As a graduate student working with African-American children in poor communities in Tennessee, Noni Gaylord-Harden, PhD, was struck by the fact that, even with exposure to multiple stressors, some kids did succeed.

“I started looking into factors that might explain why some kids become successful despite [such hardships],” she says. “I began to focus on the strengths and assets embedded in African-American families and communities that could buffer the effects of stressors.” These included coping strategies, parent-child relationships, and a strong extended-family network.

While conducting research on teens from under-resourced communities on Chicago’s south and west sides, Gaylord-Harden has found that stress caused by such challenges as poverty, community violence, and school struggles has a negative effect on children’s functioning, but less than might be predicted.

“Anxiety and depression are not as high as you might expect, and we’re exploring why that might be the case,” she says. “We’re also finding that some strategies typically considered to be maladaptive are actually adaptive. Avoidance, for instance. … If you understand how to stay away from dangerous people and places, you’re going to do better.”

What interests Gaylord-Harden is how positive adult-child relationships can encourage effective coping. In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul, and the University of Virginia, she is developing an intervention that uses mentors to teach youth effective coping.

“We know that kids cope better when they have a supportive relationship with adults,” she says, “and we’re using mentoring relationships to support the coping efforts.”

Studying how African-American culture may influence youth’s response to stress can sometimes be controversial in the psychology community, Gaylord-Harden says, but she feels it makes an important contribution.

“Psychology has an interesting history with race,” she says. “Research has long been conducted with white middle-class kids and the findings generalized to everyone. Most research on youth of color has focused on the deficit model—there’s an expectation that if there were differences between African-American and other youth, they were viewed as deficits.”

“Now we’ve begun to challenge those beliefs and think about the strengths and assets of African-American youth and families that have been largely ignored,” Gaylord-Harden says. “We’re saying that within any cultural group there are going to be ways that people navigate their environment that are different from other cultural groups.”

Gaylord-Harden recently received a two-year federal grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how African-American and Latino boys in urban neighborhoods process the violence around them—specifically, to see if they become desensitized to it.

“A lot of people are interested in ways to stop community violence, and with desensitization, it’s believed that kids become emotionally numb to what they see,” she says. “Instead of showing distress, they actually show higher levels of violence and aggression. So we’re trying to figure out how and when to intervene and who is most at risk.”

Whether she is conducting research or teaching Loyola students the importance of viewing psychology as a science, Gaylord-Harden wants to make an impact. Top on her list is moving increasingly into school and community intervention work.

“I don’t want our research findings to just sit in scientific journals. Nobody reads those but us,” she says. “Let’s take our findings and figure out how they can be used to develop effective interventions for young people.”

Learn more about Loyola’s Department of Psychology here.