Studying the Role of Family and School in the Development of African American Preschoolers in Violent Neighborhoods
Randolph, Suzanne M, Koblinsky, Sally A, Roberts, Debra D, The Journal of Negro Education
Suzanne M. Randolph, Sally A. Koblinsky, and Debra D. Roberts, Department of Family Studies, University of Maryland-College Park*
This article examines the potential influence of family and community variables on the development of children in violent neighborhoods. It reviews research on the prevalence of children's exposure to community violence, examines the effects of violence exposure on various areas of children's development, and explores the role of family and schools in reducing children's violencerelated stress. It also discusses conceptual and methodological issues that must be addressed in a future research agenda examining these topics. Lastly, it presents strategies for developing and empirically testing educational interventions designed to promote positive developmental outcomes for African American preschoolers in violent neighborhoods.
Community violence has become epidemic in the United States and has been targeted as a major national public health problem by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Public Health Service (USDHHS/PHS) (1992), which has incorporated a focus on community violence as part of its "Healthy People 2000" objectives. Growing numbers of families with limited incomes are living in neighborhoods characterized by high levels of violence, crime, and drug activity. Such families may experience direct exposure (e.g., robbery, assault) and indirect exposure (e.g., witnessing violent events, knowing a victim) to violent events on a regular basis (USDHHS/PHS, 1992). Many parents who live in these neighborhoods fear the effects of community violence on their children, and their concerns about child safety begin during their children's early years.
With increasing frequency, children are becoming victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of violence. In 1992, violence took the lives of more than 2,400 children (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995). Further, countless children witness community violence and experience the emotional and psychological trauma that can result from such exposure (Osofsky, 1995). Especially alarming is the increase in child perpetrators of violence. In 1992, for example, more than 7,600 children between the ages of 10 and 12 were charged with murder, rape, robbery, or assault, while over 1,500 children ages 9 and younger were charged with at least one of these violent crimes (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1993). Researchers note that violent behavior is often part of a long developmental process that begins in early childhood. Studies of adults arrested for violent crimes often find a childhood history of exposure to family and community violence ("Saving Youth from Violence," 1994).
The family, school, and community are important social contexts that influence children's development (Bronfenbrenner, 1986). When these contexts are supportive and protective, they facilitate positive cognitive and socioemotional functioning; when they are stressful, they may place children at developmental and educational risk. Community violence can be viewed as an ecological stressor that interacts with individual, family, and school factors to influence children's growth and development. Community violence may not only directly impair children's functioning, but may also hinder the ability of parents and teachers to protect children and help them cope with negative life events (Cicchetti & Rizley, 1981).
Exposure to pervasive community violence can jeopardize preschool children's ability to learn and succeed in school (Gouvis, 1995). Violence exposure may undermine young children's development of security, autonomy, competence, and self-esteem, and trigger dysfunctional coping responses. Children may come to mistrust their parents and teachers-whom they perceive as being unable to protect them-and develop aggressive, impulsive, self-protective behaviors. Such behaviors may interfere with young children's acquisition of such values as cooperation, empathy, and sensitivity. Moreover, children's preoccupation with violent events may distract them from learning and limit their ability to develop the direction and self-control needed for school achievement (Slaby, Roedell, Arezzo, & Hendrix, 1995).
Although educators recognize the potential negative effects of exposure to community violence, there has been little empirical research examining the impact of such violence on young children. Moreover, only a few studies have explained how parents and teachers attempt to protect preschool children from the potential physical, psychological, and educational harm associated with exposure to neighborhood violence. Researchers have also failed to identify the family and school variables that may buffer or mediate children's reactions to violence-related stress. Some preschool teachers have attempted to introduce classroom violence interventions, but their programs have not been rigorously evaluated.
