Research Methods in School Counseling Paper


Formulate a question, what question do I want to answer?
Clarify a target group. (Maybe low-income families)
Pick a factor to focus on, and interventions, what supports are there to reach desired solution?
Identify, a topic suitable for the literature review. This topic will be used for all other writing for the course. Review the 15 journal articles. Create a cover page with a title, an abstract (around 500 words). 

Journal of Family Psychology
2012, Vol. 26, No. 2, 263–273
© 2012 American Psychological Association
0893-3200/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0027427
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Low-Income Mothers’ Patterns of Partnership Instability and Adolescents’
Socioemotional Well-Being
Heather J. Bachman
Rebekah Levine Coley and Jennifer Carrano
University of Pittsburgh
Boston College
The present study investigated the association of family structure and maternal partnership instability
patterns with adolescents’ behavioral and emotional well-being among urban low-income families.
Analyses employed data from the Three-City Study to track maternal partnerships over the youth’s life
span, linking longitudinal family structure and transition patterns to adolescent well-being (N ⫽ 2305).
Families were classified into nine mutually exclusive longitudinal partnership groups based on current
status at wave 3 (single, married, or cohabiting) and the longevity of that status: always (since
adolescent’s birth with no transitions), stable (lasting two years or more, preceded by transitions), or new
(transpiring in the past 2 years). Adolescents in the always married group displayed less delinquency and
externalizing problems, according to both youth and mother reports, than peers in always single-parent
or newly married households. In contrast, youth in always cohabiting households had higher maternal
ratings of internalizing problems and youth with newly cohabiting mothers reported higher psychological
distress than peers in similar stability groups with single or married mothers. Overall, several potential
explanatory processes for the family structure and stability patterns surfaced: married parent families
reported less economic hardship, more family routines and father involvement, and less maternal
psychological distress and parenting stress than their single and cohabiting counterparts. Policy implications of these findings are discussed.
Keywords: family structure, family instability, adolescence, low-income, socioemotional
18 –39, with the largest increases observed for women in their
twenties (Federal Interagency Forum on Child & Family Statistics, 2009). The incidence of births and child rearing within
cohabiting-couple families also grew in recent years, especially
among low-income families, and divorce rates remained stably
high (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). These co-occurring patterns have
resulted in growing numbers of American children experiencing
maternal partnership instability, as mothers move into and out
of single-, cohabiting-, and married-parent structures. Recent
estimates suggest that 12% of children will experience three or
more maternal partnership transitions by 15 years of age (Cherlin, 2009).
The aforementioned demographic shifts in family and partnership formation are particularly evident among low-income
families, which are characterized by multiple partner fertility,
first marriages to stepfathers, and later marriages to biological
fathers (Cherlin, 2009; Moore & Chase-Lansdale, 2001; Tach,
Mincy, & Edin, 2010). For almost a decade, low-income families have been the target of federal healthy marriage initiatives
to increase marriage rates among low-income couples with
children based upon the supposition that married-parent families are the most supportive environment for child rearing
(Administration for Children & Families, 2006). However, recent demonstration studies have focused their efforts on lowincome pregnant women and new mothers of infants (Wood,
McConnell, Moore, Clarkwest, & Hsueh, 2010). Whether stable
marriages or movements into new marriages benefit lowincome families with older children or adolescents remains
understudied. Thus, the present study applied a life-course
perspective to the study of low-income adolescents’ well-being
Since 1980, families in the United States have experienced
tremendous change in the composition and stability of family
structures. One of the primary drivers of these familial changes
is the increase in nonmarital birth rates. Between 1980 and
2007, nonmarital birth rates more than doubled for women ages
This article was published Online First February 27, 2012.
Heather J. Bachman, Department of Psychology in Education, University of Pittsburgh; Rebekah Levine Coley and Jennifer Carrano, Department of Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology, Boston
Core support for the Three-City Study was provided from the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development through Grants
HD36093 and HD25936 as well as the support of many government
agencies and private foundations. For a complete list of funders, see This research project was supported by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, which is
funded by a cooperative agreement, grant No. 5 UOI AEOOOOOI-03,
between the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Bowling Green
State University. This project also was supported by a grant from the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1R03HD055229) to the
second author. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does
not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development or HHS or of other
grantors. A special thank you is also extended to the children and families who
participated in Welfare, Children, & Families: A Three-City Study.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Heather
J. Bachman, University of Pittsburgh, School of Education, Department of
Psychology in Education, 5809 Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. E-mail:
by linking longitudinal patterns of maternal partnerships to the
socioemotional functioning of adolescents.
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Family Structure and Stability Influences on
Adolescent Socioemotional Well-Being
Review of the extant literature reveals a complex pattern of
associations involving family structure, partnership stability, and
the biological relatedness of parents with adolescent well-being.
Addressing these three aspects of maternal partnering simultaneously produces several theoretical and methodological challenges.
A clear case in point is conceptualizing the role that stability plays
in an adolescent’s life. Stability, predictability, and continuity of
care have been hallmarks of developmental theory (Sroufe, 2000),
and family stability may become increasingly important during
adolescence as youth contend with transitions into middle and high
schools, shifting peer groups, and physiological pubertal changes
(Brooks-Gunn & Reiter, 1990; Eccles, 1999). Marriage among
biological parents has provided the most stability, with robust links
to adolescent well-being (Brown, 2007; Cherlin, 2009), but theory
suggests that stability may provide developmental protection even
when youth are exposed to family structures that may present risks.
For example, single-mother households are among the most economically disadvantaged families (Bachman, Coley, & ChaseLansdale, 2009; Demo & Acock, 1996), and effective parenting
and supervision practices may be particularly difficult for lone
parents with adolescents (Teachman, 2003). However, recent evidence has demonstrated that stable or nondisrupted singleparenting is less detrimental to adolescent well-being than exposure to transitions into and out of maternal partnerships (Demo &
Acock, 1996; Cherlin, 2009).
In contrast, stability in cohabiting-couple families may present
increased developmental risk the longer youth are exposed to these
maternal partnerships. Marriages tend to provide more consistency
and resources for youth than do cohabitations, which are more
short-lived (Bumpass & Lu, 2000) and ambiguously defined
(Osborne & McLanahan, 2007), as well as less economically
stable (Manning & Brown, 2006). In addition, multiple national
studies have found that cohabitation among mothers of adolescents
more commonly includes step or social fathers rather than the
youths’ biological fathers (Brown, 2004; Manning & Lamb, 2003).
For adolescents who are facing the emergence of their own sexuality as well as increased opportunities for engagement in problem
behaviors (Brooks-Gunn & Reiter, 1990), the presence of a stepfather may be particularly challenging. It remains unclear what
prolonged exposure to maternal cohabitation means for youth
since the instability rates of cohabitations are so much higher than
for marriages (Osborne, Manning, & Smock, 2007; Manning,
Smock, & Majumdar, 2004), but maternal cohabitation has been
frequently associated with externalizing behavior problems and
delinquency for adolescents (Bachman et al., 2009; Brown, 2004;
Cavanagh, 2008; Deleire & Kalil, 2002; Dunifon & KowaleskiJones, 2002; Manning & Lamb, 2003).
Consideration of stability also leads to more nuanced considerations of the benefits of marriage, questioning whether the commonly detected advantages associated with marriage are products
of marriage itself or ancillary benefits of the stability that marriage
affords parents and children. For example, research on remarriage
has detected few improvements to adolescent functioning when
divorced mothers remarry (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994; Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992). Historically, research has separately
examined family structure and the stability of maternal partnerships. Recent research has detected a positive association between
greater partnership instability, including marital and cohabitation
transitions, and increased risky behaviors, such as younger age at
sexual debut, younger age at first nonmarital birth, delinquent
activities, and substance use (Cavanagh, 2008; Fomby, Mollborn,
& Sennott, 2010). Other research has delineated the timing of
maternal partnership instability, separating transitions that occurred early in a child’s life from recent transitions into or out of
marital or cohabiting partnerships, typically defined as occurring
within the prior two years. Much of this work has involved early
or middle childhood, and results in this area are inconsistent, with
some studies finding that earlier transitions are more predictive of
problematic functioning among children (Cavanagh & Huston,
2008) and others finding that recent transitions are more predictive
(Bachman, Coley, & Carrano, 2011). Still other studies suggest
that current marital status is most important in understanding
children’s functioning even when adjusting for prior relationship
instability (Fomby & Cherlin, 2007). Among adolescents, limited
evidence demonstrates that both current status and cumulative
instability predict adolescents’ psychological distress and substance use (Cavanagh, 2008).
