The Michigan Longitudinal Study (MLS) began in l999, when we received five years of funding from the National Institute of Mental Health. The MLS was designed to intensively examine the behavioral development of three-year–old boys and girls across the transition to school. The preschool years offer a window into the development of core competencies that form the foundation for social, emotional, and cognitive adjustment across the lifespan: self-regulation and understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings. Because these core competencies develop rapidly across the preschool period, it is normal for children to struggle with issues such as control of aggression. Most children learn to control their aggressive impulses by the time they enter school. However, many preschoolers with early self-regulation difficulties continue to struggle with social, emotional and academic problems across long periods of development. In order to help children at risk for long-term difficulties, we must understand the biological, behavioral, and social processes that differentiate preschoolers with normal range adjustment problems from those whose problems persist across time. The main goal of Michigan Longitudinal Study is to illuminate these processes.
Longitudinal studies are invaluable resources for scholars, policy experts, parents, and teachers because children’s development is tracked across time in relation to formative influences. The MLS has many features that make it a unique source of information about children’s development. First, there is a multi-method approach to assessment of children’s early self-regulatory competencies and understanding of others. For example, self-regulation abilities are studied using diverse behavioral tasks in the laboratory, parents’ and teachers’ ratings of the child’s skills in different situations, and direct observations of the child’s self-regulation in challenging situations with parents, peers, and siblings. Second, children’s long-term adjustment reflects ever-changing and cumulative interactions with the social world. Therefore, we have rich, multi-method assessments of children’s relationships with mothers’ and fathers’ that extend across time, and careful measurement of the types of individual and social characteristics that are linked with optimal caregiving. We also have assessments of children’s peer and sibling relationships in multiple settings and across time. Finally, we have found that both child and parent gender are powerful developmental influences. Therefore, we have followed relatively equal numbers of boys and girls across ages 3, 6, and 10 years, and we have assessed both mother-child and father-child relationships across time.
Longitudinal studies are considered the “gold standards” for information on the development of individuals. They are also time consuming and expensive to manage, and current trends in national funding have shifted away from supporting them. Ours would not be possible without financial support from the National Institute of Mental Health, and the University of Michigan Department of Psychology, LSA Dean’s Office, and UMOR, and the generous contributions of our participant parents, children/teens, teachers, and the undergraduate and graduate students who have collected and coded data.
We are deeply grateful for their past and continuing support!