Athens, Ga. – Young children’s perceptions of where they live and the people who inhabit their neighborhood can impact both their identity and how they feel about their academic potential, according to a study authored in part by a FACS researcher.
In a study of a diverse sample of 227 students in grades 2-5, researchers showed that positive neighborhood perceptions were associated with a stronger sense of affirmation and belonging, helping them better understand who they are as part of their racial-ethnic group.
These perceptions also were associated with a heightened sense of future academic opportunities.
The study highlighted the differences between structure and perception in the neighborhood context, said Emilie Smith, the Janette McGarity Barber Distinguished Professor and head of the department of human development and family science within FACS and one of the study authors.
Structure refers to demographics, how educated the population might be and other information that might be collected from official census data.
Perception refers to how the inhabitants feel about their neighborhood.
“So you can live in a structurally poor neighborhood but if you feel supported by the people in your neighborhood, it impacts children in terms of how they think about themselves and how much they think they can achieve academically,” Smith said.
Researchers used an 11-item scale to assess children’s perceptions of their neighborhoods in terms of friendliness, safety and neighbors’ interest in education, responding to statements such as “People in your neighborhood are nice to you” or “Your home is in a rough neighborhood” with answers ranging from “not true” to “very true.”
To assess children’s racial-ethnic identity, or their sense of belonging, researchers posed statements such as “People should be proud of their color” and “You like being the color you are.”
Researchers assessed academic self-efficacy to measure youth’s expectations of their ability to perform well on tests, exhibit good study schools and participate in class. For example, students were asked to respond to statements such as “I believe I will complete high school” during this assessment.
Finally, to address perceive racial barriers, study participants responded to statements such as “No matter how hard a person tries, they might not make it in life because of color.”
“These are the kids who might be at risk for giving up because they think no matter what I do, people are always going to label me badly because of the color of my skin,” Smith said. “Whether or not they’re accurate, what we find is how kids feel about that affects how they behave.”
Similarly, Smith noted, “kids who don’t think positively about their neighborhood are the kids who start to feel like ‘yeah, there are a lot of barriers.’ ”
Interestingly, Smith said, perceptions do not always match up with structure, which proved encouraging in this context.
“How many examples do we have of affluent people who say ‘I didn’t grow up affluent. I grew up in a poor neighborhood’?” Smith said. “But somehow there were people in these less advantaged neighborhoods who taught them some values that gave them confidence and made them feel supported. That’s the good part of the story, and we need communities to be these kinds of places.”
The study, “Racial-ethnic identity in context: Examining mediation of neighborhood factors on children’s academic adjustment,” was published in the American Journal of Community Psychology.
Dawn P. Witherspoon of Pennsylvania State University is the lead author. Other contributing authors are Penn State’s Lisa Daniels and Amber Mason.
The paper can be viewed at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4880415/
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