Feature Article

Translating Research on Housing and Child Development to Practice and Policy

2019 Mavis Hetherington Award Winner, Rebekah Coley, describes her research on housing and applications to practice and policy.

I still recall the experience, in my undergraduate developmental psychology class nearly 30 years ago, of reading a Mavis Hetherington paper concerning family structure and adolescent development. I was struck by the relevance of this work for real people’s lives, for parents, educators and other professionals working with adolescents and for social and legal policies. Exposure to Hetherington’s work was a defining experience in funneling my intellectual interests and career trajectory toward the field of developmental science. As such, being the inaugural recipient of the Mavis Hetherington Award for Excellence in Applied Developmental Science holds special relevance to me.

Throughout my career, I have integrated an appreciation for the incremental building of basic scientific knowledge with a desire to unearth evidence and create insights that have a direct impact on real world issues and injustices. Through both research and policy engagement, I seek to expand our field’s impact on children and families as well as on the social, political and legal systems that enhance and constrain their lives.

As an example, I highlight my work on the housing contexts of children and families. In this work, I have built basic empirical understanding of how a key and oft-ignored proximal context of human development affects child and family well-being and then applied this basic research to policy analysis and translation.

My initial collaborative work in this arena, conducted with Tama Leventhal, Melissa Kull and Alicia Lynch, delineated how housing quality, stability and affordability supports children’s academic and behavioral success in the face of family economic disadvantage and low-resourced neighborhoods. This research identified significant connections between poor housing quality and emotional and behavioral functioning throughout childhood (Coley, Leventhal, Lynch & Kull, 2013), developmental delays and poor health in early childhood (Coley, Lynch & Kull, 2015) and lowered academic achievement in adolescence (Coley et al., 2013). These links functioned in part through parental distress and often occurred in the context of broader contextual stressors associated with neighborhood poverty and disorder (Coley et al., 2013; 2015).

In further work in this arena, my research team found that for low-income families, directing greater financial resources toward housing costs could help them access higher quality housing and neighborhoods which supported children’s development but that families with limited resources faced important trade-offs (Coley, Leventhal & Lynch, 2014; Kull & Coley, 2014). In other work we tackled the issue of residential mobility, highlighting how housing changes often co-occur with other types of instability and stressors (Kull, Coley & Lynch, 2016) and delineating substantial detriments in emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning exhibited by children experiencing greater residential instability (Coley & Kull, 2016). 

A key goal of our research team was to reach beyond academic circles to broader audiences of practitioners, housing advocates and policymakers who could translate this work into action. Through policy briefs published by outlets such as Habitat for Humanity International and the MacArthur Foundation, we have shared our results with key constituents.

In my current work, I am collaborating with a new team to translate these insights into policy analysis and the development of new housing practices. We are assessing whether federal public housing policies have reached their goals of improving the housing and neighborhood contexts of poor families. We are also partnering with a local developer, public housing agency and social services network to assess how a new model of housing redevelopment supports economically disadvantaged children’s development and to inform public housing practices and policies. Through this work and through building collaborations with practitioners and policymakers, I participate in the burgeoning goal of applying developmental science to the world. The very existence of the Mavis Hetherington Award for Excellence in Applied Developmental Science reflects what I see as a critical endorsement of the importance of this objective: to conduct quality developmental science which translates to direct practice and policy.