Traumatic experiences in early childhood, such as abuse or the incarceration of a parent, negatively affect learning and behavior development in kindergarten, according to a new study published online in the journal Pediatrics.
“Our study revealed that children in large urban areas across the country who were exposed to traumatic events in early childhood, were at increased risk for learning difficulty and behavior problems by the end of kindergarten” said lead author Manuel E. Jimenez, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of family medicine and community health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“Our study adds to our understanding of the relationship between health, and academic and behavioral skills and offers an opportunity for physicians who treat young children to play a critical role in connecting families with community resources that may improve a child’s chance for success.”
“Poor academic and social skills, combined with poor health outcomes in adulthood, as shown in other studies, contribute to existing health and educational disparities,” said Jimenez.
For the study, researchers looked at data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study that included negative childhood experiences as reported by the primary caregiver, as well as teacher-reported outcomes in academic achievement and behavior during kindergarten.
Kindergarten is a vital time period in a child’s life when academic and social skills have been shown to predict future achievement.
The researchers evaluated data on more than 1000 children from 20 large cities in the United States. More than half of the children had been exposed to at least one traumatic experience and 12 percent were exposed to three or more adverse childhood experiences.
Furthermore, African-American children and children with family income less than $20,000 were more likely to experience at least one adverse experience than non-African-American children or those with greater family incomes.
The findings reveal a pattern in which children who experienced a greater number of adverse experiences exhibited below-average performance academically, behaviorally and socially in kindergarten. Specifically, language and literacy skills were below proficient, and attention problems and aggression were more likely.
“Our study results are important because they highlight important risk factors for future academic struggle, adding to the risk for poor health outcomes that already are associated with early childhood exposure to trauma,” said Nancy E. Reichman, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.
“We hope our work encourages collaborations between educators and health professionals to support at-risk children and their families.”