Professor of Psychology Nanci Weinberger, Ph.D., has dedicated much of her career to studying children’s environments, specifically on how adults modify the environments to satisfy children's developmental needs. Recently, she applied that expertise to study how children who have had serious illnesses are perceived as they re-enter their environments.
The outcome is an article titled “You’re Brave, I’ll Be Your Friend: Children’s Evaluations of Peers with Cancer,” co-authored with fellow researcher Jane Nash, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Stonehill College. The article was published in the scholarly journal Psychology in the Schools.
The study was inspired by Weinberger's experience at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, where she volunteers. The camp offers seriously ill children, including those with cancer, opportunities to participate in physical activities that they ordinarily might not be able to while making friendships and fun memories along the way.
“We wanted to be able to do something that might be meaningful to people who help guide children with health issues—and there’s some good news.”
“I saw the camp environment literally doing these activities and lifting the kids up,” said Weinberger. “With our study, we wanted to be able to do something that might be meaningful to people who help guide children with health issues—and there’s some good news for them in this article.”
To investigate how kids respond to children with cancer, the researchers asked a group of children to view a story about a child engaged in a physically challenging rock climbing tower activity at camp. The way the climber (healthy or with cancer) ascended and descended the climbing tower (independently or with assistance) was manipulated. The results? "When the climber was healthy, peer acceptance and bravery were higher when ascending independently compared to doing so with assistance," the authors wrote. "In contrast, the climber with cancer was accepted as a friend and deemed brave, regardless of climbing method."
The findings suggest "that kids in the community are ready to accept children with cancer, at least if they're presented in an authentic way, with positive attributes and not just what their health-related struggles are," Weinberger said.
“It was really an opportunity to do something meaningful to me. This is really is at the heart of it. I wanted to actually ask children [...] what they think, and get their perspective.”
The implications are significant. The investigators say the findings could help school psychologists reintroduce into the classroom children who’ve battled cancer. The goal is to avoid stigmatizing the children who were ill. “The very first thing they need is to be accepted. Our suggestion to school psychologists is to find out about the child and share that authentic story of them in the classroom, whether it’s how they like white water rafting or started a new bug collection, and not just their health issues,” says Weinberger. “This will make it easier for other kids to accept them, which is only the first step, but it's an important first step.”
Making a personally meaningful impact
Weinberger says the study co-authored with Nash was an opportunity to focus study children’s evaluations, in contrast to her previous work with adults.
“Doing research that has an impact – that’s my dream.”
She’s following suit with an additional study involving children’s evaluations – this time with alumna and mentee Ryan Brown '17, a doctoral student at Rice University. Brown is the first author, and Weinberger the second, of a study focusing on children's attitudes of gender and occupations, including realistic and counter-stereotypical exemplars. The study, soon to be published in Psi Chi: Journal of Psychological Research, was inspired by Weinberger’s Gender and Childhood course that Brown took as an undergraduate.
They’re hoping the research can help guide children’s education regarding gender norms and occupations, and, of course, make a real impact. After all, says Weinberger, “Doing research that has an impact – that’s my dream.”