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Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004

The Multiple Contexts of Middle Childhood
Cynthia Garcia Coll Laura A. Szalacha

The Conceptual Framework

The model presented here expands on an “ecological” and “interactionist” approach to child development, which maintains that children's development is influenced not only by family systems, but also by other institutions with which the child and family interact.10 The model is unique in that it draws from both mainstream developmental frameworks, as well as models specific to children of color, to explain how ecological factors such as social position, culture, and the media, affect developmental contexts.11 Eight major constructs are hypothesized to influence developmental processes for children of color and children of immigrant families who share outsider status (See Figure 1.) A fundamental assumption of the model is that cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development is profoundly affected by the child's social position within a socially-stratified society replete with racism and discrimination, and by the promoting or inhibiting nature of the child's school and neighborhood.

Social Stratification
Although the role of social position is crucial, its influence on developmental outcomes and children's immediate environments is not direct. It is the interplay of the three major derivatives of social stratification—social position, racism, and segregation—that create the unique conditions confronted by outsider children, and it is these “non-shared” experiences with mainstream populations that define the unique pathways of development for children of color and children of immigrants.

Racism, in particular, is a pervasive and systemic reality in modern American society, inextricably linked to processes of social, political, and economic domination and marginalization.12 Including racism and its derivatives of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression at the core of conceptualizing normal (or “normative”) development for outsider children enables the illumination of particular causal mechanisms in development that have been ignored by other models. Most broadly defined, racism is “any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life.”13

Several studies have documented the presence and consequences of institutional racism.14 During middle childhood, children likely begin to perceive the presence of racism in their environments. For example, in a study of Puerto Rican children, by the age of 9 or 10, some children started identifying racism as a possible explanation for negative interpersonal interactions between teachers and students, and between peers.15 Moreover, the study found that the children who reported having been discriminated against had significantly higher teacher interaction stress and greater depression, and their parents reported greater difficulties in the children's behavioral adjustment.

As a social phenomenon, racism is multifaceted and its manifestations are constantly changing. It can vary in its expression from institutionalized racism to symbolic racism. Historically, institutionalized racism was maintained by legal barriers that barred children of color from access to certain institutions. Now, society overall increasingly supports the principle of ethnic or racial equality, but often a set of moral abstractions and attitudinal predispositions are still maintained concerning how children of color ought to behave and what they deserve. Thus, symbolic racism persists—that is, the unspoken, covert, differential treatment of members of minority groups by members of the mainstream culture.16 Such symbolic racism is likely to take the form of providing fewer resources to institutions serving children of color and children of immigrants, and subjecting them to patronizing attitudes. These subtle manifestations of racism can permeate the daily interactions between these outsider children and those of the dominant culture.

Promoting and Inhibiting Environments
Irrespective of cultures, ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, children are exposed to similar kinds of settings during middle childhood. Schools, neighborhoods, popular media, and other institutions directly influence the nature of specific individual family processes, and interact with the children's biological, constitutional and psychological characteristics to either promote or inhibit their development.17 The structure, function, and relative importance of these institutions for the development of competencies vary according to the extent to which they are beset by poverty and segregation, and the institutional values and goals.18 Inhibiting contexts can result from inadequate resources, which, in turn, create conditions that undermine the development of children's competencies. In addition, a child's development can be negatively affected by a conflict between institutional ideologies and cultural or familial values.19 Promoting environments, on the other hand, can result both from an adequate number and quality of resources, and from the compatibility between the values, goals, and expectations of the children and their families with those held in the particular environments.

School is perhaps the most critical arena in which development during middle childhood occurs and where children's futures are molded. As all children enter school, they experience both increased individual freedom and heightened demands that they are in control of their own behavior.20 The school contexts themselves can be understood as a series of nested environments: 1) the individual classrooms (including child, teacher and peer characteristics, classroom structure, curriculum and instructional strategies); within 2) the individual schools (including school resources and personnel); within 3) the school district or system (including organizational and instructional philosophies, policies and procedures).21 Each of these nested environments can be inhibiting, promoting, or both. For example, schools can be experienced as inhibiting environments to the extent that have inadequate resources, such as substandard teachers and learning materials, while—perhaps simultaneously—they can be experienced as promoting environments to the extent they adequately respond to children's social, emotional and educational needs.

