July 3, 2024

From Kindergarten to Adulthood: The Long-Term Impact of the Child Development Project

by Ella Davis, PPS '25

In 1987 and 1988, researchers John Bates (Indiana University), Kenneth Dodge (Duke University), and Gregory Pettit (Auburn University) launched a study with the goal of better understanding children’s behavioral development. Researchers aimed to study young children growing up in various environments because little was known about how children’s experiences impact their behavior, psychological development, academic performance, and peer interactions. They approached parents during kindergarten pre-registration across Nashville, TN, Knoxville, TN, and Bloomington, IN, inviting their children to participate in a new longitudinal study called the Child Development Project. The study would follow 585 children into adulthood -- monitoring their actions, relationships, and attitudes through age 34.

From the start of the project when participants were approximately 5 years old, researchers conducted yearly assessments of participants’ home life, peer interactions, family dynamics, and school experiences. Data was collected annually from ages 5 to 23, and again at 28 and 34. Jennifer Lansford, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and investigator on the Child Development Project, describes the all-encompassing data collection process:

“We collected information from parents, teachers, peers and romantic partners. We also accessed grades, standardized test scores, and, eventually, reports from their own children.”

With this extensive data, researchers have been able to tests many hypotheses across a wide spectrum of child behavioral development. A major focus of the study was on social information processing how individuals interpret interactions, make decisions, and form attitudes in social settings.

In early studies, Bates, Dodge, and Pettit were able to identify which children were well-liked and which were rejected by their peers, addressing a central question: how do early home and school experiences impact psychological development? They tested the theory that early peer rejection leads to aggressive social information processing, and their findings confirmed this.

Additionally, the Child Development Project revealed that abuse, particularly in the first five years of life, significantly increases the risk of negative outcomes such as arrests, dropping out of high school, and developing depression.

Another area of particular interest to researchers was determining how childhood experiences impact future substance use. A cascade model for substance use emerged from their findings:




Among the most significant insights gleaned from the study, according to Lansford, was the ability to “identify intervention points.” She explains, “Clearly, preventing behavior problems before they develop is better than intervening once they have developed. However, if issues do arise, you can target peer relationships, work with parents to enhance social skills at home, and develop parenting strategies focused on behavioral management.”

The Child Development Project helped identify critical points where child- and family-focused interventions may be more particularly effective. For example, the study’s findings are being used to develop interventions like the renowned PATHS program, which provides easy-to-implement social and emotional wellness curricula for all ages, teaching students how to reframe the social information they encounter.

The Child Development Project laid the groundwork for CCFP’s other longitudinal studies, such as Fast Track and Parenting Across Cultures. It continues to be cited in media and research papers and has even been adapted for international work. Most profoundly, the study has broadened our understanding of child behavioral development and provided the foundation for ongoing innovative work in the field of developmental psychology.




Ella Davis is an incoming senior majoring in Public Policy (B.A.) with a Certificate in Documentary Studies. She is interning this summer as a CCFP Research Assistant.