Kids Develop Social Competence despite Poverty

Article excerpt

Despite all the stresses financial hardship brings, many poor children are doing very well. What is happening in the families of those children to account for such success?

There's something special in here," graduate student Erika Blackburn tells three-year-old Anthony as she shakes the little wooden box. "There's something really great in here, and I'm going to tell you a story about it. You'll have a really great time!"

As the child's excitement mounts, Blackburn sets the box down on the table between them, ready to begin her tale. Suddenly she remembers she's left something important in her car.

"I'll be right back," she promises, then adds, "Don't touch the box until I get back."

Three minutes pass. Can Anthony resist the excruciating temptation to touch the box? And if so, how is he able to keep himself in check?

Very few of the Tompkins County Head Start students that C. Cybele Raver videotaped in this exact situation disregarded Blackburn's admonition and touched the tantalizing object so easily within reach. Most showed an admirable ability to delay their own gratification by keeping themselves occupied until her return.

Self-control such as this is not what some people would expect from children termed "at risk" - in this case, children facing poverty - says Raver, assistant professor of human development and family studies.

Historically, she explains, studies of low-income children have taken a deficit approach. That is, researchers have looked at how these children behave badly. Raver's research program takes the opposite approach by studying family and individual factors that promote children's social competence. Her work shows that despite all the stresses financial hardship brings, many poor children are doing very well. The question, then, is, what happens in the low-income families of children who do well to account for such success?

Answering this question is important given the startlingly large number of poor children in America. Data from the National Center for Children in Poverty suggests that one in four children under the age of six lives in poverty as defined by federal guidelines. And poor children are found not just in urban areas but all across the country. In fact, only 33 percent of poor children under the age of six live in urban areas, while approximately 20 percent live in the suburbs and 25 percent are in rural areas.

Drawing on children from both urban and rural areas, Raver's research uses what is called a within-group approach; that is, instead of comparing two different groups, middle class and poor children, she compares groups of poor children with each other. This enables her to see what is typical, or healthy, development for a range of children for whom poverty is common.

In a three-year longitudinal study beginning this fall, Raver will look first at the ways parents of 120 children entering a Head Start program express their own emotions as well as how they help their children handle emotions. Late in the school year she'll assess whether these children have internalized the strategies experienced in interactions with their parents and, hence, are able to use them as their own. The final piece is an end-of-the-year polling of both teachers and peers to determine which emotional self-regulation strategies promote social competence in the classroom. She'll ask teachers to fill out questionnaires for these same children each year through first grade.

Raver's hypothesis is that when temperament is accounted for, "the emotion-regulating skills children employ are at least partially predicted by parents' socialization practices around their own emotional expressiveness."

To determine what some of these practices are, Raver videotapes children and their mothers playing together at a variety of specified tasks, then analyzes their interaction. …