Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Studying the Role of Family and School in the Development of African American Preschoolers in Violent Neighborhoods

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Studying the Role of Family and School in the Development of African American Preschoolers in Violent Neighborhoods

Article excerpt

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. …

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