The Influence of Physical Maturation and Hassles on African American Adolescents' Learning Behaviors

Article excerpt

Adapting to the physiological changes associated with puberty is psychologically difficult for many early adolescents. With the onset of puberty, physical appearance and body image become central to the overall self-image. Physical characteristics receive increased attention during this period, exacerbating a heightened self-consciousness. Most early adolescents are more concerned with their physical appearance than any other aspect of themselves (Simmons and Blyth, 1987). Physical characteristics not only influence the youth's self- esteem, but also their peers' perceptions of them. Individuals, and social groups more generally, often assess others based on physical characteristics. From these assessments, stereotypic behavioral expectations and stigmas become linked with physical attributes (e.g., attractiveness, obesity). As such, undesirable physical characteristics make the adolescent vulnerable to ridicule and isolation. There is, however, a dearth of research available that identifies the academic and psychological effects of pubertal development on minority youth. In addressing this concern, the current study examines the effect of pubertal status and perceived hassles on African American adolescents' learning behaviors.

While physical status reflects development in comparison to one's peers, pubertal timing is representative of the youth's age at the onset of puberty (Dubas et al., 1991; Simmons and Blyth, 1987; Steinberg, 1987). Pubertal timing has been found to influence peer relations and adult expectations. Boys who mature early tend to be taller, stronger, more athletically oriented, and generally more popular than late-maturing boys. They are also perceived as older and more responsible. Early maturation among girls, however, is not as clearly advantageous. They experience more academic and behavioral problems than late maturers, but enjoy more independence and popularity with boys during early adolescence. During late adolescence, however, early-maturing girls require more assurance and have lower self-esteem than those who mature later. They typically weigh more and are slightly shorter than late maturers who are tall and lean when pubertal growth is complete (Magnusson et al., 1985). Although there are no cognitive advantages associated with maturational timing, consistent relationships have been found with academic achievement (Dubas et al., 1991).

Petersen and Crockett (1985) assessed the effect of pubertal timing and grade in school on adjustment (school achievement, family relations, peer relations and body image) among middle-school adolescents. They found a significant drop in body image (related to pubertal status) for late-maturing 7th-grade males. In addition, they found that early-maturing males and late-maturing females received higher grades than their same-gender peers and that perceptions of family relations were slightly lower. It is not known to what extent the adolescent's academic investment, schooling experience or learning style may have influenced these outcomes. Late-maturing males appeared to experience their most difficult period when peer group identification was becoming more pronounced. An interaction between grade in school and timing of pubertal maturation was found to affect body image for both genders.

In addition to peer group difficulties, the adolescent is also faced with the challenge of relinquishing parental ties and childhood identifications while still maintaining the continuity of parental and familial relationships. In addressing the developmental transition from late childhood to early adolescence, Simmons et al. (1987) assessed youth who were forced to cope with several concurrent life transitions. They assessed the effect of multiple life events (e.g., school transition, family disruption) on students' self-esteem, academic gradepoint average, and participation in extracurricular activities. Adolescents were found to exhibit greater difficulties when several stressors exacerbated a transitional period (i. …