Kirsten Davison

Donald and Sue Pritzker Associate Professor of Nutrition

Building 2, Room 331
655 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115


B.A. (Hons, Psychology), 1994, Otago University, New Zealand
M.S. (Human Development and Family Studies), 1997, The Pennsylvania State University
Ph.D. (Human Development and Family Studies), 2001, The Pennsylvania State University

Other Affiliations

Director, Graduate Program in Public Health Nutrition
Standing member, NIH Psychosocial Risk and Disease Prevention (PRDP) study section

Research Interests

  • Families and child health, with a particular focus on obesity
  • Family-centered interventions for obesity prevention
  • Parenting effects on youth physical activity and screen-based behaviors
  • Development and application of conceptual models for obesity prevention
  • Program evaluation; longitudinal research designs

My research primarily focuses on family- and community-level factors that influence children’s lifestyle behaviors (diet, physical activity, screen-based activities) and risk of obesity.  Key topics that I have researched to date include familial clustering of risk behaviors linked with accelerated weight gain in children, psychosocial consequences of obesity in children, parenting strategies that promote active lifestyles in children, and developmental and contextual factors that explain declines in adolescent girls’ physical activity.  More recently, my work has focused on the development and evaluation of family-centered interventions for obesity prevention in low-income children, including children enrolled in WIC and Head Start. A primary emphasis of these programs is the need to consider the family unit as a whole and address factors beyond the family (e.g., community resources, media factors) that impact on intrafamilial interactions around healthy lifestyles.

A secondary focus of my work is the development and application of conceptual models that foster a stronger understanding of the contextual, developmental and behavioral origins of obesity in children and adolescents.  Examples include the Ecological Model of Childhood Obesity (Davison & Birch 2001), the Family Ecological Model (Davison & Campell, 2005) and the Family Action-based Model of Intervention Layout and Implementation (FAMILI)) (Davison, Lawson, & Coatsworth, in press).

Current projects

Childhood obesity demonstration project (CORD)
This is a four year, CDC-funded obesity prevention study targeting children 2-12 years old living in low-income communities (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/researchproject.html). The aim of the project is to identify effective health care and community strategies to support children’s healthy eating and active living to help combat childhood obesity and prevent the onset of many associated diseases, including type-2 diabetes, asthma and heart disease. Building on existing community efforts and using innovative, evidence-based approaches to reach low-income and minority families, this multi-sector, multi-component project partners the Harvard School of Public Health with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality to combine changes in preventive care at pediatric visits with supportive changes in schools, childcare centers, after school programs and community venues such as retail food stores and parks. Behavioral objectives of the study include:

  • Decrease screen time and remove television sets from bedrooms;
  • Decrease children’s consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages;
  • Increase levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity;
  • Increase children’s sleep duration and improve sleep quality;
  • Replace calorically-dense foods with fruits and vegetables.

What about dads? First steps to engaging fathers in childhood obesity prevention
Fathers are under-represented in childhood obesity and child feeding research. Funded through Harvard Catalyst and using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, the ‘What About Dads?’ (WAD) study seeks to identify strategies to engage fathers in childhood obesity research and explore their perceived roles around child feeding, child physical activity, and screen-based behaviors. This work will pave the way for father-sensitive and father-focused programs targeting childhood obesity prevention.

Physical Activity and Self-Regulation in Children with Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Disabilities
This is a translational study conducted in partnership with the Manville School, a therapeutic day school under the Judge Baker Children’s Center. The study explores the use of interactive exer-gaming bikes to promote moderate to intense aerobic exercise in school-age children and examining the impact of bouts of exercise on classroom behavior and self-regulation.