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About Sickkids
About SickKids

Maru Barrera, PhD

The Hospital for Sick Children


Research Institute
Senior Associate Scientist
Child Health Evaluative Sciences

University of Toronto
Associate Professor
Population Health Sciences

Associate Professor
Faculty of Medicine

Associate Professor
Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology

Associate Professor

Associate Professor
Institute for Medical Sciences

Phone: 416-813-6784
Fax: 416-813-8839
Email: maru.barrera@sickkids.ca

Brief Biography

I have been a Paediatric Health Psychologist with research and clinical interests in the field of paediatric cancer for over 25 years. I am a Senior Associate Scientist in the Population Health Sciences Program at The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute. Along with my clinical and research commitments I hold academic appointments at the University of Toronto at the Associate Professor level in the following departments: Dept. of Human Development and Applied Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; and Institute of Medical Sciences. Most of my clinical and research work is conducted in the Haematology/Oncology program at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids).

Clinical Care Activities

  • Assessment and treatment of behavioural and emotional problems associated with paediatric cancer diagnosis and treatment;
  • Program development of evidence-based interventions for children and adolescents treated for cancer, their parents and their siblings;
  • Consultation to staff and families regarding health promotion and treatment of behaviour and emotional difficulties.

Research Interests

  • Psychosocial screening and mental health/quality of life outcomes: Knowledge translation from the social science lab to clinical care;
  • Psychological, social and quality of life outcomes on youth diagnosed and treated for cancer
  • Psychological and quality of life outcomes of paediatric cancer on siblings and parents
  • Psychological interventions to reduce distress and psychological maladjustment and promote health after paediatric cancer
  • Psychological, academic and quality of life outcomes of stem cell transplantation in the affected children and their parents
  • Bereavement in the family after paediatric cancer loss

Research Activities

My major research activities are focused on the impact of paediatric cancer on the child and family’s psychological outcomes and quality of life during treatment and after treatment, including early psychosocial screening and survivorship. Within this scope, I conduct 1) descriptive and 2) intervention research. Additional research interests are described as 3) other research activities.

  1. Descriptive research. I have investigated social competence and deficits in survivors of pediatric brain tumours, in collaboration with my colleagues at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. This research program is funded by the National Institute of Heatlh (NIH). Additionally, I have conducted further research in this population examining the relationship between executive functioning and social skills as well as emotional outcomes. Another aspect of my research explores psychosocial screening at pediatric cancer diagnosis and how to translate and integrate the information gained from screening into clinical practice. An extension of this investigation explores barriers to psychosocial screening, how health care providers (oncologists, nurses and social workers) view psychosocial screening and how useful they believe it is to patient care. This research program has been funded by the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute (CCSRI) and the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario Research Unit (POGO).
  2. Intervention research. Currently I am conducting a pilot randomized control trial examining the effects of screening for risk and symptoms of mental health problems in families of children newly diagnosed with cancer, as well as providing recommendations for resources based on screening results to see if this intervention will help these kids and their caregivers. The intervention also involves monthly follow-up by a trained health care provider, called “Psychosocial Navigator”, who provides resource information to the family and the child’s treating team. We hope this intervention will lead to improved mental health and quality of life outcomes for children diagnosed with cancer and their caregivers. This project is funded by the Cundill Foundation for Child and Youth Depression. Previously, I have been conducted several randomized control intervention projects, including a) group intervention for siblings of children with cancer (funded by C17); b) social skills training for survivors of brain tumours (funded by CCSRI); c) and health promotion intervention that involve massage, humour therapy and relaxation in a sample of children who undergo SCT (funded by NCI).
  3. Other research activities. In collaboration with Drs. Anita Villani and David Malkin, we have been examining the experiences of parents and teens with regard to pediatric precision oncology (funded by Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Pediatric Cancer) as well as assessing the impact of surveillance in the pediatric population (funded by ALSF). We are also extending our research into the social skills and competence of survivors of pediatric brain tumours in collaboration with Drs. Vorstman, Bartels, Lai and Desjardins (funded by Sick Kids Psychiatry Endowment Fund and RESTRACOMP). In addition, we are investigating the effects of providing face-to-face peer support to adolescents with cancer through the use of a peer-to-peer mentoring program using virtual technologies such as Skye and text messaging. This study is in collaboration with Dr. Stinson (funded by CCSRI).

