Having dedicated nearly 30 years to researching youth and adolescent development-18 of which were spent at Boston College’s Lynch of School of Education-Jacqueline Lerner, professor of applied developmental and educational psychology, has been awarded a $1.96 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study moral development in children and teens.
The research project is a three-year longitudinal study titled, “Doing the Right Thing: Intentional Self-Regulation and the Promotion of Character Development,” and it focuses particularly on children’s sense of moral responsibility.
“One of the things I think everybody knows is that youth have moral knowledge … what’s right and wrong,” Lerner said. “We hope that our youth do the right thing, but at the same time we know they fall short of that. They engage in risk, they’re not always honest-so there’s this disconnect between moral knowledge and knowing the right thing and actually doing it in some kids.”
The grant will finance a collaborative research team split between BC and Tufts University comprised of about 15-20 members ranging from post-doctoral researchers, current doctoral students, undergraduates, and data analysts. Data for the study will be collected from observing approximately 900 students in fifth, seventh, and ninth grade over the course of three years.
The study is an extension of research Lerner has compiled over several decades on positive youth development, and it aims to address what she has defined as the “Five Cs” of children’s developmental psychology-a model of analyzing social and moral maturation that encompasses confidence, competence, caring, character, and connection.
“So now what we’re doing is digging deeper into that ‘C’ of character,” Lerner said. “We have some hunches and hypotheses about what keeps youth engaged in the kinds of activities and thinking that helps them stay on track in terms of their honesty, their diligence, their goal-directedness, so that they can be considered to be developing high character.”
Lerner’s research on youth self-regulation and adolescent virtuous behavior was highly developed during a study conducted by her and her husband Richard M. Lerner, the Bergstrom chair in Applied Developmental Science and the director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. Funded by the National 4-H Council in 2002, Lerner and a team of researchers embarked on a large-scale, 10-year study that tracked 7,000 adolescent students across 42 states to observe the internal values and strengths that influence one to act morally.
The study led Lerner to develop the “Five Cs” model, and it has provided researchers a method to define, measure, and promote positive youth development.
“I still approach [the study] with the same developmental system that I’ve used to guide my three decades of research,” she said. “And that is I believe youth develop in a context-and they have reciprocal relationships with the people and events and things in a context, and we always have to look closely at what’s going on in their families, lives, and schools at a school setting.
“The thing that’s different about this grant is that it digs deeper into one of the aspects of positive youth development that my 10-year study found to be very important … So we did a longitudinal study to find out that there’s certain internal strengths and ‘external assets,’ we call them, that when they combine across development, a child or teen can develop these ‘Five Cs.'”
Lerner believes the study will lend insight into the relationships between a child’s environment and his or her inclination to act morally.
“We’re going to examine what’s in the context in terms of their role models and their experiences,” Lerner said.
The team of researchers will examine children’s internal strengths, self-regulation, goal-setting abilities, and hopeful futures-all areas of study that the 4-H study found to be critical to child development-to assess moral decision making.