When these researchers examined which of these settings had the greatest impact on the development of seventh- and eighth-graders, they discovered that each played different roles in shaping the mental health, social behavior and academic performance of children.
Richard Settersten, associate professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University co-authored the article, "Some Ways In Which Neighborhoods, Nuclear Families, Friendship Groups, and Schools Jointly Affect Changes In Early Adolescent Development," (July/August issue of Child Development) with Thomas Cook and Melissa Herman from Northwestern University and Meredith Phillips from the University of California Los Angeles.
The researchers studied 12,398 seventh- and eighth-graders in 23 schools and 151 neighborhoods from Prince George's County, Md. Their analyses followed students through middle school.
The project is one of several studies conducted by the MacArthur Foundation's former Research Network on Successful Adolescent Development in High-Risk Settings. Settersten was a postdoctoral fellow with the network from 1993-95 before joining the CWRU faculty.
"We know that social contexts matter a great deal for kids' development," says Settersten, "but the really important questions relate to how social contexts matter, how different contexts matter in different ways for different kinds of outcomes and different kinds of kids at different points in their lives."
The researcher found that when considered singly, families impact the mental health of the adolescent; the quality of the schools influences academic performance; peers affect social behavior; and neighborhoods shape school attendance and participation in social activities.
But the settings themselves are also linked and have significant joint effects on adolescent development. The strongest coupling was between family and friend quality--where authoritative parenting and extensive parent-child communications tended to produce children who had lasting, stable friends with less deviant behaviors. The next strongest connection was between school and neighborhood quality.
These findings underscore the importance of taking a "whole child" approach to child development.
"There seems to be no silver bullets that can radically change young lives for the better," says Settersten. "Settings that are developmentally sensitive matter and more of them matter more. But improvements in one setting are not likely to dramatically change the functioning of young people in multiple areas."