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University of Vermont Theses & Dissertations

Olofson, Mark William
The Influence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Families, Neighborhoods, and School Environments on Cognitive Outcomes Among Schoolchildren
Schools, families, and neighborhoods can support the development of happy, healthy children and adolescents. However, a majority of children in the United States also experience adversity in their early lives that can have deleterious effects on their cognitive and socioemotional development. Measuring and modeling early adversity is fundamental to understanding development as it occurs through interactions with schools, families and neighborhoods. As outlined by Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of human development, proximal and distal forces shape development, and cannot be isolated when relating measures of the developmental context to outcomes for individuals. For schools and other social programs to support students from high adversity backgrounds, the nature and structure of adversity and contextual influences must be measured and modeled in a robust manner. The three distinct papers in this dissertation describe the construction and evaluation of measurements for adversity, family conflict, neighborhood quality, and school safety, along with models that relate these elements to each other and cognitive outcomes in childhood and adolescence. Structural equation modeling is used to investigate the latent variables generated to measure the constructs and the nature of their relationships. The studies use nationally representative data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to create and test the theoretically driven models. The first study constructs and tests latent variables aligned with the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) framework in order to generate a continuous and theoretically coherent measurement of adversity. The second study uses this ACEs measurement along with measures of family conflict and neighborhood quality to generate and test path models informed by the bioecological theory of development. The third study applies these measures of developmental constructs to the study of safety in schools and identifies the differential function of school safety for children with varying levels of adversity to better understand the potential for school-based interventions. Results from these studies indicate the utility of a latent variable approach to measuring adversity, and the viability of path analysis for the study of how ACEs, family conflict and neighborhood quality influence cognitive outcomes. Additionally, results provide evidence for the necessity of varied and networked developmental supports for children from highly adverse beginnings, above those that may be available through reforms to school safety. Taken together, these studies provide a rich portrait of childhood development incorporating multiple contextual influences, and add to our understanding of what schools can and cannot do to support children.

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