The environmental context of development has been explored to provide a comprehensive understanding of how individuals learn and acquire specific values, beliefs, and behaviors due to the impact of their immediate surroundings. The influence of outside factors has been applied to both microsystems and macrosystems. The microsystems, which represent children’s closest environments, include living with or without a family or regularly or not regularly attending school. Macro systems, include the culture in which a child is embedded or the opportunities and barriers related to their race and gender. Moreover, in the current climate, considering the effects of COVID-19 on child development is also necessary because of the shifting perspectives on education formats, socialization, as well as attitudes to health and safety (Rao & Fisher, 2021). Therefore, the knowledge of the outside factors that define the immediate and broad environments around children can help explain the nature of their development and allow recommending strategies for improving well-being.
Influence of Environmental Factors
Environmental factors that impact growth and development include and are not limited to housing arrangements in which children live, families’ socioeconomic status and income, the characteristics of neighborhoods and schools, interpersonal relationships, and cultural variabilities. These factors are essential to consider because all children are motivated to interact with their environments, with development representing the process in which an individual can change the environment and adapt to various shifts within it (Gur, 2014). There are active agents such as exploring, discovering, imitating, developing, or fantasizing, through which a child not only interacts with the social environment but also with its physical aspect. Thus, development takes place when a child sees the consequences of their actions regarding the materials and events in their environments.
The components of children’s environments have been studied separately. For instance, family dynamics are among the defining characteristics of child outcomes. Such events as parental separation have been found to affect the psychological well-being of children, their success in education, how they build social relationships and even create their own families (Härkönen et al., 2017). Separation of parents during a person’s childhood enables several environmental transitions, such as the introduction to stepfamilies, new siblings, possibly new schools, or experiences of joint residential custody (Radl et al., 2017). As a result of parental separation, children often receive less involved parenting from their non-resident parent, usually the father, and are more likely to experience a decline in economic resources. The combination of factors associated with negative family dynamics has been found to lead to lower emotional well-being in children, decreased school accomplishment, and reduced quality of social relationships.
Cultural factors have also been shown to have a significant influence on child development. A cultural background gives children a sense of who they are, with unique cultural influences inferring responses from birth, including customs and beliefs around food, language, religion, or artistic expression. Children are exposed to cultural influences in various ways, including their parents, friends, and the media. Moreover, how society shows an understanding of diverse cultures can influence children’s development in many ways. Importantly, when societies are accepting of diversity, both cultural and ethnic, children within them are more likely to become confident in themselves and are comfortable interacting with others.
The socioeconomic status of children’s families, including living in poverty or affluence, or the quality of neighborhoods, has also been shown to impact development. The sustained exposure to lower-quality communities has been estimated to reduce the likelihood of graduation from 96% to 76% for Black children and from 9% to 87% for other ethnicities and races (Wodtke et al., 2011). Wolfers (2016) stated that bad neighborhoods impact children’s development and their lives in the future, suggesting that their opportunities expand when they can move out of them. Moreover, bad neighborhoods are often characterized by increased exposure to crime, such as homicides.
Sharkey (2010) found that children’s exposure to extreme acts of violence adversely influences behaviors. Besides, academic performance can also deteriorate with exposure to violence in communities, with Sharket et al. (2014) concluding that English language performance decreased with exposure to violent crime, with the most significant effects in African American students. These findings also align with the differences in developmental outcomes between Black and White children due to the varied exposure patterns to bad neighborhoods over the long term. Black children are around seven times more likely to live in consistent residence in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods than their white counterparts (Rudow, 2011). Thus, the environment in which children live either offers or limits opportunities for their development.
Impact of COVID-19
As child development has shown connections to environmental factors, it is imperative to consider the impact of the current climate characterized by the COVID-19 health crisis. Research has illuminated that the socioeconomic challenges that affected families and children before the pandemic have been exacerbated due to the adverse impact of the crisis on the financial, social, and health stability of communities (Lopez et al., 2021). According to Terrier et al. (2021), the pandemic has induced worse mental health, lower levels of educational attainment and aspirations, as well as larger rates of dropouts from school for children and adolescents from families of lower socioeconomic status. Thus, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected children from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who have historically been subjected to structural race and ethnicity inequalities, those with additional health or special needs, as well as those with limited access to digital resources.
The specific outcomes of COVID-19, such as home confinement, restricted social contact school closures, and the shift to digital learning, have significantly limited children’s opportunities for social development as they could not interact with their environments regularly (Rao & Fisher, 2021). Besides, it is important to consider the impact of the pandemic on nurturing care in early childhood. Researchers have reported possible interruptions in nurturing care because parents may experience emotional strain or adverse health outcomes, which can prevent them from ensuring children’s protection from harm, facilitating good nutrition and health, or enabling opportunities for early learning.
Overcoming Environmental Barriers to Child Development
Overcoming challenges that contribute to adverse child development outcomes entails creating safe environments conducive to the healthy and well-rounded development of children. This may include working with social services concerning children from disadvantaged families or implementing policy changes to guarantee equal access to opportunities. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, more collaboration between communities, social services, and policymakers is needed to facilitate the positive development of children in the context of decreased socialization and increased reliance on digital communication. Addressing socioeconomic concerns of disadvantaged communities is of great importance to facilitate healthy child development as well as protect families from the stress of unpredictability.
More research on protective factors that can mitigate adverse impacts of COVID-19 on children is needed. Specifically, it is important to determine whether the pre-pandemic efforts will be enough to be implemented in the face of adversity or whether new protective factors that are specific to the current environment are needed. Neighborhoods’ impact has also been shown to be a significant contributing factor to general child development and academic performance. Because of the influence of environments on child development, it is necessary to foster positive settings in which younger generations can feel safe, confident, and thrive regardless of their pre-existing factors ranging from income to ethnic background.
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