External Funding

  • 2017-2019 - Mapping psychosocial screening to services for children with cancer: a feasibility and pilot study. PI: M. Barrera. Co-investigators: P. Szatmari, S Alexander, W Shama, D. Mills, C. de Souza, A. Cheung, Cundill Foundation for Child and Youth Depression.
  • 2013 – 2019 - Predicting deficits in social competence in pediatric brain tumor survivors. Site PI: M. Barrera. (PI: K. Vannatta). Co-Investigators: A. Patenaude, C. Gerhardt, K Yeates, U. Bartels, Simpkins, & Delaney. NIH/NCI, 2RO1 CA
  • 2018 – 2019 - Feasibility and Pilot Study: A novel approach toward understanding social competence in brain tumor survivors. Drs. M Barrera, L Desjardins, MC Lai & J Vorstman. Psychiatry Endowment Fund and RESTRACOMP
  • 2018-2020 - Pediatric Precision Oncology: Parental and Adolescent Experiences. PI: Dr. A. Villani. Co-investigators: Drs. M. Barrera (mentor) D. Malkin, and B. Gallinger, B. Johnstone. Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer.
  • 2018-2019 - On the outside looking in: Barriers and facilitators of implementing the standard of psychosocial care for siblings of children with cancer. PI: Dr. K. Long. Co-Investigators: D. Buchbinder, M. Aldelfer, M. Barrera, A. Lown, C. Gerhardt. Mattie Miracle Foundation.
  • 2014-2016 - Improving quality of life in children with cancer through psychosocial screening and improved communication in health care professionals. PI: M. Barrera. Co-Investigators: S. Alexander, J. Chung et al. Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.
  • 2011-2015 - A randomized control trial to evaluate the efficacy of a social skills intervention for brain tumor childhood survivors. #: 700793. PI: M. Barrera, Co-Investigators: Sung L, Bartels, U, Janzen, L, et al.  Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute


Barrera, M., Alexander, S., Shama, W., Mills, D., Desjardins, L., & Hancock, K. (2018). Perceived benefits of and barriers to psychosocial risk screening in pediatric oncology by health care providers. Pediatric blood & cancer, 65(12), e27429..

Barrera, M, Atenafu, E, Schulte, F, Nathan, P, & Hancock, K. (2018) Depression and quality of life in siblings of children with cancer after group intervention participation: a randomized control trial. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 1–11, doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsy040

Barrera, M, Atenafu, E, Scholte, F, Nathan, P, & Hancock, K, & Saleh, A. (2018). Changes in symptoms of anxiety in siblings and caregivers of children with cancer after group intervention participation: a randomized control trial. Psycho-Oncology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pon.4707

Barrera, M, Neville, A, Purdon, L & Hancock, K. (2018)”It’s just for us!” Perceived benefits of participation in a group intervention for siblings of children with cancer. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. 2018, 1–9 doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsy026

Desjardins, L. Solomon, A, Janzen, L  , Schulte, F, Chung, J, Cataudella, D,, Downie, A & Barrera, M (2018). Executive function and social skills in pediatric brain tumor survivors: Let’s get specific. Journal of Applied Child Neuropsychology.

 Desjardins, L, Bartels, U, Janzen, L, Schulte, F, Chung, J. & Barrera, M,  (2018). Predicting Withdrawal and Internalizing Symptoms in Pediatric Brain Tumor Survivors. J of Psychosocial Oncology.

Howard-Sharp K, Russell, C, Keim, M, Barrera, M, Gilmer MJ, Akard, TF. Compas, BE, Fairclough, DL, Davies, B, Hogan, M, Young-Saleme, T, Vannatta, K, & Gerhardt, CA. (2018). Grief and Growth in Bereaved Siblings: Interactions between Different Sources of Social Support. School Psychology Quarterly. 33, 363-371. doi: 10.1037/spq0000253.

Akard, TF, Skeens, MC, Fortney, CA, Dietrich, MS, Gilmer, MJ, Barrera, M, Davies, B. Vannatta, K,,Wray, S & Gerhardt, CA (2018) Changes of siblings overtime after the death of a brother or sister from cancer. Cancer Nursing, Feb. 27. PMID: 29489479

Eaton-Russell, C, Widger, K, Beaune, L, Neville, A, Barrera, M. (2017). Sibling’s voices: A prospective investigation of experiences with a dying child. Death Studies. http:/dx.doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2017.1334009. SPA

Barrera, M, Janzen, L, Bartels, U, Atenafu, E, Schulte, F, Chung, J, Cataudella, D, et al. (2017). Determinants of social competence in pediatric brain tumor survivors. Under review, Journal of Supportive Care in Cancer. DOI: 10.1007/s00520-017-3708-6, 25 (9), 2891-2898  PA

Barrera, M, Atenafu, E, Bartels, U, Sung, L, Janzen, L, Cataudela, D, Chung, J, Schulte, F, Hancock, K et al. (2017). A randomized control social skills intervention trial to improve social skills in pediatric brain tumor survivors. Psycho-Oncology. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.4385. PA