It is important to reiterate that most prior research has treated
these constructs— early instability, recent instability, and partnership status—as distinct, independent constructs rather than addressing their intersections. However, family structure shifts and
statuses are likely to be related and to have interactive effects. In
this article, we argue that it is essential to consider the intersections
between maternal partnership instability and family status in seeking to understand how these family experiences are associated with
adolescents’ socioemotional functioning.
A third aspect of family structure that has been considered in
past research is the biological relatedness of the male partner. For
families with adolescents, maternal partnership formation often
introduces married stepfathers or cohabiting social fathers into the
family system (Tach et al., 2010). Past literature revealed mixed
findings about whether the introduction of stepfathers poses developmental risks for youth. Among middle-class and White families, adolescents in married stepfamilies typically show worse
developmental outcomes than peers in married biological-parent
families, and similar functioning to peers in single-parent families
(Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994; Hetherington & Clingempeel,
1992). However, low-income men who partner with mothers appear to represent a select group of step or social fathers who
contribute significant parenting assistance to families (Berger,
Carlson, Bzostek, & Osborne, 2008), and research on low-income
families has found enhanced adolescent well-being following maternal marriage to biological or stepfathers compared to youth in
single-mother households (Bachman et al., 2009; Moore & ChaseLansdale, 2001).
Several past studies have employed a life span perspective
(Elder, 1998) linking patterns of maternal marital histories to youth
well-being (Cavanagh, 2008; Hill, Yeung, & Duncan, 2001). In a
similar vein, the present study aimed to link youths’ lifetime
family structure and maternal partnership stability experiences to
their well-being during adolescence. Specifically, maternal partnering patterns involving current family structure, the timing of
partnership transitions, and the male partner’s identity (biological
father vs. stepfather) were identified to disentangle the role of
marriage from stability and biological father involvement.
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Family Processes Associated With Family Structure
and Instability
Family process differences in economic hardship, parenting
practices, and maternal psychological functioning regularly
emerge as key explanatory mechanisms by which family structure
and instability influence child and adolescent development
(Amato, 2005). Marital unions are generally associated with higher
quality parenting practices (Gibson-Davis & Gassman-Pines,
2010). In contrast, partnership transitions have been associated
with harsher parenting and higher maternal stress (Beck, Cooper,
McLanahan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2010). Transitions into new relationships with step or social fathers have been linked with higher
parenting stress (Cooper, McLanahan, Meadows, & Brooks-Gunn,
2009) and declines in mother-adolescent relationship quality
(King, 2009). Maternal partnership instability also is associated
with declines in biological fathers’ involvement (Tach et al.,
2010). In addition, single-parent status, cohabiting partnerships,
and partnership instability all have been linked to higher economic
stress (Fomby et al., 2010; Manning & Brown, 2006).
Research Questions
Based upon this literature, the current study addressed the following four questions. First, we asked whether marriage benefits
differ by instability patterns, expecting that youth in always married households, since the adolescent’s birth, would show more
positive socioemotional outcomes than adolescents in newly
formed married-parent families (in the last 2 years) or youth in
stable married-parent families, which lasted more than 2 years but
were preceded by partnership transitions. Second, we assessed
whether marriages were linked with more beneficial youth functioning than maternal cohabitations, expecting that always or stable marriage would promote better outcomes for youth than always
or stable cohabitation. With limited prior literature, it was unclear
whether to expect that newly formed marital and cohabiting unions
would differ significantly in their associations with adolescent
well-being. Third, we examined whether the benefits of marital
patterns differed by whether partnerships were formed with the
adolescent’s biological father or stepfather, with no clear hypotheses based on conflicting past results. Finally, we assessed whether
a variety of family processes, including economic hardship, psychological functioning, and parenting practices, helped to explain
the associations between maternal partnership patterns and adolescents’ emotional and behavioral functioning.
Participants and Procedures
Data were drawn from waves 1 through 3 of Welfare, Children,
and Families: A Three-City Study, a longitudinal, multimethod
study of the well-being of low-income children and families in the
wake of federal welfare reform. The Three-City Study main survey
includes a household-based, stratified, random-sample survey with
over 2,400 low-income children and their primary female caregivers in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San
Antonio (Winston et al., 1999). In each family one focal child was
selected for inclusion in the study from one of two age cohorts: a
child cohort with focal children aged 0 to 4 years, or an adolescent
cohort with children aged 10 to 14 years in wave 1. Children and
mothers were interviewed individually in their homes in 1999
(90% screening rate; 83% interview response rate), and again in
2000/01 (88% retention rate) and 2005 (80% retention rate from
wave 1). Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. Probability weights were incorporated to adjust for sample selection,
nonresponse, and attrition, creating a sample that is representative
of low-income adolescents and their mothers in low-income neighborhoods in the three cities.
The analytic sample for this study was restricted in four ways to
fit the needs of our research priorities. First, the sample was
limited to adolescents (aged 10 to 14 years in wave 1 and 15 to 21
years in wave 3) to focus specifically on that developmental
period. Second, the sample was restricted to adolescents residing
with their biological mother to exclude youth who experienced
familial disruptions other than maternal partnership instability,
such as relative or foster care (90% of caregivers in the Three-City
Study sample were biological mothers) or youth leaving home (95
youth had left home by wave 3). Third, we included only families
who remained in the sample in wave 3, since the relationship
transition history data were collected at that time. There were 800
cases at wave 1, 800 cases at wave 2, and 705 cases at wave 3 that
met these eligibility criteria. To maximize sample size and statistical power and study the whole range of adolescence (10 to 21
years), we pooled data from the three waves to create a total
analytic sample of 2,305 cases. Pooling data is a common and
accepted technique to maximize sample size and to produce more
efficient statistical estimates (Huston et al., 2001; Li-Grining &
Coley, 2006; Wooldridge, 2000). To adjust for the data dependence resulting from including as many as three waves of repeated
measures on the same individual, analyses included a standard
error adjustment (the Huber-White adjustment; White, 1980;
Wooldridge, 2000). Within the analytic sample a relatively small
amount of missing data was apparent, ranging from 0 to 9.5%
across study variables. Missing data were imputed using expectation maximization (EM), which uses a maximum likelihood approach (Dempster, Laird, & Rubin, 1977). Assessments of missing
data imputation techniques report that inclusive strategies of imputation employing EM techniques yield optimal results (highly
similar to multiple imputation techniques; Collins, Schafer, &
Kam, 2001).
Partnership status and transition variables. Family structure and stability information was gathered through numerous sets
of questions in mother interviews involving partnership histories,
household rosters, and current marital status. Longitudinal patterns
of maternal partnering combined the current partnership status
(delineated as married, cohabiting, or single) with information
from the partnership history interview, in which mothers reported
on the start and end dates of each marriage and cohabitation. These
data were used to create nine mutually exclusive categories delineating three maternal partnership patterns. “Always” included
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mothers in the same partnership since the adolescents’ birth. The
“always” groups included: (a) always single, in which mothers
were single since the adolescent’s birth with no transitions; (b)
always cohabiting, in which mothers were cohabiting since the
adolescent’s birth with no transitions; and (c) always married, in
which mothers were married since the adolescent’s birth with no
transitions. “Stable” denoted longer-term statuses (more than 2
years in length) preceded by partnership transitions, and the “stable” groups included: (d) stable single, in which mothers were
single for two or more years but reported at least one previous
transition; (e) stable cohabiting, in which mothers were cohabiting
for two or more years but reported at least one previous transition;
and (f) stable married, in which mothers were married for two or
more years but reported at least one previous transition. “New”
partnership groups were comprised of mothers in a recently
formed partnership or recently single status in the last two years.
