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Risk, family functioning, and child competence in head start families



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This study examines the mechanisms through which a risk factor such as poverty exerts its well-established negative effects on child development. Following the work of Baldwin, Baldwin, Kasser, Zax, Sameroff & Seifer (1993), risk factors were classified by theoretical proximity to the child into distal intermediate and proximal risk indices. Focusing on socio-emotional competence, this study tested the theory that distal factors, such as poverty, influence competence largely through effects on more proximal factors, such as family functioning. Participants were 25 preschoolers who were enrolled in Head Start programs in Southern New England and their families. Parents completed self-report questionnaires that provided information on 10 risk factors, including family functioning. Observer reports of family functioning were also obtained during home visits in which families were videotaped having a meal together. Information on children's socio-emotional competence in three domains--Regulatory Skills, Maladaptive Behaviours, and Social Relatedness, was obtained through teacher and experimenter ratings done in the children's Head Start classrooms. Hierarchical multiple regressions were performed using the three risk indices to predict each of the domains of socio-emotional competence. Contrary to expectations, none of the risk indices predicted children's socio-emotional competence. Moreover, a cumulative risk index formed by tallying risk factors was not significantly associated with children's socio-emotional competence, and only two risk factors were associated with developmental outcomes (maternal depression and family social support). Results regarding the nature of family functioning in poor families unexpectedly varied with the assessor. Observers rated the majority of families' Overall Family Functioning in the unhealthy range, while most parents rated their families' Overall Family Functioning in the healthy range. Moreover, mothers rated their Overall Family Functioning as significantly healthier than fathers in the same families. Findings also indicate that poor families are less homogeneous with the regard to risk than is commonly supposed. The distal-intermediate-proximal model of risk was not supported by the findings, suggesting several avenues for further research on the relationships between risk factors and developmental outcomes. The findings also highlight the need for further examination of the interplay between a systems approach to families and study of dyadic relationships within the family.



psychology, social adjustment, family relationships, family assessment, poor children, child development



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)







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