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Crockett leads study of contextual impacts on temperament, teen outcomes

kids-in-classA challenging 10-year-old responds to neglectful parents by acting out at home. At school, an attentive fourth-grade teacher tries to reach the child by listening, observing and encouraging him.

Can the child’s classroom experience curb the difficult temperament being compounded at home? How will the resulting short-term impacts shape his long-term development?

CYFS faculty affiliate Lisa Crockett and her colleagues hope to answer these and related questions via a new two-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Crockett, professor of psychology at UNL, is overseeing the analysis of a national data set that includes classroom- and home-based assessments of nearly 1,000 children over 15 years.

Crockett’s team is aiming to learn how children’s experiences across multiple social contexts collectively influence links between early childhood temperament and adolescent development. By focusing on various contexts throughout the formative years, the new study should offer insights not found in previous research on temperament, Crockett said.

“We need to know what’s going on in all contexts of children’s lives, because we know that kids are involved in multiple settings,” Crockett said. “They have families; they have teachers and classmates at school; they have friends in the neighborhood. So we have to think about what their lives are really like.”

Alongside CYFS faculty affiliates Kathleen Rudasill and Eric Buhs, Crockett will specifically assess whether experiences in one setting affect the interplay among difficult temperament, other contexts, and children’s later academic and behavioral outcomes.

Crockett said the team is especially interested in whether support from one context can compensate for a lack thereof in a second.

“Some kids have a ‘double whammy’ in terms of family environment and difficult temperament, so they would not be predicted to do very well down the road,” Crockett said. “Can we weaken that effect and improve their outcomes by putting them in a really great classroom? We would hope that we can weaken the association between the child’s early risk factors and their adjustment later on.”

Crockett and her colleagues will also examine several theoretical models that purport to explain the intersection of temperament, context and developmental risk. One model to be tested by the team suggests that the levels of support provided by parents, teachers or peers can alter the extent to which children’s difficult temperament leads to later academic and behavioral problems.

“Once we know how temperament interacts with these different contexts,” Crockett said, “we might find that there’s no direct effect of temperament anymore – that it’s more a matter of how it gets filtered through these contexts.”

Another model proposes a chain reaction: Temperamental traits predispose children to certain types of social experiences in specific contexts, which in turn predict adolescent outcomes.

“A child’s temperament may itself have an impact on the sort of support they receive,” said Crockett, who noted that comparing these well-established models should lend clarity to the complex mechanisms underlying temperament and context.

If the team does find context-related effects, Crockett said, the resulting conclusions could inform wide-scale efforts to support children who might otherwise fall behind their peers.

“That would open up all kinds of opportunities for interventions,” Crockett said. “We could then use [our knowledge of] these different contexts to make life better for the kids who are at temperamental risk.”