Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

Dodie Norton's 19-year record of a group of children growing up on Chicago's South Side has been a landmark in understanding how parental interaction impacts childhood development

-By Charles Whitaker

"I think I was always interested in babies and small children," says Dolores "Dodie" Norton, SSA's Samuel Deutsch Professor, Emerita. "I wanted to find out what influences contributed to whether they became successful or not successful in their own society. How specifically do they learn the norms, language and behavior that are associated with success or failure?"

That fascination with children has led Norton on a lifelong quest to unearth some of the keys to the ecology of human development and parenting. Retired this September, Norton's 40-year career as a scholar, teacher and social worker has been defined by a crowning achievement, "Children at Risk: The Infant Child Development Project," her groundbreaking longitudinal study of 39 children from low-income families on the South Side of Chicago whom Norton and her research assistants tracked from birth through age 19.

For each of the children, a member of Norton's team arrived the second day after birth, capturing the interaction of mother and baby in the hospital for 30 minutes on videotape. Six weeks later, they filmed the mother and child interacting at home for four hours. After that, for nearly two decades, Norton's videographers visited the families every six weeks the first year; every three months until age three; and then every six months, to age 20. They taped in whatever setting they happened to find the children: at home, on the way to school, in the playground, and for some, at their proms.

Though she is still in the throes of coding tapes and analyzing data from this exhaustive and intensive study, Norton's research has had an impact, both for its innovation in methodology and her findings. "Dodie was ahead of her time in terms of recognizing the role parenting styles play in influencing development in the critical early years of life," says Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers (Norton serves on its board of directors).

"Research on young children has traditionally ignored the very specific day-to-day experiences of babies and toddlers from minority families and families living in poverty," says Alicia F. Lieberman, the Irving B. Harris Endowed Chair in Infant Mental Health in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "Dr. Norton's original conceptualizations and exquisite observations of the influences that shape the sense of self and community-belonging in very young African- American children are a unique contribution."

"As recently as 10 years ago, there was not a general awareness of the importance of the years from birth to three in laying the foundation for who we become as adults. Now I think there is a general understanding of that importance," Melmed says. "There is no question that Dodie was one of the pioneers of that movement."

The Children at Risk Study was conceived out of Norton's concern about statistics showing that a disproportionate number of innercity African-American children living in poverty begin to fail in third and fourth grade, and that early school failure correlates highly with dropping out of high school. She wondered what preschool and home environmental factors might be associated with successful academic outcomes.

"Although we need to focus on economics, racism and poor quality schools, we also need to understand how children's early home and neighborhood experiences relate to their success in school," Norton says. "Certainly, we know that some children from lower socioeconomic, inner-city African-American families achieve very well. I wanted to know what made the difference." The plan was to uncover information that holds implications for designing preventive, interventive and policy approaches for children and families through preschool, parenting, child care and early school programs.

When the study began in early 1982, Norton solicited participants who gave birth at one of two local hospitals during a three month period. To secure children at the highest environmental risk in their development, Norton culled her subjects, who were paid to participate, from South Side census tracts that were below the Chicago median in per capita income and housing values, and above in rates of housing density, transience, vacant housing, crime and neo-natal mortality. The mothers could not have education levels above high school and could not live with a mother or grandmother who might also provide "parenting."

Odd as it may seem today, with the omnipresence of video cameras, Norton's decision to tape hours of mother/child interactions was an unusual call at the time, when most social science ethnographies were based on observations and field notes of the researchers. Videotape was being used by developmental psychologists of that period, but the studies were often task-based, where subjects were asked to perform certain functions, usually in a clinical setting. Norton wanted to capture interactions that were naturalistic in the home. The trick was to develop methodology that would give the research scientific validity.

"We had to figure out how to move from videotapes to more acceptable quantitative data in the scientific world," Norton says. She developed criteria and set up codes that would translate the interactions she captured into data that could be analyzed using quantitative methods. She gave her videographers—most of them graduate students—strict instructions to be "a fly on the wall." They were not to intervene unless they witnessed abuse or danger, which they were to report immediately to Norton and the authorities.

Fortunately, during their 19 years of taping, Norton and her team came across no abuse, though videographers at times yearned to step in with advice. During one episode early in the study, for instance, a young mother allows her newborn to cry relentlessly for 18 minutes. The mother, playing cards with friends, finally approaches the baby with a bottle, which she props in the child's mouth with the help of a rolled-up blanket.

"At a very young age, this baby is missing the nurturing holding of the caregiver and being able to learn that his cries brought the bottle and the comforting cradling of his feeding," Norton says. "But if he just cries and cries and nothing happens, already he may be developing an early sense that he and his efforts cannot make a difference in his environment."

At intervals throughout the study, the children were tested to establish baselines in their intellectual development, and Norton consulted and collaborated with her colleagues at the University of Chicago in multiple disciplines—from psychologists and neuroscientists to sociologists and economists—to help develop the theoretical frameworks for analyzing the taped interactions. Grants from foundations and corporations interested in the development of children have supported Norton's work, including the Irving B. Harris Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, Childhelp, the Schnadig Foundation, the University of Chicago's Women's Board and the Washington National Insurance Company.

Through the years, patterns emerged that have formed the backbone of Norton's findings. One child who tested the most brilliant at age 3 was a single mother and high school dropout, testing at almost borderline capacity on standardized intelligence tests at age 16. Another child who was merely average at age 3 and only a few points higher at age 16, ultimately graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign by age 21. The difference, Norton found, was often in the early mother/child interactions, language exchange and nurturing styles.

"You'd find the mother of the child who graduated from college holding the baby, listening to her sounds and pointing out objects with explanations," Norton recalls. "But the mother of the child who tested so well earlier seldom held the child and was very staccato and sparing in her language to him. She did not engage in much warm, nurturing behavior."