To advance theory and knowledge of how young children are influenced by and protected from community violence, this article examines: (a) the prevalence of children's exposure to community violence; (b) the effects of community violence exposure on preschool children's cognitive, motor, and socioemotional development; and (c) the role of families and schools in protecting children and helping them cope with violence-related stress. The article also discusses major conceptual issues and problems in conducting research on the ways in which family, school, and community variables affect the wellbeing of young children in violent neighborhoods. It concludes with suggested strategies for developing and empirically testing culturally specific interventions to promote positive developmental outcomes for African American preschoolers in violent communities.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Children's Exposure to Violence
In recent years, researchers have amassed a body of literature documenting children's observations of neighborhood violence. In a study of children ages 6 to 10 in a moderately violent neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Richters and Martinez (1993) found that 45% of the children had observed muggings, 31% had seen stabbings, 27% had witnessed shootings, and 37% had viewed dead bodies. Another Washington, D.C.-area study of fifth and sixth graders found that 85% of the children sampled had witnessed at least one incidence of moderate or severe violence, and 81% had been victims of violence (Saltzman, 1992). Using a similar measure and research protocol in New Orleans, Osofsky and her colleagues found that 91% of the 9- to 12-year-olds surveyed had witnessed some type of violent incident and over half had been victimized themselves (Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993). In another prevalence study in Chicago, almost a third of school-aged children and more than a third of adolescents had witnessed a shooting or stabbing (Bell & Jenkins, 1993).
Although previous research on children's exposure to violence focuses primarily on school-aged and adolescent children, recent studies find that preschoolers are also witnessing or experiencing violent events in their communities. In one study of families interviewed at a hospital pediatric clinic in Boston, 10% of the children were reported by their mothers to have witnessed a shooting or stabbing by five years of age, and 45% of the children had heard neighborhood gunshots (Taylor, Zuckerman, Harik, & Groves, 1994). In another study of Head Start children in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, mothers reported that their preschoolers had been directly threatened or been a victim of violence (including being bullied or chased by older children) an average of twice within the past year (Holland, Koblinsky, & Anderson, 1995). Early childhood educators also report a rising incidence of children who act out shootings, robberies, and funerals in their classrooms ("Saving Youth from Violence," 1994; Wallach, 1993).
Effects of Violence on Children
Recent studies have also examined the effects of violence exposure on children's behavior. Although the majority of these studies are clinical or anecdotal in nature, they clearly suggest that children who witness violence may experience a variety of cognitive and behavioral problems. Such problems include: regression and depression (e.g., Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992; Martinez & Richters, 1993; Osofsky et al., 1993); exaggerated levels of fear and anxiety (e.g., Garbarino et al., 1992; Martinez & Richters, 1993; Pynoos et al., 1987; Richters & Martinez, 1993); denial and emotional numbing (e.g., Terr, 1989); impairments in school performance, memory, and concentration (Bell & Jenkins, 1993; Gardner, 1971; Osofsky et al., 1993); and aggressive acting out and poor impulse control (Bell, 1991; Cicchetti & Lynch, 1993; Garbarino, 1993; Osofsky et al., 1993; Richters & Martinez, 1993).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is increasingly included among the disorders presented by children exposed to chronic community violence (Drell, Siegel, & Gaensbauer, 1993). Symptoms include flashbacks, inability to concentrate, sleep disturbances, nightmares, numbing and avoidance, and increased arousal. A recent study found conclusive evidence of PTSD in children under the age of four years (Scheering, Zeanah, Drell, & Larrieu, 1997). Factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood of PTSD or other negative reactions to violence include: being physically close to the violence, knowing the victim, having previous exposure to violence, and being younger than 11 years of age (Davidson & Smith, 1970; Pynoos et al., 1987).
Some researchers speculate that violence exposure has particularly negative effects on preschool children because children at that stage are developing a sense of trust, security, and attachment, yet lack sophisticated language and cognitive resources to discuss and deal with traumatic events (Holland et al., 1995; Taylor et al., 1994). It should be noted, however, that much of what is known about the effects of community violence on children comes from clinical or case study reports (Osofsky, 1995), and/or contains an array of methodological and design problems (e.g., Leavitt & Fox,1993; Reiss, Richters, Radke-Yarrow, & Scharff, 1993). For example, it is very difficult to identify appropriate matched control or comparison groups to study exposure to violence. Studies have also failed to investigate how the nature of violence exposure (i.e., witnessing versus direct victimization) or the gender of the child is related to child development outcomes.