The “new” groups included: (g) newly single, in which currently
single mothers were single for less than two years; (h) newly
cohabiting, in which currently cohabiting mothers were cohabiting
for less than two years; and (i) newly married, in which currently
married mothers were married for less than two years. Finally, for
partnered mothers, the identity of the marital or cohabiting partner
was coded as the biological father of the focal child or a stepfather,
the latter meant as a general term to include all nonbiological
partners, married or not.
Adolescent functioning. Both adolescents and mothers reported on adolescent psychosocial functioning at each wave with
full-scale, well-validated developmental assessment measures. Adolescents’ self-reports were obtained using an Audio ComputerAssisted Self-Interview (ACASI) procedure to increase the validity of their reports of sensitive information. Adolescents reported
on their psychological distress using the Brief Symptom Inventory
18 (BSI 18; Derogatis, 2000), which asks how much respondents
had been distressed or bothered by symptoms in the past 7 days
using a 5-point scale (0 ⫽ not at all to 4 ⫽ extremely). The BSI 18
assessed three aspects of psychological distress: depression, anxiety and somatization. Items were averaged into a total score with
higher scores indicating greater psychological distress (␣1–3 ⫽
.87⫺.89). Adolescents reported on their engagement in delinquent
behaviors using items that were drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY); Borus, Carpenter, Crowley, &
Daymont, 1982) and the Youth Deviance Scale (Gold, 1970; used
by Steinberg, Mounts, Lamborn, & Dornbusch, 1991). Twelve
items assessed whether adolescents had engaged in property crime
(e.g., stole from a store or person), violence (e.g., got into a serious
physical fight), and substance use (e.g., smoked pot or hash) in the
prior year. A total count of delinquent activities was used, with
higher scores indicating greater engagement in delinquent activities.
Mothers also reported on adolescents’ emotional and behavioral
functioning using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach, 1991; Achenbach & Rescorla, 2001b) or the Adult Behavior
Checklist (ABCL, Achenbach & Rescorla, 2001a). Standard scores
(t-scores) on the broadband internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression,
withdrawal, and somatic complaints; ␣1–3 ⫽ .85⫺.91) and externalizing (e.g., aggressive, destructive and rule breaking actions;
␣1–3 ⫽ .88⫺.92) subscales were used in analyses.
Control variables. In addition to our primary variables of
interest, we also included a number of adolescent and family
characteristics to control for possible biasing factors. In selecting
these characteristics, we paid careful attention to endogeneity
concerns, focusing on variables which may be linked both with
mothers’ partnership experiences and with adolescents’ development but are not likely to be caused by maternal partnerships (e.g.,
family income or maternal depression). Control variables included
adolescent age in months, gender, and race/ethnicity (African
American, Hispanic of any race, or White/Other), as well as
mother’s age in years and the number of minors in the household.
Analyses also controlled for mother’s education, assessed on an
8-point scale from 1 (less than a high school degree) to 8 (graduate degree), and mothers’ literacy skills, assessed through the
Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery Revised (WJ-R)
Letter-Word Identification subscale (Woodcock & Johnson, 1989,
1990; Woodcock & Munoz-Sandoval, 1996). A count of maternal
partnerships transitions that transpired prior to the adolescent’s
birth (including entries into and exits from both cohabitations and
marriages), termed prebirth transitions, was created from the
partnership history data.
Family Process Variables
Family process variables captured three central arenas of family
and maternal functioning at each wave: economic hardship, maternal psychological well-being, and parenting.
Economic contexts. Families’ cash resources were designated with income-to-needs ratios, calculated from maternal reports of each household member’s income from a variety of
sources, using federal poverty designations dependent on household size. A second measure assessed families’ experiences of
economic pressure using the Financial Strain Index (Coley &
Chase-Lansdale, 2000). Five items assessed mothers’ perceived
financial hardship and ability to pay bills and afford basic necessities using 4- or 5-point Likert scales. Items were standardized
and averaged to create a total score of Financial Strain (␣1–3 ⫽
Mothers’ psychological functioning. Mothers’ psychological functioning was measured with the 18-item version of the Brief
Symptom Inventory (BSI 18, Derogatis, 2000), with higher scores
indicating greater psychological distress (␣1–3 ⫽ .90⫺.93). Mothers also reported on their parenting stress with 7 items drawn from
New Chance and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID),
such as “Parenting is such a big job, it cuts me off from other
people,” and “Being a parent is harder than I thought it would be.”
Items were averaged, with higher scores indicating greater parenting stress (␣1–3 ⫽ .75⫺.81).
Parenting. Mothers and youth reported on key aspects of
parenting adolescents. Family routines, a measure of the regularity
of strength-promoting family activities, were assessed from mother
reports through items selected from the Family Routines Inventory
(Jensen, James, Boyce, & Hartnett, 1983), which were averaged
into a total score of family routines (␣1–3 ⫽ .64⫺.74). Mothers
also reported on whether the biological father and/or a father figure
(someone like a father to the child) was involved in the daily care
of the adolescent, with responses indicating 0 ⫽ no contact in past
year or father deceased, 1 ⫽ none, 2 ⫽ some, 3 ⫽ most of the
responsibility. Youth reported on harsh maternal punishment using
McLoyd’s Harsh Punishment scale (McLoyd, Jayaratne, Ceballo,
& Borquez, 1994) which consists of 5 items assessed on a 1
(never) to 5 (almost every day) scale (␣1–3 ⫽ .77⫺.82) assessing
the frequency with which the mother used harsh or punitive
disciplinary techniques (e.g., During the past 12 months, how often
has your mother scolded or yelled at you? . . . spanked or hit
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Descriptive Statistics
Descriptive statistics on the sample are presented in Table 1.
The sample was 54% Latino, 40% African American, and 6%
White/Other, and just under half of the focal adolescents were
male (45%), with an average age across the pooled data of 14 years
8 months. Mothers averaged 40 years old, with an average educational attainment of a high school diploma. In relation to mothers’
Table 1
Descriptive Statistics on Maternal Partnership History Groups,
Adolescent Outcomes, Family Process Characteristics, and
Covariates (N ⫽ 2305)
Mean (SD)/Percent
Maternal partnership variables
Always married
Always married, bio. father
Always married, stepfather
Stable married
Stable married, bio. father
Stable married, stepfather
Newly married
Newly married, bio. father
Newly married, stepfather
Always cohabiting
Stable cohabiting
Newly cohabiting
Always single
Stable single
Newly single
Control Variables
Adolescent age in months
Adolescent is male
Mother age in years
Number of minors
Mother education
Mother literacy skills
Prebirth transitions
Family Process Variables
Income-to-needs ratio
Financial strain
Mother psych. distress
Parenting stress
Family routines
Harsh parenting
Father involvement
Adolescent Outcomes
Psychological distress
Delinquency total
CBCL internalizing
CBCL externalizing
176.40 (32.92)
39.89 (6.74)
2.46 (1.38)
3.89 (2.16)
90.40 (14.07)
1.12 (1.18)
1.10 (.71)
⫺.01 (.69)
1.47 (1.43)
2.68 (.86)
2.64 (.68)
1.74 (.66)
1.55 (.86)
1.52 (1.08)
1.35 (1.75)
51.52 (11.08)
51.67 (10.59)
CBCL ⫽ Child Behavior Checklist; bio. father ⫽ biological father.
partnership patterns, over half of the mothers (58%) were single,
with 17% having been always single the adolescent’s whole lifetime, 31% stable single for more than 2 years, and 10% newly
single, having left a relationships within the prior 2 years. About
one third of mothers (35%) were married, with 19% always married since the birth of the adolescent, 12% in stable marriages
(longer than 2 years), and 3% newly married. Although the vast
majority of marriages that lasted for the adolescent’s entire life
involved the biological father, stable and new marriages were more
evenly divided between biological and stepfathers. A small proportion of mothers (7%) were cohabiting, with comparable rates of
always, stable, and new cohabitations. Grouping the partnership
history data another way, we note that 39% of youth were always
in the same family structure their entire lives (with primarily
always single or always married mothers), 46% had a stable family
structure, consistent for more than two years (with stable cohabitations lasting an average of 4.3 years and stable marriages lasting
an average of 7.5 years), and 15% of adolescents experienced a
new maternal partnership in the prior two years.
