Probing the Adaptive Significance of Children's Behavior and Relationships in the School Context: A Child by Environment Perspective

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Accumulating evidence is perhaps best understood when we can evaluate the extent to which it conforms to (or fails to corroborate) differing theoretical premises. At issue in this area of investigation is the extent to which evidence supports differential premises concerning the role of children's behavioral styles and relational risks and resources as antecedents of psychological and school adjustment. THEORY AND EVIDENCE: GOODNESS OF FIT?: At the broadest level of analysis, the evidence that has accumulated thus far can be interpreted as corroborating multiple theoretical positions. First, a substantial body of evidence indicates that children's early behavioral dispositions are moderately stable and predictive of later maladjustment. These findings are consistent with "main effects" models, in which it is argued that the child's early-emerging behavioral dispositions contribute to later maladjustment. Second, a basic tenet of environmental or socialization perspectives has been substantiated by evidence indicating that children's involvement in particular types of peer relationships is moderately stable and predictive of future maladjustment. These findings are also consistent with a "main effects" perspective. However, research guided by "child and environment" models has also produced discoveries that qualify some of the inferences that investigators have drawn from studies based on "main effects" models. These discoveries suggest that, over the course of development, children's behavioral styles and their participation in peer relationships essentially co-determine their success in adapting to life- and school-based challenges. In particular, the largely correlational evidence reviewed in this chapter lends itself to several heuristic, although admittedly speculative, conclusions. First, although children's behavioral dispositions and features of their peer relationships are significant antecedents of later adjustment, the predictive power of either factor alone appears to be less than their additive, contingent, or mediated contributions. For example, children's early behavioral dispositions, especially those that make children prone toward aggressive interactions with peers may affect the nature of the relational ecology (i.e., form and nature of relationships) they develop within the school context. Especially as children enter new peer groups (e.g., at school entry), the risks posed by aggressive dispositions may be partially mediated through the nature of the relationships (e.g., relational risks and resources) they form in peer group settings such as classrooms. Second, along with children's behavioral styles, exposure to enduring relationship adversity (e.g., peer rejection), deprivation (e.g., friendlessness), or support (e.g., peer acceptance) is more closely associated with children's adjustment trajectories than are more transient or proximal experiences within these same relationship domains. In this sense, extant findings not only illustrate the adaptive significance of children's peer relationships, but also suggest that sustained relational adversity affects children in ways that are consistent with chronic stress rather than acute, life-events perspectives (e.g., see DeRosier et al., 1994; Johnson, 1988). Third, risks posed by children's behavioral dispositions may be exacerbated by enduring relationship adversity (e.g., chronic victimization), and buffered by stable relationship advantage (e.g., a history of peer acceptance). These findings are consistent with moderator models in which it is argued that children's peer experiences affect their adjustment by altering the continuity of their behavioral styles. CONCEPTUAL AND EMPIRICAL AGENDAS: Child and environment models, as applied to the study of psychological and school adjustment, provide a framework for conceptualizing the forces that affect (i.e., promote vs. interfere) children's adaptation to developmental and ecological challenges. Inherent in this model are fundamental assumptions about: (a) the locus of these forces (i.e., originating within the child, the environment, or both), (b) the observable manifestations of these forces (e.g., the child's underlying constitution, regulatory abilities, early learning experiences, and the like, are expressed in specific behavioral styles; principles of social life and group dynamics create interpersonal contingencies and relationship processes that impinge on the individual child), and (c) the means by which these forces combine to affect the individual's adaptive success and ensuing health or dysfunction (e.g., the effects of child and environmental factors on adjustment can be understood as additive, moderated, or mediated contributions). Although all three assumptions represent a point of departure for hypothesis generation and testing, the last (i.e., assumption "c") deserves attention because it epitomizes the child and environment model and distinguishes it from main effects perspectives. At present, four categories of frameworks-termed continuity, additive, moderated, mediated models-have been advanced and investigated as a means of elucidating how child and environmental factors operate together to influence children's psychological or school adjustment. Unfortunately, little effort has been made to delineate the differing theoretical positions that are represented in these models, nor to consider the implications of these positions for future research. Such an assessment is worth undertaking because it has the potential to sharpen the distinctions between competing frameworks, distill existing knowledge, and guide subsequent model development and evaluation. IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH: Each of these models embodies a different view of how children's behavioral dispositions and peer experiences influence each other and/or children's trajectories toward health and maladjustment. Yet, rarely have these views been compared with an eye toward identifying novel, and potentially testable hypotheses about the contributions of either child or environmental factors to children's adjustment. In one respect, these models portray several variations on the social environment's role as a potential precursor of children's adjustment. In continuity models, the social environment's role is more reactive than proactive in relation to the child's behavioral style. Children are seen as active in the sense that their dispositions select them into distinct peer niches that supply responses that are uniquely suited to maintaining their dispositions. Because the social environment essentially supports risky behavior patterns, it is postulated that children consistently respond to developmental challenges in maladaptive ways that promote and maintain dysfunction over the life cycle. This view is in contrast to a more proactive view of the social environment that is typically represented within the other three models. In these paradigms, the peer environment tends to be portrayed as a ubiquitous socialization context that all children pass through and, within which, children are exposed to different forms of peer influence (e.g., periods of having friends and not having friends; brief or chronic periods of peer rejection, victimization). Unfortunately, in much of the research based on continuity models (e.g., Caspi et al., 1987, 1988), the social environment and its relation to children's behavioral styles has not been assessed empirically, or prospectively over time. The absence of such data has made it difficult to evaluate one of the model's basic premises-that is, whether children with particular dispositions participate in functionally similar peer environments over time, and whether these experiences are closely linked to children's behavior but have little effect on their adjustment. In future studies, it may be possible to investigate the extent to which the features of children's peer interactions and relationships remain selectively matched to (or largely interdependent on) their behavioral dispositions over extended periods of time, and across major developmental transitions. Evidence to the contrary could be seen as lending support to alternative perspectives. Data indicating that there is less interdependence between children's behavior and the nature of their peer experiences might shift investigation toward models in which the social environment is portrayed as a more active contributor to children's adjustment. Among the alternatives would be models in which the contributions of children's peer experiences to adjustment are construed as independent of children's behavioral styles (an additive perspective), contingent on their behavioral styles (a moderator perspective), or intervening between the child's behavioral styles and adjustment (a mediator perspective). As used in research on children's psychological and school adjustment, additive, moderator, and mediator models diverge from continuity perspectives in that different assumptions are made about: (1) how closely children's peer experiences are linked with their behavioral styles, and (2) how influential children's peer experiences are in shaping their adjustment. Additive versus mediated models portray the most divergent views as to how closely children's behavior is associated with the nature of their peer experiences. In additive models, it is not necessarily assumed that children's behavioral dispositions determine the nature of their peer relations and, thus, such experiences may alter children's development in ways that are distinct from their behavioral dispositions. Consistent with this view is the proposition that the peer milieu, regardless of the behavioral styles children bring to it, creates relatively ubiquitous challenges that have the potential to transform children's development or adjustment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-104
Number of pages62
JournalAdvances in child development and behavior
Issue numberC
StatePublished - 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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