Importance of Families
Parents and family members are the group with the greatest potential to protect young children from community violence. However, attempts to understand children's reactions to community violence must be based on knowledge that their parents also confront similar or greater levels of violence (Lorion & Saltzman, 1993). Parents may become angry, frightened, and/ or traumatized by exposure to violent events in their communities. Anecdotal reports indicate that some parents experience depression, anxiety, and reduced self-efficacy as a result of their inability to provide safe conditions for their families (e.g., Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991; Lorion & Saltzman, 1993; Osofsky et al., 1993).
Despite the challenges of living in dangerous environments, some parents exhibit coping and parenting behaviors that adequately buffer their children from the impact of violence exposure. Research in nations at war, for example, consistently identifies parents as the most important factor in protecting children from the emotional effects of exposure to violence (e.g., Freud & Burlingham, 1943). Other studies suggest that children's ability to cope with violence is improved when they have a secure parent-child attachment; parental models of active coping; a parent (or parental figure) who is nurturant, sensitive, and responsive; and a parent who maintains family structure and routines (Anthony & Cohler, 1987; Cicchetti & Lynch, 1993).
The majority of research on parenting in violent communities is qualitative or clinical in nature. For example, Garbarino et al. (1991) interviewed 10 mothers with preschool children in Chicago public housing to determine how they coped with community danger. All of the mothers sampled stated that their children had heard gunshots, and each viewed shooting as a constant threat both inside and outside their apartments. These mothers reported using active behavioral coping strategies to protect their children. Their strategies included keeping children physically close to the home, restricting children's play, and developing rules about what to do when gunfire is heard.
Another pilot study conducted in the Washington, D.C., area investigated parents' attempts to protect their Head Start children from community violence (Holland et al., 1995). The most common strategies described by the mothers in that study included: restricting neighborhood contact, providing constant close physical supervision, teaching practical household safety skills, developing a structured home environment, and utilizing prayer and positive thinking. The researchers noted, however, that some of the safety information mothers attempted to teach preschool children was beyond the children's level of cognitive development. Moreover, the children had little opportunity to build their motor skills because they were constantly confined to their apartments. Additionally, many mothers stated that they felt alone in their struggle against community violence, and that they felt an absence of support from neighbors and early childhood educators. Given the limited investigation of this topic, researchers emphasize the need for systematic study of the ways in which parents attempt to help young children prepare for, address, and cope with community violence and its related stress (Osofsky, 1995). They further cite the need for information about how specific parent variables such as parenting practices, social support, and depression influence the nature and number of strategies adopted by parents in their efforts to protect preschoolers from violence.
Importance of Schools
The problems of poverty crime, and community violence in urban neighborhoods reach down into the preschool. Many young children in violent neighborhoods have witnessed muggings and shootings; others have viewed dead bodies (e.g., Taylor et al., 1994). Preschool teachers report that they have heard young children discussing guns, knives, blood, and fear of drug dealers (Koblinsky, Holland, & Anderson, 1995). Young children have been observed acting out robberies and shootings in their classroom's dramatic play area (Wallach, 1993). Others have been observed playing a game called "funeral," in which they pretend to build caskets and attend memorial services ("Saving Youth from Violence," 1994).
Several educators have attempted to develop violence prevention strategies and programs for early childhood classrooms. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children recently published a book, Early Violence Prevention: Tools for Teachers of Young Children (Slaby et al., 1995), to provide educators with strategies for reducing classroom aggression, developing prosocial skills, and addressing the effects of exposure to violence in the preschool. A violence prevention curriculum, "Choosing NonViolence," has been introduced to six thousand Chicago Head Start children (Parry, 1993). Unfortunately, follow-up assessment of this curriculum has been confined to process evaluation, so it is not clear whether it has produced behavioral change in the children involved. The literature contains no evidence of comparison group studies evaluating the impact of antiviolence curricula on young children's behavior (Weiler & Dorman, 1995).
