Environmental Influences on Young Children's Behavior
More than 24 million children in the United States are aged five and below (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). And for all those children, no variable regarding their well-being and overall social behavior is more important than the environment in which they develop and grow.f
All children misbehave at times—this, of course, is normal. A caregiver's response to inappropriate behaviors, however, will frequently determine the future course for both the misbehavior and the child. When a caregiver provides attention to a child during a temper tantrum, for example, the child is likely to exhibit tantrum behavior in the future as a means of getting adult attention and having demands met. In fact, the frequency and intensity of tantrums will increase over time as the child learns how to use tantrums to manipulate adult behavior. On the other hand, when a caregiver refuses to give in to a child/s demands during and immediately following a temper tantrum, the child is unlikely to demonstrate tantrum behavior in the future. Thus, the relationship is clear between the rate of children's misbehavior and the response they receive from significant caregivers in their environment.
When children misbehave, parents and caregivers frequently focus on assessing and identifying what may be wrong with the child, what treatment or intervention might be best for the child, and so on. This focus-on-the-child approach, while appropriate for children with specific emotional disorders, fails to recognize the significant role of the child's environment and the people in that environment in shaping the child's behavior. In our fast-paced, busy world, parents seem to have less time to devote to the needs of their children than in previous times. Frequently, both teachers and parents look for quick and easy answers to questions regarding children's inappropriate behavior. We believe that the blame-the-victim syndrome places too great an emphasis on how to "fix" children; instead, we need greater emphasis on improving the quality of children's environments.
Young children are exposed to a variety of environmental variables that place them at risk for antisocial behavior. Understanding these variables will help caregivers understand the influences affecting children and their behavior. Specific factors that place children at risk are discussed next.
Poverty will be discussed first because it has the most significant impact on children's overall well-being, academic success, and social behavior. Unfortunately, children suffer the highest poverty rates of any age group in America (Lynch, 2004). In 1974, children replaced the elderly as the poorest subgroup of our nation's population. By 1980, the rate of poverty among children was six times that of the elderly (Schorr & Schorr, 1989). And today, 18% American children live in poverty (Casey Foundation, 2005).
A family's income plays a significant role in the type of basic care a child receives. For example, children in low-income families have less access (44%) to important early intervention programs than children from higher-income families (65%) (Children's Defense Fund, 2003). Yet, they are the children who need early intervention the most!
According to a study by the Illinois State Board of Education (2001), poverty is the single greatest predictor of academic and social failure in U.s. schools. An analysis of state data in Illinois and Kentucky found that income level alone accounted for 71 % of the variance in standardized achievement scores. It may surprise some educators to note that additional variables such as English proficiency, student race, class size, and several teacher-related variables accounted for only an additional 7% to the predictability of student performance. And, as Kauffman (2001) points out, academic failure in school is directly related to challenging classroom behavior.
Children raised within impoverished environments are at risk for challenging behavior problems because they are frequently living in neighborhoods where there are limited positive role models for appropriate social behaviors. Frequently, the only adults children see who are making a "decent" living are making it in illegal activities. These children are more likely to be exposed to community violence, and this exposure is positively related to teachers' ratings of children's aggression within the classroom (Farver, Xu, Eppe, Fernandez, & Schwartz, 2005). "As neighborhood conditions worsened, the positive relationship between emotional support and mothers' nurturant parenting was weakened" (Ceballo & McLoyd, 2002, p. 160). As outlined by Walker and Sprague (1999), poverty sets the foundation for a variety of negative outcomes including school failure, delinquency, and violence.
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