UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania – School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that many children spent much of their time at home in the spring of 2020. For most children, that meant more than time spent with their sisters and brothers, creating the potential to change family dynamics.
For academics like Xiaoran Sun, a former PhD student in human development and family studies at Penn State and current postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, the pandemic and the school closings that followed offered an unprecedented opportunity to study children stuck at home.
“I’m particularly interested in sibling relationships,” Sun said. “School closures combined with stay-at-home orders during the first few months of the pandemic provided a natural experience of family life, making the siblings of many families the primary daily companions of children. “
As a graduate student, Sun began working on a study led by Kimberly Updegraff, Cowden Distinguished Professor at Arizona State University, with collaborators from Penn State and Harvard Universities. The research team was collecting data from Latinx children about family experiences when schools were suddenly closed due to the pandemic. This allowed the research team to examine the effects of a large externally imposed shock on children’s sibling relationships.
In addition to exploring the impact of school closures caused by a pandemic on sibling dynamics among Latinx school-aged children in the United States, the study examined family and cultural factors which, according to hypothesis, reinforce or weaken the effects of school closures. The analyzes focused on 215 Latinx children from 116 families living in Arizona, a pandemic hotspot, and included home visits and pre-pandemic survey data in fall 2019 and daily diary data collected from February. to May 2020.
“It was important to focus on Latinx families during the pandemic as these families have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including higher death rates, and more generally higher poverty rates, more limited access to health care and a greater likelihood of pre-existing health problems. Said Updegraff, who was the other principal investigator on the project.
Additionally, in Arizona, Latinx children make up nearly half of the K-12 school-aged population, emphasizing the importance of examining how school closings have affected these children and their families.
The results of the study revealed that while the main effects of school closures on sibling dynamics were not significant, school closures were linked to greater sibling positivity among siblings. more inculturated children in the Latinx culture as well as among children from families of higher socioeconomic status. Sibling positivity also increased over time after school closed in families with more siblings. The work was recently published in Developmental Psychology.
“The theory of resource dilution on sibling size led us to believe that children from families with more siblings would be at greater risk of negative effects from school closure,” Sun said. . Contrary to this prediction, children with more siblings showed increased positivity towards the other sibling in the study the further away they were from school, while children with fewer siblings had tend to exhibit less positive behavior towards the brother who participated with them. “
Sun noted that children with fewer siblings may experience more social isolation. The corresponding more negative psychological well-being may cause these children to engage less positively with their siblings.
“The stressors resulting from the pandemic may also have been ‘diluted’ in larger families, as there are more hands to cope with new family responsibilities such as sibling care and virtual schooling.” , Updegraff explained.
The findings were consistent with research on children’s resilience and added to this research by identifying factors that can improve children’s ability to thrive in the face of challenges.
“Our results have shown that norms and values that emphasize the importance of family ties – that is, Latinx enculturation – can serve to protect against externally imposed challenges,” Sun said. “The results also suggest that a healthier fellowship dynamic can lay the foundation for siblings to serve as resources in the face of sudden and dramatic changes in their daily lives.”
For children with fewer siblings, Sun says family-centered interventions should be in place to provide them with external supports and opportunities for safe social engagement.
Other researchers on the project include Susan McHale; distinguished professor of human development and family studies, professor of demography and former director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State; Anna Hochgraf, doctoral student in human development and family studies at Penn State; Annabella Gallagher, former doctoral student at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University; Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Emily Hargroves Fisher Research Professor of Education at Harvard University.
The study was funded by a grant from the National Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Human Development and by the Cowden Endowment from the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. Sun was supported by the Stanford Data Science Fellowship.