “gets under the skin” and how parent-child communication can facilitate reductions in risk for adverse health. Graduate and undergraduate student positions are open for this project.

Other grants and projects in the laboratory

3. The Epigenetic Age Acceleration and Mid-life Cognitive Function Project

This project (Shenk, PI; O’Donnell, Sliwinski, Ram, and Noll, Co-I’s) is supported by an active NIH award (R01AG059682) examining the impact of child maltreatment on epigenetic age acceleration, a cross-tissue index of the biological aging of cells that is derived from DNA methylation across the genome and has added explanatory power of adulthood health beyond chronological age. This project will first examine epigenetic age acceleration and its relation to mid-life cognitive function in the Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS), a 30-year prospective cohort study of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. The FGDS cohort also provides an unprecedented opportunity to test the mediational properties of glucocorticoid remodeling occurring over the 20 years following exposure to substantiated child sexual abuse on epigenetic age acceleration. Once statistical models of epigenetic age acceleration and cognitive outcomes are developed using data from the FGDS discovery cohort, they will be exported for replication in independent, international cohorts to extend models to more diverse samples, including older ages and alternative cognitive outcomes (e.g. mild cognitive impairment). Results will inform precision-based efforts at preventing, delaying, or reversing the onset of various cognitive aging outcomes across different points of the lifespan.

4. The Life Events and Reactions Study (LEARS)

LEARS (Shenk, PI) is a genetic case-control association study examining the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms associated with the onset of psychiatric disorders in the child maltreatment population. Supported with NIH funds (KL2TR000078), children between the ages of 8 and 15 years of age who experienced substantiated child maltreatment participated in this study. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are able to analyze biospecimens (oral fluid, buccal swab) from this study and relate variation in a number of markers to the course and severity of psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses obtained from a structured psychiatric interview. Students are also actively involved in the entry, coding, and cleaning of data to facilitate statistical analysis. Results from this study will provide insight into the genetic, epigenetic, and psychological contributions for these disorders in the child maltreatment population so that interventions targeting these processes can be developed or applied more effectively.

5. The Animal-Assisted Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (AAT+TF-CBT) Trial

The AAT+TF-CBT project (Shenk, Co-I) is an NIH-funded (R21HD091887) randomized feasibility trial examining the tolerability and acceptability of delivering TF-CBT while a service dog is present throughout the active phase of treatment. TF-CBT is one of the few well-established interventions for children experiencing maltreatment and this clinical trial is examining whether introducing a service dog during standard administration of TF-CBT enhances treatment effects above and beyond TF-CBT alone. The laboratory’s contribution to this project is overseeing the collection, editing, and analysis of electrocardiogram data obtained at pre-treatment as well as at strategic sessions during the active treatment phase. Current work on this project involves generating estimates of the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), an index of parasympathetic control of cardiac activity, in 30-second epochs and modeling within and between session change in RSA as a potential mechanism of action in TF-CBT when treating child maltreatment-related posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).



Selected Publications (* = Student or Postdoctoral Fellow Authorship)

Shenk, C.E., Rausch, J.R., Shores, K.A., Allen, E.K.,* & Olson, A.E.* (2021). Controlling contamination in child maltreatment research: Impact on effect size estimates for child behavior problems measured throughout childhood and adolescence. Development and Psychopathology.

Noll, J.G., Haag, A.C., Shenk, C.E., Wright, M.F., Barnes, J.E., Koram, M., Malgaroli, M., Foley, D.J., Kouril, M., & Bonanno, G.A. (2021). An observational study of Internet behaviors for adolescent females following sexual abuse. Nature Human Behavior.

Allen, E.K.*, Desir, M.*, & Shenk, C.E. (2021). Child maltreatment and adolescent externalizing behavior: Examining the indirect and cross-lagged pathways of prosocial peer activities. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Allen, B., Shenk, C.E., Dreschel, N.E., Wang, M., Bucher, A.M., Desir, M.P., Chen, M.J., & Grabowski, S.R. (2021). Integrating animal-assisted therapy into TF-CBT for abused youth with PTSD: A randomized controlled feasibility trial. Child Maltreatment.

Shenk, C.E., O’Donnell, K.J., Pokhvisneva, I., Kobor, M.S., Meaney, M.J., Bensman, H.E., Allen, E.K.*, & Olson, A.E.* (2021). Epigenetic age acceleration and risk for posttraumatic stress disorder following exposure to substantiated child maltreatment. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Olson, A.E.*, Shenk, C.E., Noll, J.G., & Allen, B. (2021). Child maltreatment and substance use in emerging adulthood: Internalizing and externalizing behaviors at the transition to adolescence as indirect pathways. Child Maltreatment.

Schreier, H.M.C., Heim, C.M., Rose, E.J., Shalev, I., Shenk, C.E., & Noll, J.G. (2021). The first NIH Capstone Center for Child Maltreatment: Assembling a cohort for in-depth, longitudinal assessments of the biological embedding of child maltreatment. Development and Psychopathology.

Kugler, K., Guastaferro, K., Shenk, C.E., Beale, S., Zadzora, K., & Noll, J.G. (2019). The effect of substantiated and unsubstantiated investigations of child maltreatment and subsequent adolescent health. Child Abuse & Neglect, 87, 112-119. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.06.005. PMCID: PMC6286700

Shenk, C.E., Ammerman, R.T., Teeters, A.R.*, Bensman, H.E., Allen, E.K.*, Putnam, F.W., & Van Ginkel, J.B. (2017). History of maltreatment in childhood and subsequent parenting stress in at-risk, first-time mothers:  Identifying points of intervention during home visiting. Prevention Science, 18, 361-370. doi: 10.1007/s11121-017-0758-4.

Shenk, C.E., Noll, J.G., Peugh, J.L., Griffin, A.M.*, & Bensman, H.E. (2016). Contamination in the prospective study of child maltreatment and female adolescent health. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 41, 37-45. doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsv017. PMCID: PMC4710181.