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Black Children and Youth Can Benefit From Focused Research on Protective Community Resources

Research BriefBlack Children & FamiliesNov 7 2023

Child Trends recently announced that protective community resources (PCRs) would be one of two priorities for its new applied research agenda on Black children and families. As part of this work, the authors conducted a systematic literature review on PCRs for children and youth from birth to age 24. In addition to this brief, readers can also use this bibliographic tool to search our database of articles on PCRs published from 2012 to 2022.

The role of protective community resources (PCRs)—defined as community-level characteristics, conditions, or assets that buffer the effects of risks on children and youth, thereby supporting their development[1] —has received significant and sustained attention in a variety of fields, from education and psychology to public health and social work. The result is a broad body of research that describes how the absence or presence of PCRs—including social (e.g., neighborhood cohesion and positive peer relationships), structural (e.g., neighborhood amenities and employment opportunities), and institutional (e.g., high quality schools and health services) PCRs—can either place children and youth at risk for negative developmental outcomes or promote their flourishing and resilience. As such, the research on PCRs can provide policymakers and practitioners with an in-depth understanding of how they can harness or transform these resources to achieve local and national goals for children’s healthy development.

This brief analyzes research on PCRs for Black children and youth and reports findings from our systematic review of research on PCRs published from 2012 to 2022 (readers may expand the Methods section below to learn more about our approach); specifically, we focus on the 143 of 172 studies on PCRs that included African American children and youth. We describe current knowledge based on findings from the existing research, and then discuss both gaps in knowledge and opportunities to address these gaps to strengthen the existing research base—and, by extension, the policies and practices that promote the well-being of Black children and youth.


1. A decade of research on protective community resources (PCRs) for Black children and families highlights the importance of community cohesion, positive peer support, school connectedness, community role models and mentors, and neighborhood amenities and services.

2. While research conducted over the past decade reveals important cumulative findings about PCRs for Black children and families, substantial gaps in knowledge remain.

3. Gaps in the current research on PCRs for Black children and youth indicate directions for future studies that can guide policy and practice.



1A decade of research on PCRs for Black children and families highlights the importance of community cohesion,[2] positive peer support, school connectedness, community role models and mentors, and neighborhood amenities and services.

Nearly two thirds of the studies that examined PCRs for Black children and families (92, or 64%) examined one or more of these five resources. These studies provide evidence for the following conclusions:

Community cohesion—or the presence of close social relationships among individuals and groups in a neighborhood—is associated with positive mental and behavioral health outcomes for Black children and youth who have been exposed to risks such as economic hardship, discrimination, and violence. For example, Riina (2021) found that neighborhood social cohesion mitigated the effects of parental intimate partner violence and associated internalizing problems (i.e., anxious, depressed, and over-controlled) and externalizing problems (i.e., aggressive, hyperactive, noncompliant, under-controlled) from childhood through adolescence (ages 6 to 18). This finding was consistent for boys and girls from various racial and ethnic groups (56% Latino, 23% Black, 17% White, and 4% of another race/ethnicity) whose families (1,673 respondents) participated in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, a multilevel, longitudinal study designed to examine child development in the context of neighborhoods and families.

Positive peer support is consistently associated with Black adolescents’ school attitudes, behaviors, and success, and with their physical and mental health. Positive peer influence may be especially significant for youth at risk for negative school outcomes and substance use. Mason et al. (2019), for example, found that positive peer networks moderated the effects of depression on substance use among a sample of 248 mostly Black (88%) 13- and 14-year-old adolescents in Richmond, Virginia.

School connectedness, including Black youths’ perceptions of positive and affirming school cultures and relationships with staff, is positively associated with their educational goals and prosocial behavior. Brooms (2015) found that DuBois Academy—a pseudonym for an all-male college preparatory high school located in an underserved community in Chicago—helped African American male youth “negotiate some of the challenges and potential dangers they faced” and academically thrive (p. 276). This finding underscores the importance of safe and supportive schools for positive child and youth development.

Community role models and mentors can serve as protective resources for Black children and youth who face risks to their social, emotional, economic, or physical well-being. For instance, Hurd et al. (2012) found that the presence of a nonparental “natural mentor” was significantly associated with positive racial identity and educational beliefs and attainment among a sample of 541 African American youth in an urban Midwestern city, all of whom had 8th grade GPAs of 3.0 or lower and the absence of an emotional or developmental disability. Natural mentors were found throughout the participants’ communities and included aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends’ parents, family friends, ministers, and teachers, among others.

Several neighborhood amenities (e.g., sidewalks, recreation centers, libraries, green spaces, high-quality food stores) and services (e.g., medical and mental health providers) are associated with Black child and adolescent health and safety. For example, among a sample of 866 mostly Black (78%) male adolescents, ages 13 to 19, who lived in under-resourced neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bushover et al. (2020) found that better neighborhood walkability was significantly associated with reduced incidents of physical fighting. To measure walkability, the authors used the Environmental Protection Agency’s Walkability Index, a widely used metric that includes variables such as proximity to public transit stops and the diversity of land uses that influence the likelihood of walking as a mode of transport.