Associations Between Maternal Partnership Histories
and Adolescent Well-Being
The next set of analyses assessed associations between maternal
partnership patterns and adolescents’ well-being using ordinary
least squares (OLS) regression models with clustering to adjust
standard errors for the inclusion of multiple observations from
each adolescent. It is important to note the threats posed by omitted
variable and endogeneity biases in correlational research (Duncan,
Magnuson, & Ludwig, 2004). We addressed these concerns
through inclusion of a range of adolescent and family control
variables which relate to family structure and youth functioning. In
choosing covariates, attention was given to variables which may
select mothers into particular partnership experiences but are not
likely to be caused by maternal partnerships (e.g., family income
or maternal depression).
The first set of OLS regression models (see Table 2) addressed
whether mothers’ partnership patterns were related to adolescents’
behavioral and emotional functioning, incorporating the nine longitudinal partnership variables which assessed both current status
and instability histories. We note that these, and all further models,
controlled for child age, gender, and race/ethnicity, as well as
mother age, education, and literacy skills, the number of children
in the household, and mothers’ partnership transitions which transpired prior to the focal child’s birth. For the sake of parsimony,
only the primary variables of interest are presented in the tables
(coefficients for control variables available upon request). In these
models, each maternal partnership group was compared to the
omitted group of always single. In addition, two sets of planned
post hoc comparisons were conducted: one assessed differences
within each family structure group across different histories (e.g.,
among always married, stable married, and newly married); the
second assessed differences within each history group across structures (e.g., always married vs. always cohabiting). Post hoc results
are presented using superscripts.
Results from Model 1 (see Table 2) show two primary patterns.
First, adolescents in the always married group showed lower levels
of both self-reported delinquency and mother-reported externalizing problems than their peers. Specifically, adolescents of always
⫺0.07 (0.14)
⫺0.27 (0.18)
⫺0.14c (0.22)
0.18 (0.19)
⫺0.19a (0.22)
0.65ⴱabc (0.29)
⫺0.02 (0.11)
0.09b (0.13)
⫺0.44ⴱaBC (0.19)
0.04C (0.26)
0.25a (0.33)
0.46B (0.48)
0.11 (0.45)
0.88 (0.67)
0.09 (0.16)
0.31 (0.22)
0.06 (0.05)
0.01 (0.06)
0.07ⴱ (0.03)
0.05 (0.05)
⫺0.08 (0.05)
0.50ⴱⴱⴱ (0.06)
⫺0.05 (0.04)
Main effects model
0.08 (0.15)
⫺0.21 (0.18)
0.01 (0.20)
⫺0.17A (0.17)
⫺0.28b (0.18)
0.42tAb (0.25)
⫺0.05 (0.10)
0.10 (0.11)
Mediation model
0.13 (0.09)
⫺0.03 (0.09)
0.07 (0.06)
0.22ⴱⴱⴱ (0.06)
⫺0.25ⴱⴱ (0.08)
0.64ⴱⴱⴱ (0.10)
0.03 (0.06)
⫺0.30A (0.20)
0.02 (0.25)
0.29A (0.33)
⫺0.08 (0.55)
⫺0.06 (0.45)
0.42 (0.66)
0.04B (0.15)
0.35B (0.22)
Mediation model
⫺1.08a (1.41)
⫺2.06c (1.72)
0.07D (2.07)
11.13ⴱⴱab (3.41)
2.78bc (1.96)
3.64D (3.03)
0.28 (1.19)
⫺0.19 (1.42)
Main effects model
0.47 (0.48)
1.26ⴱ (0.53)
2.86ⴱⴱⴱ (0.33)
3.41ⴱⴱⴱ (0.44)
⫺0.55 (0.56)
0.65 (0.54)
0.36 (0.42)
1.12aC (1.38)
⫺1.55C (1.41)
0.68 (1.86)
8.69ⴱⴱabD (3.13)
0.20b (1.57)
1.53D (2.86)
⫺0.71 (1.01)
⫺0.26 (1.17)
Mediation model
CBCL internalizing
⫺4.85ⴱⴱⴱabc (1.28)
⫺1.35b (1.70)
0.92c (1.96)
6.03ⴱa (2.67)
1.03 (1.91)
3.15D (2.49)
⫺0.38 (1.12)
⫺1.14D (1.49)
Main effects model
0.63 (0.47)
0.98ⴱ (0.46)
1.62ⴱⴱⴱ (0.33)
3.63ⴱⴱⴱ (0.43)
⫺1.91ⴱⴱⴱ (0.54)
2.14ⴱⴱⴱ (0.49)
0.18 (0.42)
⫺2.56ⴱab (1.20)
⫺0.93 (1.25)
1.35b (1.67)
2.94a (2.58)
⫺0.89 (1.76)
0.19 (2.81)
⫺1.23 (1.01)
⫺0.97 (1.33)
Mediation model
CBCL externalizing
Note. Shared lowercase subscripts (e.g., a, b, c) within a column indicate that groups are significantly different from each other at p ⬍ .05. Shared uppercase subscripts (e.g., A, B, C) within a column
indicate that groups are significantly different from each other at p ⬍ .10.
All models control for child age, gender, and race/ethnicity, as well as mother age, education, and reading skills, the number of children in the household, and mothers’ partnership transitions which
transpired prior to the focal child’s birth. Cohab. ⫽ cohabiting.
p ⬍ .10. ⴱ p ⬍ .05. ⴱⴱ p ⬍ .01. ⴱⴱⴱ p ⬍ .001.
Maternal partnership variables
Always married
Stable married
Newly married
Always cohab.
Stable cohab.
Newly cohab.
Stable single
Newly single
Family process variables
Financial strain
Mother psychological distress
Parenting stress
Family routines
Harsh punishment
Father Involvement
Main effects model
Psychological distress
Table 2
Associations Between Maternal Partnership History Patterns and Adolescents’ Emotional and Behavioral Functioning (N ⫽ 2305)
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
married mothers reported less delinquency than their peers in
always single mother families, scoring .25 standard deviation (SD)
units lower, and marginally lower than peers whose mothers had
always cohabited with the same partner. Delinquency rates of
youth in always married families were also lower than those of
youth in newly married families and marginally lower than those
in stable married families. The pattern was even stronger for
mother reports of behaviors. Adolescents in always married families had lower externalizing scores than their peers with always
single (.46 SD), always cohabiting, or stable or newly married
mothers. These results suggest both (a) a benefit of family structure, indicating that lifelong (always) marriages were predictive of
lower youth problem behaviors than always cohabiting or always
single mother family structures, and (b) a benefit of stability itself,
with adolescents in always married families showing fewer problems than their peers whose mothers were in stable or new marriages.
A different pattern emerged in relation to adolescents’ emotional functioning. Always cohabiting was strongly associated with
adolescent internalizing problems, predicting higher internalizing
than the always single (1 SD) or always married groups, and also
higher than youth in stable cohabiting families. New cohabitations
also showed deleterious links with youth functioning. Adolescents
of newly cohabiting mothers reported higher psychological distress than their peers of always single (.60 SD), newly single,
newly married, or stably cohabiting mothers. In mother reports of
youth internalizing problems, new maternal cohabitations were
associated with marginally higher internalizing in comparison to
new maternal marriages. These results suggest that living with a
cohabiting mother was associated with worse psychological functioning among adolescents than was living in a married or single
mother family, even when the male partner had been in the
adolescent’s home their entire life.
Differentiating biological versus step father marriages. A
second set of regression analyses were performed to determine
whether associations between maternal marriage patterns and adolescent socioemotional well-being differed depending on the
male partners’ relation to the adolescent (biological or stepfather).
