Applied Developmental Research

In this section we discuss a selection of the empirical research relevant to contemporary theoretical research on child development and the field of school psychology. The empirical research discussed in the subsections below provides a general overview of the relevant developmental processes that influence functioning in school.

Contemporary Social, Political, and Ecological Contexts Affecting Youth Development

The sociopolitical context includes contemporary ideologies, laws, and policies that define a given society, and directly and indirectly influence the conditions under which children grow up, live, and learn. For instance, federal, state, and local legislative policies influence the level of child poverty and childhood hunger, which have important implications for developmental trajectories (Evans & Kim, 2013). Broader social, health, and environmental policies, such as placement of public libraries, presence and upkeep of playgrounds, and availability of child enrichment programs and adequate healthcare, can influence overall community conditions (Maggi, Irwin, Siddiqui, & Hertzman, 2010). Such macrolevel factors impact more proximal socioecological contexts including schools and neighborhoods, which are also key determinants of children’s developmental outcomes (Bronfenbrenner, 1977).

In general, neighborhoods in the United States are inequitable in the distribution of physical, economic, and social capital as evidenced by disparities in housing, income, educational attainment, crime, violence, and concentration of poverty (Copeland-Linder, Lambert, Chen & lalongo, 2011). Such neighborhood disadvantage has been associated with a myriad of developmental outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms and disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder (e.g., Aneshensel & Sucoff, 1996), engagement in health risk behaviors (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000), and drug and alcohol use (e.g., Copeland-Linder et al., 2011). In contrast, children residing in safe and cohesive areas that mobilize resources for the benefit of children (e.g., development youth programs) are less likely to be vulnerable than children from similar backgrounds living in disadvantaged neighborhoods (Maggi et al., 2010).

When children enter school they increase their human capital and access to potential resources (Maggi et al., 2010). The influence of educators, as well as school dynamics, have important meaning for child development. School dynamics and their interaction with child characteristics can make this context an inhibiting or promoting environment (Marks & Garcia Coll, 2018). For instance, positive school climate, as evidenced by connectedness through meaningful relationships, safety and freedom from violence, and fair treatment and racial equity, is associated with increased student motivation (e.g., Goodenow, 1993), achievement (e.g., Wang &: Huguley, 2012), and sense of belonging (e.g., Goldstein et al., 2008), fewer discipline problems (e.g., Mattison & Aber, 2007), and lower anxiety and depressive symptoms (e.g., Graham, Bellmore, & Mize, 2006). In contrast, negative school climate is linked to multiple negative outcomes for students, including declines in academic performance (e.g., Griffin, Cooper, Metzger, Golden & White, 2017), and also psychological and behavioral adjustment (e.g., Way, Reddy, & Rhodes, 2007). Such negative school climates disproportionately affect minoritized youth (Mitchum & Moodie-Mills, 2014).

Within the last two decades, stakeholders have been increasingly concerned with the impact of terrorism and political violence on child and youth development. Our understanding of the effects of such mass trauma is guided by risk and resilience frameworks (e.g., Masten & Coatsworth, 1998), but explicating paths to developmental outcomes is quite complex. Overall, research suggests several protective systems for adaptive responses among children faced with disastrous situations: supportive and effective caregiving, problem-solving systems, self-regulation and social-regulation systems, motivational/reward systems underlying self-efficacy, and hope and belief systems that convey a sense of meaning (see Masten & Narayan, 2012 for a comprehensive review). Research also suggests that schools can be a significant protective factor for mitigating risk in the aftermath of mass trauma (Masten & Narayan, 2012).

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