Segregation immediately influences the inhibiting and promoting environments that children of color and immigrants experience. Schools serving primarily children of color, for example, are likely to have fewer resources, lower teacher expectations and patronizing attitudes, biased curricula and textbooks,22 and a lack of bilingual classrooms and programs. Researchers with the Harvard Civil Rights project have documented a growing trend toward re-segregation, and the emergence of a substantial group of American schools composed entirely of children of color which they label “apartheid schools.”23 More often than not, these schools are mired in enormous poverty, limited resources, and have a high concentration of social and health problems of many types.

Beyond the presence of lack of resources, another crucial influence on the development of middle-school-age children is the web of relationships with peers and teachers known as “school connectedness.”24 Feeling connected with teachers and peers, and believing that others care about their welfare and “like them,” has been found to be positively related to both academic motivation and achievement, especially among this age group.25 For example, in a study that captured the views of 233 children ages 6 to 11 years from 15 different shopping malls across the country, researchers found that the children yearned for relationships with engaged adults.26

A segregated school environment that is inhibiting due to limited resources may, at the same time, be promoting if it is supportive of the child's emotional and academic adjustment, helping the child to manage societal demands imposed by discrimination. In such a segregated but supportive, or “consonant” environment, outsider children are not only protected from the prejudice of the dominant culture, but are in a congenial context surrounded by others like themselves. Where there is compatibility between the school and family cultural background, studies show positive effects on student achievement and school satisfaction. For example, in a review of the socio-cultural compatibility of classrooms with children's natal cultural patterns, greater compatibility was associated with greater learning.27

In contrast, an integrated school environment, while perhaps offering greater resources, may at the same time expose children to greater discrimination and unfamiliar contexts with others who are different from them. One study found that children in such dissonant classrooms often experienced a lower sense of self-esteem.28 Another study found that some African American and Latino children refused to learn in school because they believed that doing so meant that they were accepting a cultural system that categorized them as inferior.29 To overcome the dissonance and develop culturally compatible classrooms, research shows that it is important to have varied activity settings, along with a respectful and accommodating sensitivity to students' varied knowledge, experience, values, and tastes.30

For children of immigrants, schools are usually the first major institution encountered outside their homes. As such, schools serve as quintessential agencies of acculturation, with profound consequences for the future status of these children.31 Schools shape not only what these children learn, but also their motivations and aspirations to learn. Research assessing school engagement among children from immigrant backgrounds upon entry to school, and again during adolescence, has found that these children enter the educational system with very positive attitudes toward school and education.32 By adolescence, however, the initial positive attitudes toward school can change into disillusionment and negative attitudes toward teachers and scholastic achievement.33 Some groups and individuals remain optimistic and trust the academic system, while others do not.

Very little systematic research has been conducted examining how the different school variables are related to the development of social and academic competencies of children of color and children of immigrants, and how identity issues and schooling issues interact over time. Students' identity may be independent of school at some point and then may become intertwined with school as time goes by. Understanding the circumstances during middle childhood that support or undermine the initial affirmative attitudes toward school might point to ways to keep outsider children on positive academic pathways.

A second vital context of children's development during middle childhood is the neighborhood in which they grow up. This is where they learn to interact with peers, develop skills, and cultivate a sense of belonging. Well-appointed neighborhoods with large tax bases provide opportunities for enrichment in libraries and after-school programs. Children living in these neighborhoods who participate in such extracurricular activities are less likely to engage in antisocial behavior.34 In contrast, low-income neighborhoods tend to offer fewer enrichment activities for youth. Moreover, because such neighborhoods are often physically dangerous, parents may isolate their children—keeping them safe in their homes, but at the same time, lessening their peer interactions.35 Even when the children in such neighborhoods participate in structured extracurricular activities, research shows the results to be more mixed.36