Due to small sample sizes, the new marriage and cohabiting groups
could not be separated in this manner. Results, presented in Table
3, showed no significant differences between biological and stepfathers within partnership patterns. Lifelong (always) marriages to
both the biological father or a stepfather of the focal child were
predictive of lower delinquency and externalizing problems compared to living with an always single mother, with no significant
differences between the biological and stepfather groups. There
also were no significant differences between stable marriages to
biological and stepfathers, although stable marriages to stepfathers
were predictive of lower psychological distress (.38 SD) and
marginally lower internalizing problems (.34 SD) in comparison to
living with a stably single mother (whereas stable marriages to
biological fathers did not show similar statistically significant
benefits). Because there were no significant differences between
biological and stepfather families in relation to adolescent functioning, the main specification of maternal partnerships was included in subsequent analyses.
Predicting Family Processes in Adolescents’ Families
The final sets of analyses assessed the possibility that family
processes mediated, or helped to explain, associations between
maternal partnership patterns and adolescent socioemotional functioning. First, OLS regressions examined whether maternal partnership histories were associated with family and maternal functioning, controlling for the child and family covariates used in
prior models. Second, the family process variables were included,
along with the maternal partnership groups and covariates, in OLS
regression models predicting adolescent socioemotional skills.
Significance tests of mediation were conducted using techniques
described by Sobel (1982).
Results of models predicting family process variables are presented in Table 4. Results showed a relatively consistent pattern of
enhanced family functioning among married versus single mother
families, with few differences among the three marriage groups.
Specifically, always married, stable married, and newly married
mothers reported significantly higher family incomes and greater
father involvement than always single mothers (.49 to 1.07 SDs).
Always married mothers also reported less financial strain, greater
family routines, and lower parenting stress, psychological distress,
and marginally lower harsh punishment than always single moth-
Table 3
Associations Between Marital Partnership History Patterns Separated by Biological Father and Stepfather Unions and Adolescents’
Emotional and Behavioral Functioning (N ⫽ 2305)
Always married, bio
Always married, step
Stable married, bio
Stable married, step
Newly married
Psychological distress
CBCL internalizing
CBCL externalizing
⫺0.06 (0.15)
⫺0.13 (0.21)
⫺0.14 (0.28)
⫺0.41ⴱ (0.18)
⫺0.14 (0.22)
⫺0.40ⴱBC (0.20)
⫺0.65ⴱⴱa (0.23)
0.28B (0.40)
⫺0.21 (0.26)
0.24aC (0.33)
⫺0.77 (1.44)
⫺2.74 (2.45)
⫺0.44 (2.41)
⫺3.72t (2.01)
0.04 (2.07)
⫺4.39ⴱⴱⴱab (1.26)
⫺7.50ⴱⴱc (2.39)
0.55a (2.13)
⫺3.30D (2.20)
0.87bcD (1.96)
Note. Shared lowercase subscripts (e.g., a, b, c) within a column indicate that groups are significantly different from each other at p ⬍ .05. Shared
uppercase subscripts (e.g., A, B, C) within a column indicate that groups are significantly different from each other at p ⬍ .10.
All models control for child age, gender, and race/ethnicity, as well as mother age, education, and reading skills, the number of children in the household,
and mothers’ partnership transitions which transpired prior to the focal child’s birth. Cohabiting and single mother status variables are also included in the
models. Bio ⫽ biological father; Step ⫽ stepfather.
p ⬍ .10. ⴱ p ⬍ .05. ⴱⴱ p ⬍ .01. ⴱⴱⴱ p ⬍ .001.
Table 4
Associations Between Maternal Partnership History Patterns and Family Process Characteristics (N ⫽ 2305)
Income-to- needs
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Always married
Stable married
Newly married
Always cohab.
Stable cohab.
Newly cohab.
Stable single
Newly single
0.49ⴱⴱⴱb (0.08)
0.54ⴱd (0.26)
0.11a (0.11)
0.22tb (0.12)
0.49tF (0.27)
0.12ⴱcE (0.05)
0.01cdEF (0.06)
Financial strain
Family routines
Parenting stress
Psych. distress
Harsh punishment
Father involvement
⫺0.14 (0.07)
⫺0.09b (0.08)
⫺0.27ⴱⴱbdf (0.09)
0.64ⴱⴱac (0.21)
0.10c (0.15)
0.34ⴱef (0.16)
⫺0.00 (0.07)
⫺0.04de (0.09)
0.92ⴱⴱⴱaB (0.10)
0.73ⴱⴱⴱBc (0.12)
0.85ⴱⴱⴱeg (0.19)
0.58ⴱⴱⴱa (0.12)
0.63ⴱⴱⴱd (0.17)
0.36ⴱfg (0.17)
⫺0.04cd (0.09)
⫺0.00ef (0.10)
⫺0.30 (0.09)
⫺0.16bc (0.11)
⫺0.04aC (0.10)
⫺0.17 (0.12) ⫺0.24ⴱbCf (0.11)
0.08a (0.11)
⫺0.17d (0.18)
0.21c (0.14)
⫺0.08E (0.11)
⫺0.01 (0.22) ⫺0.36ⴱEg (0.14)
0.13ⴱb (0.06)
⫺0.02 (0.06)
0.04 (0.09)
0.03fg (0.09)
⫺0.30 (0.12)
⫺0.10 (0.15)
⫺0.08 (0.15)
0.15A (0.22)
0.02 (0.18)
0.24 (0.24)
0.11B (0.09)
⫺0.07B (0.12)
⫺0.38 (0.15)
⫺0.15c (0.19)
⫺0.22 (0.21)
0.36a (0.29)
0.63ⴱbcD (0.26)
0.19D (0.31)
0.14b (0.13)
0.10 (0.14)
Note. Shared lowercase subscripts (e.g., a, b, c) within a column indicate that groups are significantly different from each other at p ⬍ .05. Shared
uppercase subscripts (e.g., A, B, C) within a column indicate that groups are significantly different from each other at p ⬍ .10.
All models control for child age, gender, and race/ethnicity, as well as mother age, education, and reading skills, the number of children in the household,
and mothers’ partnership transitions which transpired prior to the focal child’s birth. Psych. ⫽ Psychological; Cohab. ⫽ cohabiting.
p ⬍ .10. ⴱ p ⬍ .05. ⴱⴱ p ⬍ .01. ⴱⴱⴱ p ⬍ .001.
ers (.21 to .43 SDs). In contrast, newly married mothers reported
less harsh punishment but also lower family routines than always
single mothers (.35 to .41 SDs). All three cohabiting family groups
showed higher father involvement than always single mother families (.42 to .73 SDs), but the newly cohabiting group also reported
lower family routines and greater harsh punishment (.53 and .52
SDs, respectively), and stably cohabiting mothers reported higher
psychological distress (.44 SD) than always single mothers.
Partnership Histories and Adolescent Functioning
Adjusting for Family Processes
In the final set of models (presented in the second column for
each adolescent functioning variable in Table 2), associations
between maternal partnership histories and adolescent functioning
were examined after adjusting for the family process variables
(economic hardship, maternal psychological functioning, and parenting). The protective relations between always married mothers
and adolescent delinquency and externalizing problems decreased
by 32% and 47%, respectively, in comparison to living with an
always single mother. Sobel tests indicated that lower parenting
stress significantly mediated the association between lifelong (always) marriages and lower youth reports of delinquency (t ⫽
⫺2.07; p ⬍ .05). Multiple mediators of always married histories
and lower externalizing problems were detected, including lower
maternal psychological distress (t ⫽ ⫺2.25; p ⬍ .05), lower
parenting stress (t ⫽ ⫺2.40; p ⬍ .05), and greater family routines
(t ⫽ ⫺2.04; p ⬍ .05).
