Abuse and Neglect

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Although teachers' essential concern is with children's success in the school environment, it is clear that individual performance levels are affected by a host of factors outside of the classroom. Just as the home and neighborhood environments of children can enrich their school experiences, negative environments can have a detrimental impact on both students' academic performance and their classroom behavior. One of the most potentially damaging of these environmental factors is child maltreatment.

The Scope of Child Abuse and Neglect

Definitions of child maltreatment vary across states and jurisdictions, as well as across research studies. However, according to the 2003 Keeping Children and Families Safe Act, federal law defines child abuse and neglect as follows:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation; or

An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

While child maltreatment may take many forms (e.g., sibling abuse, medical neglect, educational neglect), it is typically categorized into four domains: physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, and neglect.

According to a compilation of reports from child protective services agencies across the United States, during the federal fiscal year 2005, approximately 3.3 million reports of suspected maltreatment, involving 6 million children, were received (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2007). Of the 62.1% of reported cases screened for investigation, 28.5% included at least one child who was determined to be a victim of maltreatment. Overall, an estimated 899,000 children were substantiated as victims of abuse and/or neglect. In comparison, a 2005 national survey of children and caregivers reported that 14% of children were victims of child maltreatment (Fin-kelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005). Consistent with federal reports, the vast majority of children were identified as victims of neglect (60%), followed by physical abuse (18%), sexual abuse (10%), and emotional abuse (10%); although not reflected in this classification system, many children are victims of multiple forms of maltreatment (e.g., Sedlack & Broadhurst, 1996). Notably, more than half of children substantiated as victims of maltreatment by child protective service agencies were over the age of 7, that is, school-aged.

The Effects of Child Maltreatment on School Performance

Experiencing abuse and/or neglect may impact children's school performance in multiple ways, including lower grades, increased absences, increased disciplinary problems, and higher rates of school dropout (Putnam, 2006; Hurt, Malmud, Brodsky, & Giannetta, 2001). According to the National Clinical Evaluation Study, over 50% of abused children experienced some type of difficulty in school, including poor attendance and disciplinary problems; approximately 30% had some type of cognitive or language impairment; more than 22% showed evidence of a learning disorder; and approximately 25% required some type of special education services (Caldwell, 1992). At the extreme end of the continuum, severe physical injury—and head trauma in particular—may produce organic conditions that negatively impact learning,


motivation, and school performance. In addition, neuro-development can be impaired either by a lack of sensory experience (e.g., neglect) or through abnormally active neurons caused by traumatic experiences (e.g., abuse) (Lowenthal, 1999). In fact, there are data to suggest that maltreatment can lower children's IQs (Putnam, 2006). However, negative outcomes are not limited to tke most extreme cases of ckild maltreatment.

In the past 10 to 15 years, improved methodologies (e.g., representative samples, increased sample size, use of adequate comparison groups, examinations of children's school performance longitudinally) have led to a growing consensus that maltreatment is significantly associated with deficits in school performance. Utilizing a community sample of 420 maltreated children in grades kindergarten through 12, matched with 420 nonmaltreated controls (on gender, school, grade level, residential neighborhood, and, when possible, classroom), Eckenrode, Laird, and Doris (1993) found that maltreated children performed at significantly lower levels on standardized tests and school grades. More specifically, among students in grades 2 through 8, maltreated children scored significantly below the comparison group in both reading and math. These negative effects exceeded those associated with living in poverty (i.e., having received public assistance). Further analysis revealed an interaction between maltreatment and grade level; reading deficiencies were more pronounced among maltreated children in the lower grades. Results also demonstrated that maltreated children were more likely to repeat a grade and had significantly more discipline referrals and suspensions than comparison students. However, there were few differences between groups of older students (grades 9 through 12) in grades and grade repetition, suggesting that there may be a selective process of dropping out of school among maltreated children.

Leiter and Johnsen (1994) identified school outcomes in three domains: cognitive learning, participation, and integration (i.e., socialization). Comparing these outcomes between a sample of maltreated children drawn from the North Carolina Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect and a general school sample, the researchers found that abused children performed significantly worse on all school measures, including grades, standardized test scores, grade retention, and absences. Moreover, the dropout rate for abused children was more than three times higher than that of their nonabused counterparts. These deficits appeared to exceed those of children suffering other forms of social disadvantage.

In a comparison of abused, neglected, and nonmal-treated children's school performance, socioemotional development, and adaptive behavior, Wodarski, Kurtz, Gaudin, and Howing (1990) found that, controlling for socioeconomic status (SES), both abused and neglected children scored lower on a composite index of overall school performance. In regard to behavior, teachers rated both abused and neglected children more negatively on the Child Behavior Checklist—Teacher form. Overall, children who had experienced physical abuse were viewed as more problematic in school, “displaying academic deficits, problem behaviors, lowered self-esteem, delinquency, and elevated feeling of aggression, and pervasive adjustment difficulties in a variety of contexts” (p. 510). On a more hopeful note, older children in both maltreatment groups demonstrated areas of strength in adaptive behaviors.


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