Abstract

Children enter the crucial transition to school with sociodemographic disparities firmly established. Domain-specific research (e.g., on poverty and family structure) has shed light on these disparities, but we need broader operationalizations of children’s environments to explain them. Building on existing theory, this study articulates the concept of developmental ecology—those interrelated features of a child’s proximal environment that shape development and health. Developmental ecology links structural and demographic factors with interactional, psychological, and genetic factors. Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), this study conducts latent class analyses to identify how 41 factors from three domains—namely, household resources, health risks, and ecological changes—cluster within children as four overarching developmental ecologies. Because it documents how numerous factors co-occur within children, this method allows an approximation of their lived environments. Findings illuminate powerful relationships between race/ethnicity, parental age, socioeconomic background, and nativity and a child’s developmental ecology, as well as associations between developmental ecology and kindergarten cognition, behavior, and health. Developmental ecology represents a major pathway through which demographic characteristics shape school readiness. Because specific factors have different implications depending on the ecologies in which they are embedded, findings support the usefulness of a broad ecological approach.

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