Neighborhood Collective Efficacy and Externalizing Childhood Problem Behaviors
Methods: Data is obtained from the Fragile Families Child Wellbeing Study, a birth-cohort panel study representative of children born between 1998 and 2000 in large US cities. This study includes nearly 3,000 children interviewed at the two most recent waves of data collection (37% attrition from baseline). Collective efficacy is assessed from parent reports when children are 5 years old using validated scales. Consistent with prior studies, the two highly correlated subscales are aggregated: social cohesion/trust (e.g. people around here are willing to help their neighbors, this is a close-knit neighborhood) and informal social control (neighbors’ willingness to intervene when confronted with youth problem behavior). Externalizing problem behavior is measured when children are 9 years old using subscales from the Child Behavior Checklist (parent reported) and Social Skills Rating System (teacher reported). Multivariate OLS regression models estimate the association between parental perceptions of their neighborhood’s collective efficacy and later reports of externalizing problem behavior. Models control for socio-economic characteristics of Census tracts (e.g. percent poverty, unemployment, single parenthood) and baseline demographic, health and psychosocial characteristics of children and families. In order to minimize potential shared source bias, subsequent multilevel random effects models include aggregate measures of collective efficacy that represent average scores within Census tracts and ZIP codes, modeled separately.
Results: As hypothesized, preliminary results show that parental perception of their neighborhoods’ collective efficacy is associated with less externalizing child problem behavior using both parent and teacher reports, net of child, family, and contextual factors (.15 standardized beta, p<.01; and .07 standardized beta, p<.05, respectively). Findings are robust in multilevel models using geographically aggregated measures of collective efficacy, except for models that include teacher reports of problem behavior and ZIP code-level measures of collective efficacy. These inconsistencies likely reflect greater heterogeneity of social processes within ZIP code boundaries.
Conclusions and Implications: Results are consistent with collective efficacy theories and suggest that neighbors’ shared expectations for informal social control and social cohesion protect against externalizing problem behavior in children. While more research is needed, these results imply that social work practice that strengthens these social processes and bonds within communities is likely to contribute to positive child development.