Early childhood educators note that preschool can be an important setting for violence prevention and intervention (Slaby et al., 1995). Indeed, some suggest that implementing interventions at the elementary school level may be too late to effect long-term changes in children's school attitudes and cognitive and socioemotional development. There is an urgent need for additional research investigating the role of early childhood programs in combatting the effects of community violence, fostering school readiness, encouraging prosocial skills, and reducing aggressive behaviors (Piotrkowski, Collins, Knitzer, & Robinson, 1994; Slaby et al., 1995). Researchers underscore the importance of evaluating programs designed to buffer or ameliorate children's exposure to community violence before these interventions are widely replicated in preschools located in violent neighborhoods.
The remainder of this article discusses conceptual and methodological issues that must be addressed in designing future research studies and developing interventions for young children who live in violent communities.
CONCEPTUAL ISSUES RELATED TO RESEARCH ON YOUNG CHILDREN IN VIOLENT COMMUNITIES
Notable gaps exist in the literature examining the impact of community violence on children. The majority of existing studies focus on the prevalence of witnessing violence or use small clinical samples to explore the effects of violence exposure. Most of these studies involve school-aged or adolescent children. There is currently an absence of basic descriptive and correlational studies of very young children's responses to community violence or of the role of family and school in protecting children from violence-related stress. Research is also needed to identify individual, family, and community variables that help to buffer children from the adverse consequences of violence exposure. Results of such studies are critical for developing effective, culturally specific interventions that will promote positive developmental outcomes for preschoolers who are exposed to community violence.
A growing number of researchers are examining whether violence exposure has detrimental effects on young children that go beyond outcomes associated with other stressors such as poverty. Questions arise about whether significant relationships exist between the amount of children's violence exposure and the degree of emotional distress and cognitive impairment they may experience. Researchers who study community violence have identified a number of conceptual issues that must be addressed in a future research agenda. These challenges are framed by the following questions.
How is "violence" defined, and what is meant by the terms "high-violence community" and "low-violence community"? Some researchers rely on objective indicators of violence such as data collected from law enforcement units. For example, the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994) includes the Violent Crime Index (VCI)--a measure of robberies, assaults, homicides, and rapes that has been used to characterize the level of violence in communities. Other researchers rely on subjective indicators assessed in interviews or surveys of key informants (including parents and educators). Examples of subjective indicators include mothers' reports of direct and indirect exposure to community violence, their personal perceptions of neighborhood safety, and their evaluation of the neighborhood's "physical health" such as the presence of broken windows, graffiti, and drug houses (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). Still other researchers use a combination of objective and subjective indicators to measure community violence. Importantly, parents' subjective assessment of violence (or safety) in their community may differ from the objective characterization of that neighborhood. In such cases (e.g., when a parent feels that there is a low level of violence but the UCR indicates a high level), the effects on child outcomes may be difficult to interpret.
How is "community" defined? If community is conceptualized along objective lines, the researcher may miss the opportunity to capture differential effects determined by more subjective boundaries of community or neighborhood (e.g., the parents' view of what constitutes the community/neighborhood). Additionally, in some preschool arrangements children may be transported across communities to their Head Start program or family day care home. In these instances, the concept of community may be expanded to include more than one social ecology. For example, a child may live in a high-violence community but be cared for in a low-violence community. The question then becomes, what is the impact of exposure to both environments for a significant amount of the day?
What are the developmental outcomes of interest, and should they be limited to socioemotional functioning? Extant studies have focused largely on children's socioemotional and behavioral responses to community violence. Much less is known about how growing up in a violent community may influence cognitive or motor abilities. For example, parents may restrict children's play outdoors or interaction with children of the same or older ages as a strategy to protect them from exposure to potential neighborhood violence. These restrictions may affect language development, cognition, and gross motor skills.