The detrimental link between new maternal cohabitations and
increased youth psychological distress decreased by 35% and was
significantly mediated by greater harsh punishment (t ⫽ 2.06; p ⬍
.05). Associations between the always cohabiting group and higher
youth internalizing and externalizing problems decreased by 22%
and 51%, respectively, in comparison to living in an always single
mother family. Family process predictors of youth internalizing
problems (financial strain, psychological distress, and parenting
stress) were unrelated to always cohabiting status; thus, mediation
significance tests could not be performed. For externalizing problems, however, higher youth reports of harsh punishment significantly mediated the association between always cohabiting and
higher youth externalizing problems (t ⫽ 2.50; p ⫽ .01), in
comparison to living in an always single mother family. Together,
these results suggest that maternal mental health and parenting
practices were more important explanatory processes for the benefits of marriage than were economic resources. Overall, adjusting
for family economic, parenting, and psychological characteristics
diminished, but did not eliminate, the associations between maternal partnership patterns and youth functioning.
The present study employed maternal partnership histories to
examine associations between lifetime family structure and stability patterns with adolescents’ emotional and behavioral functioning. Results suggest that when evaluating the benefits of maternal
marriage for youth, both structure and stability are uniquely important for low-income adolescents’ well-being. Mother and youth
reports concurred that adolescents in always married families
displayed lower delinquency and externalizing behavior problems
than youth in stably or newly married groups, indicating that the
stability and longevity of maternal marriage is an important consideration. Youth with always married mothers did not experience
any partnership instability, and these marriages primarily involved
unions with biological fathers, although findings were similar for
lifelong, nondisrupted marriages involving stepfathers. Thus, the
absence of instability differentiated adolescents’ well-being over
and above family structure or the presence of their biological
Conversely, our results also suggested the importance of marital
status above and beyond the role of stability. When comparing
adolescents who experienced consistent, nondisrupted family
structures for their entire lives, youth in always married families
showed lower delinquency and externalizing problems in comparison to their peers in always cohabiting or always single mother
families. Always married mothers also reported lower internalizing
problems for their adolescents than did always cohabiting mothers,
although this pattern was not replicated in youth reports of psychological distress, contrary to past findings from a nationally
representative sample (Brown, 2006). Together, these results suggest the importance of marriage itself beyond the stability that
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
marriage may promote. Indeed, the elevated rates of internalizing
and externalizing problems among the small group of youth with
always cohabiting mothers were particularly notable, suggesting
that stability itself is not necessarily protective for low-income
adolescents’ development.
Caution is warranted when interpreting the meaning of these
patterns. Marriage prior to childbirth among biological parents is
more commonly observed in middle- and higher-income families
and is less common among poor families, suggesting that the
selection processes associated with these family formation patterns
may be particularly strong in this low-income context (Amato,
2005). Although we controlled for a number of possible selection
characteristics, including mothers’ prebirth instability patterns,
educational attainment, and literacy skills, low-income parents
who married prior to the child’s birth may differ in important
unmeasured characteristics (e.g., personality) from parents who
married after their child’s birth, with these unmeasured characteristics affecting youth functioning.
Although results suggested the importance of residing with
married parents for youth well-being, youth in families with stable
and new maternal marriages that were preceded by instability did
not generally differ from youth in always single mother families in
relation to emotional or behavioral functioning. One exception was
that youth reports of psychological distress and mother reports of
internalizing problems were lower for adolescents in stable married stepfather families than youth in always single families, adding to the mixed evidence regarding possible benefits of stepfamily
formation for adolescents in low-income families (Bachman et al.,
2009; Berger et al., 2008; Moore & Chase-Lansdale, 2001). In
addition, stable or new marriages were more beneficial for youth’s
psychological distress and internalizing problems in comparison to
stable and new cohabitations.
What might help to explain the benefits of living in a married
family throughout one’s life-course for adolescents’ socioemotional well-being? Results indicated that marriage, particularly
nondisrupted (always) marriage, offered economic, social, and
psychological benefits to families compared to cohabiting or single
mother groups. Among these low-income families, always married
mothers reported less economic hardship, more regular home
routines, less parenting stress, psychological distress, and harsh
punishment practices, and greater father involvement compared to
mothers in always cohabiting or single mother families. These
familial assets attenuated some, but not all, of the differences in
adolescents’ behavioral functioning between the always married
versus the always cohabiting or always single mother families.
Specifically, lower parenting stress and harsh punishment and
greater family routines emerged as significant mediators for the
always married group. Instability is often associated with more
maternal stress and harsh parenting (Beck et al., 2010), so these
mediators may relate to both marriage and stability. As noted
above, the correlational nature of our results leave open the possibility that mothers (and fathers) in the always married group
differed in unmeasured ways that may have benefitted both family
processes and youth functioning.
In contrast to the superior functioning across essentially all of
our family economic, psychological, and parenting variables for
always married mothers, our results showed far fewer differences
in family processes related to shorter-term (new) or longer-term
(stable) marriages that were formed after the adolescent’s birth.
Both newly and stably married mothers reported greater household
income and more father or stepfather engagement in parenting
responsibility in comparison to always single mothers, but these
groups showed no consistent advantages in terms of parenting
processes or maternal functioning. Indeed, new relationships,
whether marriages or cohabitations, appeared to disrupt family
practices, with lower scores on family routines. Future research
should seek to elucidate the family dynamics that underlie men’s
engagement in parenting and family responsibilities after they
marry into a family with children. The family processes of cohabiting couple families are also interesting to consider. Although
cohabiting partners appeared to engage with adolescents, with all
three cohabiting groups reporting higher father involvement than
always single mother families, having a cohabiting partner did not
improve mothers’ economic resources, replicating prior research
(Manning & Brown, 2006). Cohabiting partners also did not appear to buttress family processes; these partnerships were significantly mediated by greater youth reports of harsh punishment,
which may explain the elevated rates of internalizing problems
among youth with cohabiting mothers. The findings suggest that
even cohabiting partners who have been in the household for many
years, indeed even for the child’s whole life, do not support the
healthy functioning of families and children in same manner as
married partners do, whether married partners are biological or
Limitations and Conclusion
Several limitations should be noted when reviewing these findings. Although our data contained rich histories of mothers’ partnership entrances and exits, these data were gathered retrospectively, presumably increasing measurement error in the transition
variables. Some longitudinal partnership groups occurred less frequently, like recent marriages to biological fathers, resulting in
unequal samples sizes in the comparison tests, limiting statistical
power and leading to greater caution in interpretation of results.
Although models controlled for an array of child and family
covariates, it is possible that selection effects, that is unmeasured
characteristics of mothers or families associated with family structure and transitions, affected measured relationships (Fomby &
Cherlin, 2007; Foster & Kalil, 2007). Moreover, models did not
assess trajectories of adolescents’ functioning over time, a question
which requires other analytic techniques. Last, the analytic sample
was representative of low-income families in the three cities but
cannot necessarily be generalized to other families.
Beyond these cautions, results from this study suggest a complex pattern in which marriage and lifelong stability together
appeared promotive of youth psychosocial functioning, whereas
stability without marriage and marriage without stability were
notably less protective. In contrast, distinguishing low-income
families according to coresidence with biological fathers or stepfathers was much less useful than simultaneously weighing family
structure and stability influences on adolescent well-being. Results
further suggested that past experiences coping with maternal partnership transitions may tax adolescents’ psychological resources,
particularly when adjusting to new marriages or cohabitations. In
addition, although single-parent status traditionally has been considered a developmental risk, the current findings extend a growing body of evidence suggesting that maternal cohabitation also
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
serves as a risk factor for adolescents’ problem and delinquent
behaviors. Given the current federal policy interest in healthy
marriage promotion, findings from this study suggest that encouraging marriage among single mothers of adolescents may not
improve youth well-being, despite the higher income and father
involvement that families in new or stable marriages experienced.
Marriage initiatives with mothers of much younger children may
be a more fruitful policy endeavor than promoting marriage among
mothers of older children, since stable marriages formed before the
adolescents’ birth appeared most widely beneficial for both youth
and family functioning, notably more beneficial than either later
marriages or other family structures.
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Received July 5, 2011
Revision received January 19, 2012
Accepted January 20, 2012 䡲
Copyright 1996 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
Journal of Educational Psychology
1996, Vol. 88, No. 3, 451-460
School Choice, Family Characteristics, and Home-School Relations:
Contributors to School Achievement?
