Such poverty-related factors as parental substance abuse and frequent relocation obviously can compromise children's social relations and academic performance--but even when these kinds of risk factors have lasted for years, reducing them in the here and now can improve children's behavior, according to an article published recently in the APA journal Developmental Psychology (Vol. 40, No. 3) and led by Brian Ackerman, PhD, of the University of Delaware.
His study followed 110 low-income mothers and their children--selected from Head Start programs in Delaware--for seven years, from preschool through fifth grade. He and his colleagues assessed the children for cognitive competence in preschool and first grade, and their teachers reported on problem behaviors and academic competence in first grade, third grade and fifth grade.
At each assessment, the researchers also conducted structured interviews with the mothers about demographic information, family history, recent life events, family functioning, parenting strategies, caregiver mood and personality and child attributes, such as temperance and participation in family activities.
Splitting their data into intervals--preschool to first grade, first grade to third grade and third grade to fifth grade--the researchers determined the degree to which children had previously or were currently living with family stresses beyond being poor, such as the mother having multiple boyfriends, family trouble with police, psychiatric disturbances or a parent in drug treatment. They rated the children as being under intermittent, persistent or recent stress.
As expected, they found that as persistent at-home stress increased so did children's externalizing behaviors, such as acting out in classrooms and fighting, and internalizing behaviors, such as depression and withdrawn behavior.
However, they also found that if at-home stress decreased in the most recent interval--in other words, stress at home was currently low--externalizing behavior declined.
"The most important factor was what was going on in the most recent years," Ackerman says, "which is a very optimistic view in terms of externalizing behavior. You're not stuck with the argument that these kids are already damaged too much to be helped."
For academic effects, however, there was no correlation between the persistence or recency of stress, he says. Preschool experiences and early cognitive abilities appeared more related to future academic performance, the researchers say.