Which family variables should be the focus of research? Recent research recognizes that families present both risk and protective factors that may influence children's development. Thus, in designing studies that assess how family variables influence child outcomes, both the strengths and the stressors of families must be considered. Typically, research on children in poor families, who are more likely to live in violent neighborhoods, has focused on the risks and stressors within their families. The strengths and protective factors they offer tend to be minimized. For example, the strengths of low-income, singleparent (usually mother-headed) families in violent neighborhoods may differ from the family strengths typically presented in the literature on middle-class families (Dickerson, 1996). As a result, there is a need for more comprehensive examination of family functioning variables that may protect children and contribute to greater resilience in violent environments. Such variables include: maternal nurturance, informal and formal social support, positive maternal mental health, the presence of family rituals and routines, and the absence of conflictual partner relationships.
In some cases, the same family variable may be a protective or a risk factor. For example, the presence of multiple caregivers in some families or households may be a protective factor because it provides additional support for the parent; in others, it may be a risk factor because it contributes to role confusion or conflict about parenting strategies (Randolph, 1996). In selecting family variables for investigation, it is important to focus on variables that have the potential to be modified in subsequent interventions. Results from such studies will have specific applications for policy and direct practice.
Should we examine gender effects? Consideration of gender effects is especially important for advancing knowledge of the impact of community violence on African American children. It has long been argued that African American mothers socialize their children differently based on gender (that they "love" their sons, yet "raise" their daughters), that African American fathers are often absent in young children's lives, and that violence differentially affects African American boys and girls (Randolph, 1996; Stevenson, in press). Studies should explore whether African American parents of boys and girls differ in their socialization practices related to violence, and should determine whether sons and daughters experience differential developmental outcomes as a result of community violence exposure.
What is the role of culture in this area of research? The past two decades have seen the development of culturally responsive intervention programs aimed at reducing high-risk behaviors and promoting protective behaviors among adolescents. Such interventions address the problems of teenage pregnancy prevention (Warfield-Coppock & Harvey, 1989); substance abuse prevention (Nobles & Goddard, 1993); HIV/AIDS prevention (Jemmott & Jemmott, 1993); and violence reduction (Stevenson, in press). Additionally, African American male youth enhancement initiatives such as rites-of-passage programs are being implemented around the country as a means of steering these youth away from involvement in violent activities (Stevenson, in press). As investigators conduct basic research, and design and evaluate intervention programs for specific cultural groups, they should consider such variables as family values, roles of family members, language styles, attitudes toward education, spirituality, and coping strategies.
What conceptual models can guide the research? Only a few theoretical or conceptual frameworks are available to guide future work in this area, but researchers can borrow from thinking in other developmental and family research arenas. For example, one recent formulation of an integrative model for minority children's development may prove useful in studying the impact of community violence (Garcia Coll et al., 1996). This model postulates that environments outside the family (e.g., the community or school) can either promote or inhibit children's development, depending on the type of adaptive culture families of color develop in response to these environments. Researchers are encouraged to test such theories as they explore how families and schools can promote positive outcomes for children in violent neighborhoods.
METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES RELATED TO RESEARCH ON YOUNG CHILDREN AND VIOLENCE In addition to the conceptual issues, research on children's exposure to community violence raises a number of methodological concerns. The authors have addressed these concerns in a three-year U.S. Department of Education study on community violence and Head Start families. This research investigates the impact of community violence on Head Start children, examines family and school variables that may mediate negative outcomes, and applies research findings to the development of a Head Start violence intervention program. The study is being conducted in high- and low-violence neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and an adjoining Maryland county. Since 1985, the nation's capital has had the highest juvenile violent crime rate in the nation for children ages 10 to 17, the highest teen violent death rate since 1988, and the highest child death rate due to homicide since 1990 (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1995). Statistics for the neighboring Maryland community are equally as grim. Between 1985-1988 and 1989-1992, the number of child deaths due to homicide in this region increased 16%; and the homicide rate for teens increased by 65% (Advocates for Children and Youth, 1995). Moreover, an African American teenager in Maryland is 17 times more likely than a White teen to die from homicide (Maryland Department of Human Resources, 1994). Maryland currently has one of the nation's highest juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes, with youth 14 years and younger accounting for over half the violent crime arrests in the entire state (Advocates for Children and Youth, 1995).