Lee Shumow
Deborah Lowe Vandell
University of Wisconsin—Madison
Northern Illinois University
Kyungseok Kang
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Inha University
Urban low-income 5th-graders participated in a school-choice study. Families utilizing choice
schools (N = 73) were more likely to be African American, lower-income, and high-risk
neighborhood residents than families whose children attended assigned schools (N = 100).
Firm-responsive parenting, family togetherness, and family supportiveness also were linked
positively to utilization of choice. Parent involvement in children’s schooling was higher in
neighborhood schools. School choice positively predicted children’s mathematics achievement and school orientation. Parents who chose schools rated the teachers as practicing more
parent-involvement strategies than parents of assigned students, but teachers reported equal
practices. Parent ratings of school quality did not differ between conditions, nor did teachers
or parents report better relationships in either condition.
School choice refers to an educational policy that provides a broad spectrum of options whereby parents can
select the schools their children attend. These options include magnet and open-enrollment public schools as well as
private schools. Magnet public schools serve students from
diverse geographical areas, depend on voluntary enrollment,
and have some special offerings designed to attract parents
and students (Blank, 1984). Open enrollment involves children crossing attendance boundaries to attend public
schools in neighborhoods other than the one in which they
reside (Maddaus, 1988). Private schools, funded by tuition
or tuition vouchers, are yet another form of school choice.
Because low-income parents are less able than middleincome parents to make residential choices based on the
school in the neighborhood or to pay for private-school
tuition costs (Darling-Hammond & Kirby, 1985; Williams,
Handier, & Hutner, 1983), open-enrollment plans have
been developed to allow parents to place their children in a
particular school even when they are precluded by eco-
nomic circumstances from living in the school’s neighborhood attendance boundaries.
A critical question being raised by researchers and policymakers is the impact of school choice on children’s
academic achievement (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1992; Clune, 1990; Coleman,
1992). There are several reasons why school choice might
be related to academic achievement. First, families are
empowered to avoid schools that they perceive to be of
low-quality (Wells, 1990). Second, parents are able to select
a school with resources that match individual children’s
needs. Third, parent involvement might be expected to
increase in schools the parent has selected (Wells, 1990).
Juxtaposed to the potential benefits of school choice, attending a neighborhood-assigned school may contribute to
children having better academic performance if the proximity to the neighborhood school fosters parental involvement
with the school.
Much of the research investigating school choice has
focused on magnet schools originally designed to encourage
voluntary desegregation. Inconsistent results regarding student achievement are reported. For example, in an evaluation completed in the Milwaukee public schools (MPSs),
Mitchell (1989) found that magnet school children performed better academically than their counterparts in assigned schools. In an analysis of African American youth
attending magnet schools in a large New York school district, however, Singletary (1993) found little evidence of
such differences.
One possible explanation for these discrepant findings is
differential selection of the magnet school experience by
families. Some (Lowe & Miner, 1992; Wells, 1990) have
argued that it is the relatively more educated and affluent
parents who take advantage of choice plans. Consistent with
this argument is a British study by Willms and Echols
(1992; cited in Cookson, 1994) that found “creaming” to
Lee Shumow, Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE), Northern Illinois University;
Deborah Lowe Vandell, Department of Educational Psychology,
University of Wisconsin—Madison; Kyungseok Kang, Department of Education, Inha University, Korea.
A version of this article was presented at the 1995 annual
meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San
Francisco. This research was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
We greatly appreciate the helpful critiques provided by Jill
Posner and the assistance during data collection provided by Rob
Rosenthal and Sarah Richardson.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Lee Shumow, Department of EPCSE, Northern Illinois University,
De Kalb, Illinois 60115. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
occur as children from more advantaged homes utilized
choice plans. However, two other studies (Coleman,
Schiller, & Schneider, 1991; Witte, 1991) reported that
low-income minority families were more likely to avail
themselves of choice opportunities than were higher economic status and Caucasian families, although among the
low-income group the least educated parents were less
likely to participate in choice plans. Both sets of findings
illustrate the importance of assessing the extent to which
family characteristics are linked to utilization of school
choice because these selection factors and not attending the
choice school per se, may account for differences in children’s school achievement.
Only limited research is available examining relationships
between open enrollment and children’s school achievement. Contrary to finding hypothesized associations with
children’s academic achievement, these studies have failed
to find differences in children’s performance. For example,
one early experimental program (Capell, 1978) involving 14
schools found no differences in reading achievement over a
3-year period as a result of parents choosing schools outside
of the neighborhood, after controlling for pretest reading
scores, race, and lunch subsidization status. A more recent
study found that reading levels of elementary school children participating in an open-enrollment plan did not differ
from those of children attending either magnet or integrated-neighborhood schools, after controlling for subsidized
lunch status (Easton, Bennett, & Seymore, 1987). It is
possible, however, that differences would have been reported if more extensive child outcomes were considered.
In the current study, we asked if demographic characteristics such as income, educational level, race, and neighborhood risk are related to utilization of a school-choice option.
In addition, school choice is examined in relation to family
psychological characteristics of parental involvement in
schooling, parental socialization practices, and family togetherness and supportiveness to determine if these family
processes and experiences are associated with school
There is an extensive research literature suggesting that
parent involvement in academic activities is an important
contributor to children’s school achievement (Bempechat,
1990). Proponents of school choice have assumed that parents who choose schools are more involved in all aspects of
their children’s education (Cookson, 1994). In support of
this assumption, Mitchell (1989) noted that children attending magnet schools came from homes with more parental
involvement in education than children who attended neighborhood schools. Similarly, low-income parents participating in a private-school voucher program in Milwaukee had
higher parental involvement at home and at school than did
the control group of parents (Witte, 1991). However, in at
least one study (Bauch, 1988), parent involvement measured by school visits was comparable in low-income urban
private and public schools. In the current study, we hypothesized that parental involvement is greater when school
choice is in effect. Furthermore, this parental involvement
in their children’s school is expected to contribute positively
to children’s academic achievement and orientation.
A second psychological characteristic investigated in the
current study is parental socialization practices, which have
been found to be related to children’s school adjustment.
For example, firm-but-responsive parenting is associated
with elementary-school children having fewer behavior
problems, better social adjustment, and more academic success (Baumrind, 1989; Clark, 1983; Grolnick & Ryan,
1989), whereas harsh parenting is linked to children having
poorer academic grades and more conduct problems
(Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994; Wentzel, Feldman, & Weinberger, 1991). Firm-but-responsive parents establish reasonable rules, set attainable standards, explain reasons for their
behavior, and are responsive to their children’s needs. We
hypothesized that firm-but-responsive child rearing is related to utilization of school choice because choice might
represent a concrete way by which low-income parents can
meet their children’s needs.
A third factor that may be associated with school choice
and children’s development is family time spent together
doing activities. In one study of low-income inner city
adolescents, this type of family time was found to promote
academic and behavioral development (Lufhar & Zigler,
1991). In the current study, we test the hypothesis that
parents who spend more time with their children are likely
to reflect that family orientation by actively choosing
schools for their children to attend.
In addition to being related to family factors, the utilization of school choice plans may be influenced by children’s
competence. A negative selection factor would occur if
parents move a child from an assigned school because the
child is having academic or social problems. A positive
selection influence would occur if parents believe that their
academically achieving child needs the stimulation associated with attending what the parents view as an academically superior school. Witte, Bailey, and Thorn (1992)
found that children who subsequently were enrolled in an
experimental voucher program had lower academic
achievement and greater school conduct problems than a
comparison group who remained in their assigned public
schools. In order to examine the issue in the current study of
fifth graders, their standardized test scores, report card
marks, and conduct ratings from third grade are investigated
to determine if children moving to choice schools differed
significantly from children who remained in assigned
A final issue to be examined is the possibility that school
choice promotes better relationships between home and
school. Contact and cooperation between homes and
schools have been highlighted as important for low-income
and working-class families (Espinoza, 1988). According to
one analysis (Slaughter-Defoe, Nakagawa, Takanishi, &
Johnson, 1990), “mutual respect and cooperation between
families and schools appears to have much to do with
situations in which African-American children are successfully ‘making it’ academically and socially in school” (p.
