Get to know Hanna Swaab and discover how to bring up a problem child

How can you guide a child who behaves aggressively? Or help an autistic child to communicate? Hanna Swaab, Professor of Neuro-pedagogy and Development Disorders, is an expert in this field.

Positive shift

Why do some children suffer from social disorders such as autism or exhibit aggressive behaviour? Can we manage this disturbances, or even prevent them? ‘How you behave depends partly on how your brain works,’ Swaab explains. ‘Connections in the brain determine how you respond to your environment. We also know that the environment in which you grow up and the experiences with your parents are enormously important. And that you can sometimes still have an effect on how the brain develops.’ Swaab and her colleagues help children with behavioural disorders. They ‘measure’ how the brains of these children work, how this is translated into behaviour, and how children respond to their environment. Using this knowledge, they develop treatments and training programmes for children (and their parents) who have childhood problems, such as autism, ADHD or problems with aggression, helping them to modify their behaviour and communicate more effectively. The lives of ‘problem children’ are given an enormously positive shift. An online dossier is now available about Swaab’s work, in which she describes the many different ways in which she is able to help children and parents.


Hanna Swaab’s work focuses primarily on children with behavioural problems, such as autism, and children who exhibit aggressive behaviour. With her knowledge about the link between brain functions and behaviour, Swaab is able to develop tailor-made theories for clients. Together with the Centre for Autism in Leiden, she carries out research on how to improve the communication between parents and young children with autism. ‘A child with autism generally has little natural need to share attention with others, which means he or she is less open to stimuli from the environment. Because the child responds less to stimuli from the environment, the people around the child in turn tend to offer fewer stimuli.’ Based on this knowledge, Swaab and her colleagues offer autistic children and their parents training to teach them how to improve their communication.’


‘There are two main areas that cause aggression,’ Swaab explains. ‘Number one: biological predisposition, where aggression is often caused by problems in social cognition and regulatory functions. Number two: the environment where the child grows up.’ Swaab’s work focuses on both factors. In the ‘A good start’ project, for example, she advises young mothers with psychological and social problems during their pregnancy and in the first two years of bringing up their children. ‘We hope that this training will help to create a secure and stimulating environment, which is very important for a child’s social, cognitive and emotional development. The aim is to prevent problems with aggression, for example, or other problems to do with how the child functions and his or her wellbeing.’ ‘A good start’ is just one of the many examples of projects through which Swaab helps children suffering from problems with aggression.
The website about Hanna Swaab is part of Leiden University’s campaign of advertisements and web dossiers showing the research and teaching taking place in Leiden. Each dossier presents the work of a leading Leiden researcher and the impact of his or her work.

Want to know more?

Web dossier on Hanna Swaab (in Dutch)

Studying in Leiden

information in Dutch


(6 May 2013 )

Last Modified: 16-05-2013