In a number of papers, notably for the journal of Zero to Three, Norton has recounted her findings. She noted how the children in her study— who grew up in unstructured homes where adults rarely talked to them about time or set limits—had difficulty adjusting to the highly structured environment of a classroom and performed poorly in school as early as kindergarten. Much of her published findings to date have been about the function of language in early child development. Talking to infants and asking them questions in a certain manner, she argues, does not just give information. It stimulates their young brains, stirs their imaginations and prepares them to be lifelong learners, just as good teachers do.

"We now have data from many studies showing that the sheer number of words young children hear is related to how well they do at school and their verbal intelligence. But I think Dodie was unusual in that she was really looking at what mothers were saying to their babies and how they said it, not just how much language there was," says Sydney Hans, the current Samuel Deutsch Professor at SSA (for more of Hans' thoughts on early childhood development, see "Baby Talk").

Norton's research has had an impact for decades. She has presented her findings to school social workers, child care workers, policy makers and at local and national conferences on early development. Nationally she has served on many boards of organizations concerned with children and child development and has presented before groups as varied as the Home and Aid Society of Illinois and a national Summit on America's Children convened by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Interest in her work has also come from corporate entities interested in the capabilities of future employees. In 1988, at an invitation of the Chamber of Commerce in Tulsa, Okla., for instance, Norton spoke to an unusual gathering of local leaders and residents who were collaborating to develop what they called "a world-class early intervention program" in preparation for school success, with an eye toward having "capable" future employees as the city diversified its economic base beyond the production of crude oil.

In February 1989, an article appeared in TIME magazine's "Behavior" section describing Norton's research and some of its early findings on temporal development in children, and in 2001 a Kartemquin Films producer who had learned about the research selected one of the children as one of five adolescent girls whose lives were portrayed in the PBS documentary 5 Girls.

Norton first arrived at SSA in the early 1970s as part of an accreditation team for the Council on Social Work Education. She so impressed Harold Richman, then the dean of SSA, that he invited her to take part in a cross-disciplinary study on diversity and children in development, in part a surreptitious effort to lure her from Bryn Mawr College, where she was a faculty member. In 1977, she joined SSA's faculty outright, becoming the University of Chicago's first tenured African-American woman on the faculty.

Norton has been a favorite professor in the classroom; she was awarded SSA's Excellence in Teaching award in 1997 and the NASW Mentor Award in 2007. "She really has had a great impact on my approach to child welfare," says SSA graduate Erwin McEwen, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "She has always been a proponent of a model of supporting children that is based on strengthening and supporting families. When she talked about that in the classes I had with her, it really resonated with me, and I've put it at the forefront of my thinking throughout my career."

"Anyone who has been in close proximity to Dodie can talk incessantly about her warmth, thoughtfulness and selflessness as a teacher and mentor," says SSA Associate Professor Waldo E. Johnson, Jr. Norton served as one of Johnson's doctoral advisors when he was a Ph.D. student at SSA and served on his dissertation committee. "She was particularly supportive in terms of helping me chart my own area of study on fatherhood and to fully embrace the multidisciplinary nature of the work I am pursuing."

Norton has served in many capacities at the University of Chicago and SSA. President Hanna Gray appointed her Chair of the University Faculty Committee on Minority Concerns, which produced a three-year study known as the Norton Report in 1985. The report, which reviewed minority enrollment across the University, had a large impact, including the establishment of the University's Coordinating Council for Minority Issues, which has become the current Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Norton was also a core faculty member of the Center for Early Childhood Research, which conducted interdisciplinary studies on the development of children. She was one of the co-investigators working with noted sociologist William J. Wilson on a three-year interdisciplinary study of blacks, whites and Latinos living in urban poverty in Chicago, and presented the 408th University of Chicago Convocation in Rockefeller Chapel in 1988—the first African- American woman faculty member to do so. At SSA, along with Visiting Committee member Bernice Weissbourd, Norton created the SSA Family Support Program and curriculum, and she was the first director of the SSA Extended Evening Program.

Yet Norton is notoriously reserved and shrinks from attention for anything other than her work. "She avoids the spotlight like the plague," says E. Aracelis Francis, director emerita of the Minority Fellowship Program at the Council on Social Work Education, and a friend and collaborator of Norton's who received her master's degree from SSA in 1964. "With Dodie, it's all about the work. She has high expectations for herself, high expectations for her students, and she makes those clear. But she absolutely hates the spotlight."

This aversion is clearly evidenced by the fact that Norton has forbade any celebration of her retirement with the usual festschrift or any other recognition, despite the protests of Dean Jeanne Marsh and others. "I could not live through it," Norton says. "Tell those who really wish to honor me to do so in a way that I would dearly appreciate—contribute to SSA for my research fund, so I can continue to support the wonderful graduate students who serve as my research assistants and continue my work."

With such support, Norton plans to spend her so-called retirement coding, analyzing and writing about the data gleaned from the longitudinal study. She admits that she would have liked to have published more over the past 20 years, but the work preparing the videotapes is labor and time intensive. "I'm looking forward to spending my time just on this and getting the findings out there," she says, adding that she is also looking forward to spending more time with her family—two sons and a new grandson, whom she refers to as "the male cubs," and her daughter-in-law.

She hopes to layer her findings over those from other studies with larger data sets to look at the intersection between successful children from poor minority communities and successful children from middle-class communities to look for commonalities between language use, learning, home atmosphere and parental/child interaction. For Norton, these aren't just academic issues. Her work is always aimed to inform the practice and policy of social work.

"We have a responsibility to translate our research into practices and policies to eventually give every child the opportunity to grow to their maximum potential," she says. "It is a far-away dream, but we have to keep working collaboratively."