373). In a large-scale study in Maryland (Epstein, 1986), the
majority of parents reported that teachers rarely or never
attempted to involve them in their children’s education.
Practices that teachers can use to involve parents include
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
asking them to help with homework, providing parents with
information, inviting parents to school, and requesting information and help from parents (Becker & Epstein, 1982;
Kanter, Ginsburg, & Milne, 1986). Although individual
teachers vary in their use of these practices, we examine
whether there are more overall teacher attempts to involve
parents in choice schools. We expect that active selection of
a school choice option is associated with better relations
between home and school.
In summary, this study has three goals. The first goal is to
compare the demographic and psychological characteristics
of families who utilize different school arrangements. We
investigate, within a low-income sample, whether children
attending choice schools come from families with more
resources such as income, education, neighborhood quality,
parental involvement, family support, and family activities.
We also examine whether firm-but-responsive parenting
strategies are associated with school choice. In addition,
potential child selection factors that predated school choice
are determined. Second, we compare children’s academic
achievement and orientation to school (defined as children’s
academic self-competence, school work habits, and conduct
grades) between choice and assigned schools, controlling
for selection factors. Based on prior findings, we expect that
children’s reading and math achievement along with children’s school orientation are positively associated with
school choice, even after family demographic and psychological factors are controlled. Finally, we investigate differences in home-school relations between choice and assigned schools.
All parents of third graders (N = 529) in nine elementary
schools within the MPS system were sent letters describing a
3-year study. The study was framed in an ecological perspective
and parents were told that we were interested in different facets of
their children’s daily experiences and how these experiences influenced school achievement and social development. Because of
an interest in children’s after-school experiences, four schools
housed or were located near community after-school programs.
The nine schools also were selected because they had some of the
highest proportions of children who qualified for lunch subsidies
within the school district and served primarily two ethnic groups
(African American and Caucasian children).
Sixty-four percent of the contacted families returned forms, and
58% (N = 307) stated their interest in the study. Virtually all
(>99.8%) of the families returning the forms reported household
incomes below the median income of families in Wisconsin. The
demographic characteristics of the families who were willing to
participate did not differ from those who chose not to participate.
In addition, demographic characteristics of the responders did not
differ from the overall demographic profile of their particular
schools, suggesting that families who returned the forms did not
differ from those who did not return the forms. From the pool of
willing families, sufficient resources were available to study 216
children (mean age = 9.1 years, SD = 0.5). There were no
differences between those children who were selected as participants and those who were not selected in terms of gender, race,
lunch subsidy, or school transfer during the year. All children who
were in self-care (n = 15), formal programs (n = 34), or informal
adult-supervised care (n = 45) after school were included in the
final sample. A subsample of children (n = 121) who were in
mother-care after school was selected from a pool of available
mother-care children in a way that ensured similar distributions by
gender and race. About half of the 216 children selected were
African American (n = 103), the remainder was Caucasian; almost
half of the children were boys (n = 100). Fifty-five percent of the
children lived in single-parent households. Nearly 60% of the
sample qualified for subsidized school lunches.
There was considerable geographic mobility during the course
of the study; 194 children continued with the study through fifth
grade. Participant attrition was not related to child gender, race,
family structure, or family income. In fifth grade, children attended
43 different schools (28 MPSs, 5 out-of-district public schools, 7
parochial schools, 3 special education schools).
School choice became a salient policy issue affecting the ecology of the families and children during the course of the study.
Considerable attention was focused on this issue by community
activists, mass media, and the MPS district during this time, and
we were aware that some study parents were actively investigating
school-choice options. As a result, when the children were in fifth
grade, we examined factors associated with school choice for those
children who continued attending regular public school programs
in the Milwaukee area. Children who were attending parochial or
special education schools were excluded from the school-choice
analyses in order to control for variability that might be attributed
to religious or organic issues.
The resulting sample for the school choice analyses consisted of
173 children. By parent report, 84 children were African American
and 89 were Caucasian. The sample included 94 girls and 79 boys.
Average maternal educational level was high school graduation.
Mean per capita income (in 1993 dollars) was $6,596 (SD =
$4,108). Table 1 presents a detailed profile of the fifth-grade
sample including a neighborhood risk score (defined below) for
children’s residence.
Table 1
Characteristics of the Sample
% 2-parent households
M (SD) per capita income
M (SD) parent education3
M (SD) neighborhood risk
% 2-parent households
M (SD) per capita income
2.64 (1.29)
0.73 (1.70)
2.58 (0.98)
-1.40 (0.99)
M (SD) parent education”
2.25 (0.89)
2.57 (0.86)
M (SD) neighborhood risk
1.25 (1.60) -1.02 (0.97)
” Scale 1 = 6 years
% advanced degrees
3,148-4,965i 4,219 3,576-4,878 4,175 3,019^,564 3,734
$ spent per child
% free lunch
% mobility
% attendance
‘ Percentage of children scoring above 50th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
parent and school official, the situation was investigated and
resolved by the research staff.
Parent reports. In addition to information regarding school
choice, parents provided information about where they lived, their
race, family structure (1-parent vs. 2-parent households), education
level, and family income.
Parents completed questionnaires describing their socialization
practices. The Raising Children Checklist is a 30-item self-report
inventory of socialization practices (Posner, Shumow & Vandell,
1993). One of the three subscales (firm-responsiveness) was relevant for the current study. These 9 items were rated by parents
using 4-point response scales, ranging from 1 = definitely false to
4 = definitely true. The subscale has a mean of 3.35 and standard
deviation of 0.31 (Cronbach’s a = .76). Sample items included
“Do you say something positive to your child when he/she does
something you like?” “Do you make rules which take your child’s
needs into consideration?” “Do you explain the reasons for the
rules you make?” Do you try to show understanding for your
child’s feelings when you punish him/her for misbehaving?”
The parents completed a questionnaire about home-school relationships that was developed for this study. One subscale (8
items) asked parents to use 5-point ratings (1 = never; 2 = once
or twice; 3 = three to four times; 4 = pretty often; 5 = almost
every day) to describe how often teachers attempted to involve
them in their children’s schooling in the past month. These items
included how often the teacher sent home written information,
talked to the parent about the child, requested information about
the child, invited parents to visit the classroom, and asked parents
to help with school work. Cronbach’s alpha for this parental report
was .83. A summary score was computed by averaging the parent’s responses (M = 2.4, SD = 0.7).
Another subscale (8 items) had parents rate the quality of their
relationship with the teacher using 5-point ratings (1 = strongly
disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Sample items included “I feel
comfortable talking to this teacher”; “I feel this teacher and I are
partners” (Cronbach’s a = .96). The mean for parent reports of the
parent-teacher relationship was 4.3 (SD = 0.7).
Finally, parents were asked to rate the quality of the school
(M = 3.9, SD = 0.9) compared to other schools in the state on a
scale of 1 = very poor to 5 = very good.
Child report. Participation in family activities was measured
by asking children how often they engaged in such things as
attending church, going on outings, and playing sports with their
parents. This family activity report (M = 2.96, SD = 0.74) was
based on 10 items (Cronbach’s a = .82) derived from a larger
measure of child activities (Brown & Clasen, 1985). Children
indicated how often in the past month they engaged in particular
activities with their family using 5-point ratings: 1 = never, 2 =
once or twice, 3 = three or four times, 4 = pretty often, or 5 =
almost every day.
Children’s perceptions of family supportiveness (M = 4.48,
SD = 0.53) were obtained from a subscale of the Social Support
Appraisals Scale (Dubow & Ullman, 1989). The 12-item scale
(Cronbach’s a = .85) uses 5-point ratings (ranging from 1 = never
to 5 = always). Sample items included “Do you feel your family
is there when you need them?” and “Do you have a hard time
talking to your family (reverse scored)?”
Teacher report. Teachers were asked to rate maternal (or custodial adult) involvement in schooling (Cronbach’s a = .86; M =
3.74, SD = 0.73). They rated parent involvement practices that
they would have knowledge of such as parent attendance at school
functions, child’s completion of reading at home, child’s completi…
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