Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Neighborhood Disadvantage, Stressful Life Events, and Adjustment in Urban Elementary-School Children

Work Cited:

Attar, B. K., Guerra, N. G., & Tolan, P. H. (1994). Neighborhood Disadvantage, Stressful Life Events, and Adjustment in Urban Elementary-School Children. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology , 23, 391-400.


This article details how neighborhood disadvantage, stressful life events, and adjustment affect children attending urban elementary schools. Neighborhood disadvantage is defined as “the presence of a number of community-level stressors such as poverty, unemployment or underemployment, limited resources, substandard housing, and high crime rates” (391). The authors predict that students experiencing these three factors are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and aggression. They note that most studies, which have supported this prediction, have been done in middle school or high school settings. Their primary interest in studying elementary school children is to gain insight in how, “symptoms of depression and/or anxiety as related to stress in elementary-age children” are influenced, developed, and shaped at an early age (399).

The article breaks down the study into three different areas: affects of neighborhood disadvantage, affects of stressful life events, and affects of adjusting to new and different situation/circumstances. Within each subarea, the authors explain how they assessed the children and what the impacts were. In regards to neighborhood disadvantage (ND), students were grouped into two camps: high-ND and moderate-ND. They found that students in high-ND school reported more stressors than students from moderate-ND school (395). The number of students receiving free school lunch, annual income of student households, and percentage of household receiving federal aid determined ND classifications. The authors assessed stressful life events and adjustment difficulties through individual student surveys and teacher input regarding student behavior. The survey questions covered three areas: life transitions (Have you recently moved? Did you have to go and live at a foster home? Etc.), circumscribed events (Did a family member die? Has a family member become seriously ill? Etc.), and exposure to violence (Has a family member been robbed or attacked? Have you seen or been around people shooting guns? Etc.).

In their research findings, the authors noted “that stressful life events in urban settings contribute significantly to children’s aggressive behavior” and “exposure to violence predicted both concurrent and prospective aggressive behavior” (398). Their study also showed no great correlation between aggression and sex, ethnicity, or grade. The authors suggested, “It may be that environmental variables are most critical in the link between stress exposure and aggression in urban communities.” (398). There was no significant connection with high stress factors and anxiety/depression in elementary-age children. The authors suggested that this was due to the fact that, “children may learn that being tough and aggressive both minimizes and maximizes their ability to survive under difficult and extreme environmental conditions…In fact this interpretation is consistent with our findings that stress did not relate significantly to depression/anxiety. In an environment where resources are scarce and violence is pervasive, children might be discourages from depressive or anxious reactions to stressful events, because children who cry of frighten easily would be less likely to achieve instrumental goals and could be easy targets for victimization by others.” (399)


Authors Attar, Guerra, and Tolan were very scientific and thorough in writing their article. In the article, all accompanying research was cited, all terms were defined, and all parts of data collection were detailed and explained. The article was very formal, technical, and methodical. It was a bit hard to digest the information due to the style of writing. I had to extract important summative information out of mathematical analysis and survey equations. I felt that the writing style was a tad bit prescriptive and could have added more anecdotal accounts from students involved in the study. It would have been nice to hear the actual thoughts and feelings of the students themselves to make the article better rounded.

I also felt that the article did not present any new information that was not yet known by the reader. In fact, several parts of the study yielded inconclusive information due to the methods of data gathering. For example, “It is clear that these results should be interpreted with caution. First, several correlations between predictors and adjustment variables were low to modest, although is some cases (i.e. academic achievement), the stability of the criterion variable was exceedingly high (r = .78) and could have limited our ability to observe significant effects for stressors…In addition, as the Stress Index consisted of 16 items, this measure clearly did not assess the full range of potentially stressful events…. Had these [abuse, drug use, etc.] been included, stronger relations between stress and maladjustment may have been found.” (399)


This article made me think about the school I currently teach at. It’s amazing how resilient some students are and how many stressful situations they have to deal with in their home environment. Currently, I teach at a school considered to be high-ND. Several of the students in my classroom have dealt with issues of violence, guns, drugs, moving frequently, family members dying or being incarcerated, and unstable financial resources. Due to these stressful life experiences, students have difficulty maintaining focus on academics, especially when they are experiencing nothing but test-prep. Since I teach in a high-ND area, my school is historically known for being an underachieving. Therefore, the district places even more pressure on the teachers and administrators to raise the levels of testing achievement. So, on top of all the other life stressors by students are experiencing, they are now also experiencing academic stress and pressure.

After reading this article, I was reminded even more of how important a well-rounded education is. My students deserve an education that will help them understand and assist the community around them. They deserve an education that provides them with art, music, physical education, field trips, internships, scientific experiments, etc. Many of my students have never traveled outside of their immediate communities and have not received knowledge of worldly occurrences due to a lack of financial resources. Therefore, I must assist my students in making these connections as much as possible while I have them in my classroom. Through an inspirational education, my students may discover the possible solutions to assisting the type of community the come from. It is well known, that the best solutions for problems come from those immediately involved in the problem itself.


Stacey said...

Ashley, kudos for making it through what sounds like an interesting, but perhaps not so easy-to-read article. This is a great analysis is it's findings and relevance to your work. If you are interested in diving into the research around how class, background, etc. affect how kids do in school and in life, you might be interested in reading some of the stuff on "social and cultural capital" (do a search and lots will come up) and talking with Jen Villalpondo in the 2nd year - she has a great Understandings section that talks about this (probably on her DP). One of my favorite books is Unequal Childhoods by Lareau and Lamont - they do case studies of working-class vs. middle-class families. It's a fascinating book, a great model of a case study approach (which could be cool for your thesis), and a fun read. I have it in my office if you are interested!

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