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  • Are children more vulnerable to stressors when they are very young or when they are adolescents?
  • Do children have sensitive periods for positive inputs from their environments, such as involved parents or effective teachers?
  • Do certain transitions, such as to a new school or into a newly blended family, affect children’s development more at certain times than others?

It is clear that successful development depends on a child receiving adequate resources and minimal risks. What is less well known is when, and at what levels, such resources and risks have their greatest impact on children’s lives. If we knew when and at what levels contexts have the most influence on development, we would be better able to design and time interventions to have their maximum, and most efficient, impact. Our interdisciplinary team will take on the challenge of identifying the optimal timing and levels of family and school contextual influences on children and youth’s academic and  social-emotional development. We will focus on three ways of characterizing the relationships between development and family and school contexts: sensitive periods, tipping points, and transitions. Sensitive periods refer to the times in development that are most susceptible to contextual influence and predictive of future functioning. Tipping points are the levels at which a contextual influence affects accelerated, or diminishing, returns. Transitions are major changes in a context that can affect change in the individual.

Working in cross-site collaborations, interdisciplinary working groups of senior and junior faculty, we will utilize six national longitudinal data-sets that cover multiple stages of the early life course as well as three experimental data-sets that will permit stronger causal estimates. We will implement cutting-edge statistical methods that adhere to the best practices across disciplines (e.g., detailed observational measurement from psychology, tools for increasing causal inference from economics). After identifying sensitive periods, turning points, and transitions, we will look for heterogeneity (such as by gender or socioeconomic status) in how developmental trajectories are affected and will devote considerable effort to specifying the direction of effects. The guiding analytic principles of this project are to: use the best available measurement to examine each part of the conceptual model, replicate models across data-sets and cohorts as a means of increasing confidence in results, leverage state-of-the-art methods to capture the dynamic nature of individual development, employ appropriate measurement and analytical tools to examine ecological contexts, and consider alternative explanations and specifications as a means of reducing the likelihood of misattributed causality.