2While research conducted over the past decade reveals important cumulative findings about PCRs for Black children and families, substantial gaps in knowledge remain.

Current knowledge gaps result from the limited representation of Black children and youth in research studies (e.g., analysis by age, gender and sexual identity, and geographic location) and limitations on how Black children and youth have been engaged in this research. Of note, of the 17 studies in our systematic review focused solely on Black children and youth, 14 (82%) focused on early, middle, and late adolescents, or young people ages 10 to 24. Only two studies focused on early childhood populations and only one study focused on middle childhood. Of the larger set of 126 studies that included Black respondents, only 17 percent (21 studies) included early childhood populations, while 24 percent (30 studies) included middle childhood populations.

In addition to gaps in the research on PCRs for Black children from birth to age 9, few studies have examined PCRs for Black youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ+). In our sample of 143 studies, only seven provided data on Black LGBTQ+ youth. Given that Black LGBTQ+ youth must often navigate interconnected forms of discrimination, it is important to understand their unique risks as well as the protective factors that support their well-being.

Most studies on PCRs for Black children and youth also focus on urban populations. While most Black people lived in urban (41%) or suburban (40%) areas in 2021, almost 20 percent lived in rural areas. In contrast, fewer than 10 percent of studies on PCRs for Black children and youth published from 2012 to 2022 included respondents who lived in rural areas. This gap limits our understanding of whether and how PCRs differ for Black children and youth in different location types—even as research suggests that rural youth may have distinct risks and needs. For example, research suggests that rural youth have equal or higher rates of substance use than their urban peers; however, as Lopez et al. (2020) note, rural youth have less access to drug and sexual risk-taking prevention programs.

Existing research on PCRs not only includes gaps in the representation of Black children and youth, but also in how these young people are included. Most studies on PCRs that included Black participants used quantitative-only designs (125/87%).[3] While these studies have the benefit of larger samples and more generalizable findings than qualitative and mixed methods studies, they lack the ability to provide in-depth accounts of the experiences of Black children and youth—and their families—with protective resources in their communities. Moreover, the voices of parents, youth, and community members were often missing in the quantitative studies we reviewed, and the limitations of measurements for concepts such as racial discrimination and youth mental health restricted specificity in the questions that researchers could ask and answer. To produce findings that promote both broad and nuanced understanding, studies on PCRs for Black children and youth must be expanded to include a wide range of research approaches, designs, and methods.

3Gaps in the current research on PCRs for Black children and youth indicate directions for future studies that can guide policy and practice.

Group-specific and within-group analyses of PCRs for Black children and youth can ensure that policies and interventions promote these young people’s positive growth and development. Because Black children and youth are a large and heterogenous population, research is needed that examines their similarities as well as their differences across key demographic characteristics (e.g., age, sex, ethnicity, family income and employment status, gender and sexual identity, and location type). Such studies can provide meaningful data to inform the development of asset-based, culturally responsive policies and practices that meet the needs of Black children and youth where they are (i.e., regardless of their specific circumstances).

Likewise, there is a significant need and opportunity to evaluate interventions that have been designed to meet the specific needs—and promote the positive development—of Black children and youth. Such interventions are a hopeful development in a variety of fields, including family counseling, youth mentoring, and education. However, the field needs timely, rigorous process and impact evaluations to strengthen implementation of these interventions and their desired outcomes.

Carrying out more targeted research on PCRs for Black children and youth will require shifts in research designs and methods. In addition to conducting studies that include samples of Black children and youth in secondary data analyses, researchers can use large national datasets like the National Survey of Children’s Health and state-level datasets in areas such as child welfare to conduct studies that center Black children and youth. While small sample sizes and other data limitations may present challenges for analyses and interpretation of findings, researchers can address these challenges and strengthen the research base on PCRs for Black children and youth by combining multiple years of data, using appropriate statistical methods, and applying other promising practices. Additionally, researchers can prioritize racial equity in the design and implementation of their studies and amplify participants’ voices throughout the research process. Such studies are needed to build in-depth understanding of how, why, and under what conditions PCRs help Black children and youth thrive. Funding opportunities for researchers to pursue such studies should be a priority for government and philanthropic organizations that are committed to improving the lives and well-being of all children in the United States through evidence-based policy and practice.


[1] This definition is adapted from: Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24(2), 335-344. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579412000028

[2] Community cohesion is closely associated with the concepts of social capital and collective efficacy, each of which addresses the trust that exists among neighbors and their use of social support and controls to address community problems.

[3] Twelve studies used qualitative only designs and six studies used mixed methods designs.

Suggested citation

Sanders, M., Martinez, D.N., Rochester, S.E., & Winston, J. (2023). Black children and youth can benefit from focused research on protective community resources. Child Trends. https://doi.org/10.56417/9297o3835j