The extent of residential segregation in the United States highlights the need to look closer at neighborhood characteristics when explaining developmental outcomes in children of color and children from immigrant backgrounds. A good deal of research documents the relationship between negative outcomes, such as problem behaviors, and poverty-stricken, disadvantaged neighborhoods.37 From a resources perspective, the tendency would be to label such neighborhoods as solely inhibiting environments. However, these environments can actually be promoting as well as inhibiting. From a social support perspective, segregated neighborhoods can sometimes support children's developing social, academic and psychological competencies by buffering them from the negative influences of mainstream society.38

For example, recent research in Chicago neighborhoods found that when home and neighborhood cultures are physically or linguistically isolated from the larger society, greater social cohesion may result, which is associated with lower levels of neighborhood violence.39 In contrast, when children of color and of immigrant backgrounds grow up in integrated middle-class neighborhoods, they might enjoy sufficient resources and economic stability, but the community may not buffer the effects of prejudice, racism, and discrimination to which “outsider” children may be exposed, both from within and outside of the community.40

Moreover, children develop subsistence tasks and acquire instrumental competencies—that is, the skills and abilities required for adult economic, political, and social roles—according to their surroundings.41 Children of color who grow up in a poor, all Dominican neighborhood, for example, may not have access to adequate resources such as adequate schools, health care, and after-school programs, but the community can still provide support in developing the instrumental competencies necessary to survive outside of that community. Through interaction with kin and others who serve as brokers within the larger society, children can learn both traditional patterns of behavior as well as the mechanisms to interact successfully with more mainstream institutions.

Popular Media
On a daily basis, children absorb and interact with messages from a wide range of popular media, including television, movies, music lyrics and videos, magazines, video games and the Internet. Through the presence and absence of particular information, media can communicate powerful messages about race, class, and gender identity. Educational, entertainment, and commercial messages shape young viewers' perceptions of the world and contribute to their preparation for academic, social, and civic life. One recent study found children in middle childhood, ages 8 to 13, to be the most avid media consumers, with more average media exposure than any other age group between 0-18.42

According to one synthesis of the research, the lower the family's socioeconomic status (SES), the more television generally is watched by the children.43 Children of color and children of immigrants also tend to watch more television: Within the same SES groups, studies suggest that African American and Hispanic children watch more television compared with white non-Hispanic children, and that foreign-born children watch more television than native children. This may be because these families have access to fewer alternatives to home entertainment, but it may also be because they use television differently. For example, one study found that Latino parents sometimes used shows such as Sesame Street to improve their children's language skills.

On the one hand, media in general, and television in particular, have the ability to enhance cognitive skills, increase knowledge, model social conduct, and promote physical well-being. For example, research examining various educational and “edutainment” software applications reveals that the nature of computing experiences can have an impact on children's learning and sense of self-worth, and that computers can give children opportunities to develop mastery over technology and be more self-directed.44 In the school environment, shared computers often have been found to facilitate social interaction and cooperation, friendship formation, and constructive group play.45, 46

On the other hand, media can have negative effects as well. While there is much still to be learned about the relationship between media and child development, a meta-analysis of more than 3,000 studies of television's powerful influence on children concluded that even simply the availability of television was associated with delayed development in a child's verbal skills and in the amount of effort applied to academic tasks.47 Furthermore, the content of what children watch on television makes a difference. Researchers report that while watching some types of programming can improve cognitive skills and academic performance, watching cartoons and action-oriented programming can lead to more impulsive and less analytic thinking.48

Many media images and messages have been linked to negative effects for children related to violence, risky health behaviors, and stereotyping. To the extent that the content represents the dominant cultures' images and values, media is likely to work to strengthen the effects of racism and segregation. Studies examining how the portrayal of minorities on television may affect how others view them are scarce. But in terms of how images of minorities affect minority children themselves, some evidence suggests that seeing members of their group portrayed on television is important to children, and can contribute to their self-esteem even when the portrayal is not all positive.49 Good or bad, the effects of media are likely to be more pronounced during middle childhood, when children are increasingly their own agents and consumers of media outlets at the same time that they are forging their perceptions of their own competencies.