Imagine a group of children on their first day of kindergarten—their eyes bright, eager with anticipation. Although they have arrived at this moment from different backgrounds and experiences, with different senses of their own accomplishments and abilities, on this day they all share feelings of pride, optimism, and excitement. Their parents, too, share a sense of hope and aspiration, of possibilities waiting to be fulfilled.
Now picture these same children in their third grade classroom. While some are engaged and responsive, others appear disaffected and uninvolved in classroom activities. For these children, the promise of school has not materialized; they seem poorly motivated and disengaged. Their parents' expectations, too, are growing dim—and with reason: success or failure in the early years of schooling can have significant consequences for a child's later accomplishments, leaving him or her unprepared for an increasingly competitive world.
What influences and experiences contribute to the different outcomes for children during their first school years? And how can the likelihood of successful outcomes be increased? The Network on Successful Pathways through Middle Childhood was established to address these questions. This network built on the work of a previous network on early childhood transitions; it focused on children from the time they enter school until the early stirrings of adolescence.
In addition to school, the network's investigators looked at other contexts important to children, including family, community, economic resources, and culture, as well as children's individual differences. They attempted to capture the diversity of influences and experiences represented by people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and economic circumstances.
The network included experts in the fields of anthropology, developmental and cross-cultural psychology, economics, education, the history of childhood, pediatrics, social policy, sociology, and urban geography. Their work was designed to link them with the Program's other developmental networks and to reflect the latest advances in the field. It was designed, also, to be of use to a broad audience, including not only academic researchers but educators, practitioners, policymakers, parents, and children.
The network encompassed several major areas of research:
Context: The network sought to understand child development in the contexts in which it takes place, with particular attention to the critical roles of the family, community, and school.
Continuity across the lifespan: The network aimed to link early and middle childhood development with development in adolescence and adulthood.
Psychological processes: Children's interactions with their contexts are strongly influenced by psychological processes that help them make meaning of their experiences. The network looked at the ways these processes are influenced by, and lead to, the development of beliefs, values, attitudes, and goals that guide their future behavior.
Diversity: The network's approach recognized and explored the diversity of families' and children's experiences, including the ways these experiences differ for boys and girls, for ethnic minority children, and for children living in conditions of economic disadvantage.
Intervention: The network used the knowledge emerging from developmental research to design and study interventions that promote optimal development and enhance the well-being of children and families, particularly those living in adverse conditions.
Progress and Plans
This network had three large-scale studies underway. The first of these, the MacArthur School Transition Study, was a follow-up to the Comprehensive Child Development Programs initiated by Congress. CCDP offered low-income, "multi-risk" families a wide range of services, from parent training and early childhood education to health care and housing assistance. The network's study focused on three CCDP communities and attempted to determine the characteristics, interventions, and other factors that promote school readiness and ongoing success in school.
A second major undertaking was a study of children and families participating in the New Hope Project, an experimental, work-based alternative to welfare. New Hope offered wage supplements, child care subsidies, and health insurance to low-income families with a household member who is working full time. The network project examined the social, psychological, and material effects of this intervention on children and families.
In the California Childhoods Project, network investigators took an unusual, ethnographic approach to examine the lives of children in three communities that vary in social class, racial and ethnic composition, and immigration histories. They explored the contexts or "worlds" of children's everyday lives, how these worlds are understood by the children and by key adults in their lives, and how the children navigate among their different worlds and form a sense of their own identity.
Among several smaller, more targeted projects was a new study of the children of immigrants in the U.S. The investigators looked at the development of ethnic identity and self esteem in immigrant children, their experiences with racism and discrimination, and the factors that influence their engagement with school and other American institutions.