Obtaining Community Support and Cooperation
One of the first lessons we learned was the value of involving the target community in the development of our research plan. Prior to beginning our study, we assembled a community advisory committee whose purpose was to provide us with information and guidance related to selection of Head Start centers, recruitment of parents, and construction and review of measures that were appropriately sensitive to the racial and cultural characteristics of our sample. Head Start parents assisted us in identifying, recruiting, and enrolling participants in the study. Additionally, the parents helped us strengthen university-community relations. Providing parents with incentives enhanced their rate of participation in our study. These incentives included both cash and non-cash rewards such as monetary payment of parents ($25), small cash gifts to centers, child care, and arrangement of transportation to the study site (generally the Head Start center).
Using Qualitative Measures
To increase our understanding of the consequences of community violence exposure, we added qualitative data collection approaches to our standard repertoire of quantitative interviews and surveys. Field research, observational approaches, focus groups, and case studies can provide important information about the life experiences, parenting styles, and problem solving strategies of families in violent neighborhoods. In our study, focus groups were especially helpful in illuminating the ways in which parents in violent neighborhoods attempt to teach their children about violent events, protect their children from physical and psychological harm, and help them manage violence-related stress. Moreover, focus groups of early childhood educators helped us understand how teachers and schools attempt to help children deal with community violence. We used these qualitative data to develop culturally sensitive instruments to assess parenting strategies. In the future, these data will also be used to design Head Start center-based interventions focused on helping families cope with community violence.
Selecting Appropriate Measures
Child Development Measures. It is difficult to assess the behavioral and socioemotional functioning of preschoolers. Measures must not only be reliable and valid, but must also be sensitive to the racial and cultural characteristics of the target children. For our research, we selected measures that met two basic criteria: (a) strong psychometric properties, and (b) appropriateness for the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic demographics of the families in our study. Thus, we only selected measures that had a record of successful use with low-income African American preschoolers. Our child measures assessed children's developmental competencies or delays in the areas of cognition, speech and language, motor, socioemotional, and adaptive functioning.
Our study also collected information from both parents and teachers about the children's behaviors and social competence. Collecting data from two sources provided a broader picture of children's functioning, enabling us to determine which of the children's behaviors were stable and which behaviors differed across informants. Discrepant ratings may suggest that the child varies his or her behavior in different settings (e.g., home, school) or that informants perceive behaviors in different ways. For example, mothers who are depressed or under significant stress may be more likely than teachers to perceive that children are exhibiting extreme behavior problems.
Parental Measures. An important focus of our research has been to identify parenting or family variables that may serve as mediating influences on children's functioning in violent environments. We have identified several variables, all subject to intervention, that may protect children or increase their vulnerability to negative outcomes. These variables include parenting practices, social support, depression, parental coping strategies and history of violence exposure. In addition to experiencing community violence, some children confront family violence-that is, physical violence and emotional abuse by their own family members in their homes. Given that such exposure is related to child outcomes, we recommend that researchers utilize reliable and valid measures of domestic violence so that this variable can be controlled or examined in subsequent analyses.
We have found that several factors should be considered in selecting parent measures, including: the literacy level of the target population, applicability of items to parenting preschool age children, cultural appropriateness, and respondent burden. Measures that are typically self-administered may need to be administered through face-to-face interviews. In this case, some items that relate to sensitive issues (like domestic violence) require interviewers to be particularly skilled in establishing rapport and enlisting the trust of the subject. Pilot testing is essential for establishing the flow of subject matter, determining respondent burden, and identifying any culturally inappropriate items. The wording of some items may need to be adapted to be consistent with contemporary times (e.g., replace "husband" with "partner," or "biological" father with "social" father) (Marsiglio & Day, 1997). As suggested earlier, researchers should consider the use of focus groups to develop study specific measures (Krueger, 1994). In addition to general demographic information about the parent and the child's family, researchers may also want to collect data related to selection effects-variables that may need to be controlled for in major analyses-such as mother's age at first child's birth, mother's education, number of adults in the home, and length of residence in the neighborhood.
