• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 26th February, 2009

How disadvantaged you feel hurts children more than poverty

A child’s behavior may be affected as much by parents’ perceptions of the disadvantaged neighborhoods where they live and their resulting sense of belonging as by any more tangible everyday experience.The finding comes from research published this month in Children and Youth Services Review which attempts to improve understanding of the complex relationship between deprived neighborhoods and poor outcomes. There is a lot of evidence that children who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods display higher levels of social, emotional and behavioral problems than their more affluent counterparts. There is little to explain why – but much from poorer countries to suggest that disadvantage by itself is not the reason. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) set about testing one theory about neighborhood effects using a model developed at Arizona State University by Mark Roosa. They say it explains the relationship between socio-economically deprived neighborhoods and associated higher rates of child conduct problems in Australia. Roosa hypothesizes that neighborhood socio-economic status influences individuals’ perceptions, that those perceptions influence neighborhood social processes – which in turn affect child outcomes. In the Australian study, parents’ perceptions of neighborhood safety were influenced by their sense of belonging and this in turn had an impact on their children’s behavior. Four- and five-year-olds were more likely to display poor behavior if their parents mistrusted their neighbors, felt they did not belong and were not well informed about local affairs. Benjamin Edwards and Leah Bromfield from AIFS say the availability of institutional resources was one aspect of neighborhood belonging that did not appear to have any impact. Lack of services is frequently given as a cause of neighborhood problems, but the empirical evidence to back it up was not there in this case. At any rate, they found that parents’ appraisal of the availability of services in their areas had no impact on child outcomes. Sense of belonging and perceived safety made all the difference – even after significant family characteristics were taken into account, such as parental income, ethnicity, unemployment and mother’s level of education.On the other side of the coin, the researchers were surprised to discover that only parental perceptions of neighborhood cleanliness and a sense of belonging had any significant impact on children’s pro-social behavior. This is regarded as an important finding because very few studies have sought to identify neighborhood influences on children’s positive outcomes. Edwards consequently observes that the effects may operate differently for positive child outcomes. “In light of these findings, initiatives that encourage social gatherings of families may be particularly effective as a mechanism to build social relationships and develop mutual trust, as well as providing information about local services.”Research on neighborhood effects in Australia continues. The data contribute to Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children , which is following the experiences of a nationally representative sample of children as they mature. Information on different aspects of neighborhood life is routinely collected.Conduct problems and pro-social behavior are measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire completed by teachers and parents. Information on neighborhood characteristics comes from a variety of sources - parent self-report surveys and direct observation as well as administrative data. See: Edwards B and Bromfield M (2009) “Neighborhood influences on young children’s conduct problems and pro-social behavior: Evidence from an Australian national sample”, Children and Youth Services Review, 31, pp 317-324 and Roosa M et al (2003) “Prevention science and neighborhood influences on low-income children’s development: Theoretical and methodological issues”, American Journal of Community Psychology>, 31, pp 55-72

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