The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Neighborhood Collective Efficacy and Externalizing Childhood Problem Behaviors

Friday, January 17, 2014: 3:00 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, River Terrace, Upper Parking Level, Elevator Level P2 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Louis Donnelly, MSW, Doctoral Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Wade Jacobsen, MS, Research Specialist, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Purpose: Externalizing problem behaviors during childhood are negatively associated with wellbeing across the life course, including educational achievement, criminal justice system involvement, and mental and physical health. The contribution of neighborhood-level social processes to childhood problem behavior has important implications for policy and social work practice with families and communities. Recent developments in social organizational theory suggest that pro-social behavior is reinforced by the collective efficacy of neighborhoods -  shared expectations of informal social control and feelings of social cohesion and trust.  Prior research shows that neighborhood collective efficacy is related to reduced crime and juvenile delinquency. While theory suggests similar associations with child behavior, little research has explored the influence of collective efficacy on child development. In this study, we examine the relationship between neighborhood collective efficacy and externalizing childhood problem behavior using longitudinal data on a diverse sample of urban children.    

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.