Community Violence Measures. In our study, both objective and subjective measures of community violence were included. Among the objective measures were the UCR indexes that were calculated for each of the police districts in which the participating Head Start centers were located. Included in the calculations were the number of violent crimes involving persons (i.e., robberies, physical assaults, fatal and nonfatal shootings, and rapes) within the previous year. Among the subjective measures were mothers' reports of incidences of violent crimes within a 15-block radius of their homes, their personal perceptions of neighborhood safety during the day and evening hours, and their perceptions of the likelihood that their children may be harmed by community violence.
Measures of Community Strengths. As with family variables, researchers are encouraged to also collect data on community strengths such as the presence of violence-reduction activities, community partnership efforts to reduce other social or public health problems, and evidence of community support for families and schools. These data are being collected in our study through focus group discussions with parents and teachers, interviews with school administrators, and review of news articles and archived material documenting community partnership efforts.
Implementing and Testing Interventions In the final year of our grant project, we will be developing and evaluating a Head Start center-based intervention program designed to promote greater safety and other positive outcomes for African American children in violent neighborhoods. Consistent with other research (e.g., Parry, 1993; Slaby et al., 1995; Weiss, 1995), it is important that our violence intervention be theory-based. Child and family theories provide a framework for designing interventions that help children recognize and talk about real-life violence, identify violent and nonviolent behavior, acquire prosocial and interpersonal communication skills, and develop self-control. These interventions should also provide children with safety and self-protection training, and respond to children's violence-related stress or trauma. Interventions should further support families by helping them acquire positive parenting skills, protect their children, and cope with or reduce community violence.
Certain techniques have been shown to enhance the validity of research assessing the impact of violence prevention or reduction interventions. Random assignment of parents or educators to an intervention or the use of comparison groups are two approaches. Baseline and post-intervention assessments of preschool children's cognitive, motor, and social skills as well as behavior problems can further enhance validity. Quasi-experimental designs have the potential to address threats to validity such as selection effects, the possibility that other community or school efforts influenced children's development, and the general impact of participation in a preschool program.
Conducting Longitudinal Research
The vast majority of existing research on young children and community violence is cross-sectional. Studying children and families in violent neighborhoods longitudinally will enable researchers to more accurately identify family, school, and community factors that contribute to greater susceptibility or resilience to violence-related stress. Longitudinal research will also help to determine if there are long-term effects of community violence on children, and establish whether there are "critical periods" in which violence exposure has especially negative effects on specific areas of development. Longitudinal studies also enable researchers to determine whether the effects of interventions are sustained over time.
Investigating Macrolevel Variables
In addition to considering individual, family, and community level variables, researchers should not ignore the impact of macrolevel variables on the lives of families in violent communities. Greater consideration of macrolevel factors such as gun control laws, neighborhood housing supply, employment opportunities, school security policies, drugrelated crime, access to health care and mental health treatment, and availability of quality child care increases knowledge of the causes and outcomes of community violence.
The chronic problems of poverty, substance abuse, and escalating crime rates suggest that many urban families will continue to experience community violence in the near future. Researchers can play an important role in helping policymakers and service providers design and evaluate interventions that seek to improve the well-being of children and families in violent communities. However, it should be recognized that this research poses practical challenges such as working with preschoolers who cannot articulate their needs or with their parents who need assistance in advocating for their families. These challenges are multilevel and multidisciplinary. University-community partnerships are needed to further develop research strategies and intervention technologies that are theory-based and culturally grounded. Collaborations that bring researchers together with parents, educators, service providers, and policymakers hold the most promise for promoting positive developmental outcomes for young children and families in violent communities.
*The research reported in this article is funded by U.S. Department of Education OERI/NIECDE Grant R307.
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Publication information: Article title: Studying the Role of Family and School in the Development of African American Preschoolers in Violent Neighborhoods. Contributors: Randolph, Suzanne M - Author, Koblinsky, Sally A - Author, Roberts, Debra D - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Negro Education. Volume: 65. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1996. Page number: 282+. © Howard University Summer 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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