Family and Communities

logo of three cartoon silhouettes holding handsOur researchers address critical issues facing families and communities, while promoting healthy human development and productive relationships. This work touches all of our lives. 

These discoveries are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars. 

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of family and communities. You can also view a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research. 

Parental social coaching during adolescence

Mom calming child
Stock photo from Pixabay

During early adolescence, especially the transition to middle school, kids face a number of challenges both socially and academically. Peer rejection, bullying, and conflict with friends are common social stressors for adolescents.

Parents can act as social “coaches,” offering support and advice to youth as they navigate these challenges by offering specific suggestions for facing challenges head-on or by encouraging kids’ autonomy, to sort of “figure it out” on their own. University of Illinois researchers are finding that not all kids benefit from the same types of parental coaching.

Through observations of discussions between youth and their mothers about problem-solving tactics to real peer problems, researchers are finding that kids respond to stress differently and it’s their hands that give them away.

Measuring skin conductance level—the electrical activity happening in the skin as part of the physiological “fight or flight” stress response system—from youth’s hands during conversations with their mothers, researchers examined which type of parental coaching may be well-suited for kids with different physiological stress responses. Findings show that kids who exhibit higher physiological arousal during the conversations may be better adjusted when mothers encourage them to find their own solutions because it gives aroused kids space and time to manage the challenge. For kids who show less physiological arousal, or unresponsiveness, during the conversations, parental coaching that involves offering specific solutions to peer problems may be more successful because mothers can cue unresponsive kids to social cues and help them cope with these challenges.

Further research will focus on parental coaching specific to bullying.

Funding: This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch funds.

ACES Investigator and department:
Kelly M. Tu, Human Development and Family Studies

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Vitamin N(ature)

Girls looking at leaves in net
Photo courtesy of the Children & Nature Network

Spending time in nature feels like a luxury, but University of Illinois researchers say exposure to greenery is much more essential than we think. In fact, they have shown that nature directly and substantially improves family relationships, school performance, and physical and mental health. 

For example, Illinois scientists discovered that children who spend more time in nature have reduced symptoms of ADHD, and are less stressed, more attentive, and less agitated in the classroom. That translates into better test scores, according to a large-scale study in low-income Chicago schools. All else being equal, kids attending schools with greener schoolyards did significantly better on standardized tests than kids in schools not surrounded by trees. The research team is now expanding their scope to see if the pattern holds across multiple American cities.

Exposure to green space can also strengthen families and neighborhoods. For example, in a study focused on mother-daughter pairs, Illinois researchers found those that walked in a park for 20 minutes were more relaxed and felt more bonded than pairs that walked in a mall. And in identical buildings in a Chicago housing project, residents in buildings with more outdoor green space not only felt more trusting of their neighbors, there was a lower incidence of crime, as well. 

Illinois researchers also demonstrated nature’s health-boosting potential in a study investigating the relationship between land cover and Medicare costs. Looking at more than 3,000 counties across the continental United States, they found that more forest and shrub cover corresponded with less health care spending, even after controlling for various other economic and geographic factors.  

Funding: This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation, the USDA Forest Service, and the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council.

ACES investigators and departments

Ming Kuo, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Andrea Faber Taylor, Crop Sciences
Bill Sullivan, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, Landscape Architecture
Douglas Becker, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Aaron Ebata, Human Development and Family Studies

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Understanding infant neurodevelopment

sleeping baby
Stock photo from Pixabay

In the first years of life, a child’s brain undergoes rapid neurodevelopment. Illinois researchers are looking at the factors that shape this early development.

One such study examines how caregiving impacts brain development and social and emotional well-being, with a focus on infants’ repeated experiences with parents. The work involves observing interactions between infants and mothers at multiple times during the first year of life, and examining brain scans of the infants at 3 and 12 months of age to understand how large-scale networks in the brain become organized.

The brain imaging is done at the Beckman Institute’s Biomedical Imaging Center and includes conducting functional and structural scans of infants during natural sleep.

Another factor of interest is the neurodevelopment of children who have been prenatally exposed to opioids. As part of the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse is planning a large, multi-site research study to evaluate the brain and behavioral development of healthy children and those exposed to opioids and other substances prenatally.

Nancy McElwain, professor of human development and family studies at Illinois, will join researchers from four other institutions on the HEAL Consortium: Establishing Innovative Approaches for the Healthy Brain and Child Development Study. The team will collect pilot data and provide preliminary strategies and analysis of already available imaging data from studies on early brain development, to help inform and guide National Institutes of Health’s planned study, the Phase II HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study.

Funding: This work was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health (Phase II HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study)

ACES investigator and department

Nancy McElwain, Human Development and Family Studies, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology

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Empowering women through agricultural technology

Woman with plow
Photo courtesy of Maria Jones

Globally, women represent 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. Access to technology is a key strategy for rural women’s economic empowerment, but there are multiple challenges to overcome, ranging from technological design and financial constraints to intra-household barriers and cultural expectations. University of Illinois researchers are leading the USAID-funded Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC), a multi-university project that works to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, and Ethiopia by promoting mechanized technology to reduce drudgery associated with traditional agricultural practices, and enhance land productivity. 

One component of the project specifically aims to reach, benefit, and empower women. Illinois researchers assessed gender-specific barriers to design and use of agricultural technologies, and identified practical strategies to overcome these barriers in each of the countries.  

In Burkina Faso, technologies had to be adapted for use by women, who often do much of the heavy field work. For example, an animal-drawn planter designed for oxen was modified to fit donkeys, which are easily accessible for women. In Bangladesh and Cambodia, women are not expected to operate machinery. However, they are often involved in making decisions about technology adoption. Sometimes they are responsible for managing the family farm; for example, when the men migrate for work, and they may contract with service providers to do the field work. Educating women about relevant technologies helps them make more informed decisions. In Ethiopia, ASMC focused on the adoption of a solar-powered irrigation pump designed by a U of I researcher to provide water for vegetable gardens. Increased vegetable production means more nutritious food for the household, and excess vegetables can be sold at the local market, providing a source of income for women.

The researchers say empowering women also benefits families and communities, as women typically spend most of their resources on the household and children. 

An expected extension of the project will focus on continued implementation of the recommendations, including an emphasis on youth engagement, and expanding the reach to other countries.

Funding: The Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium was funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sustainable Intensification through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

ACES investigators and departments

Alan Hansen, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Prasanta Kalita, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Alex Winter-Nelson, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
Maria Jones, ADM Institute for the Prevention of Post-harvest Loss

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