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.

Persistent Parental Unemployment

Poverty among children is directly related to adult unemployment. Indeed, 24 million America children in 2003 had no parent in their household who worked a full-time job, year-round. Almost 4 million of those children lived in families where neither their parents nor any other adult worked in the past year (Casey Foundation,2005).

The Casey Foundation (2005, p. 6) list several "obstacles that impede parents from steady employment" and, thus, keep their children in poverty. These include

  • an inability to secure affordable and accessible child care,
  • low parental literacy levels,
  • limited transportation options that make if difficult for parents to commute to available jobs,
  • disincentives that strip government benefits from families when they become employed and earn wages,
  • parental substance abuse,
  • domestic violence,
  • a parental history of incarceration preventing them from securing a job, and
  • a parental history of mental health disabilities—especially depression.

Single-Parent Families

Second only to poverty, "children in single-parent families are at increased risk for academic failure; increased likelihood of dropping out of high school or becoming a teen parent; and increased levels of depression, stress, anxiety, and aggression" (Casey Foundation, 2005, p. 52). Thirty percent of American children live in single-parent households. Forty-two percent of children in female-headed households live in poverty compared to 9% of children living with married parents (Casey Foundation, 2005).

Single-parent homes are not just made up of unmarried mothers. Single fathers make up almost one in five single parents living with their children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Research suggests that boys are less aggressive when a strong father or dominant male is in the home (Vaden-Kiernan, Ialongo, Pearson, & Kellam, 1995). But other factors such as the strength and consistency of parenting provided by the remaining adult, and a variety of other environmental and economic factors, can significantly lower the risk.

In addition, an increasing number of fathers (3.6 million in 2003) are staying home with the kids while Mom goes to work (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). This is a 54% increase from 1986, and it reflects a new generation of dads who, unlike many of their fathers, believe it is important to play a primary role in the parenting of their children. Thus, teachers are seeing more and more dads at school and parent-teacher conferences.

Regardless of who is providing the parenting, strong parenting and a supportive environment, including the support offered by a child's school, is the key to positive academic and social outcomes for children.

Babies Born Premature and/or Dysmature

A full-term pregnancy is between 37 and 41 weeks. Babies born 37 weeks or less after conception are considered preterm or premature. Those born between 35 and 37 weeks generally do well. Those born before 32 weeks are at risk for a variety of medical and developmental disabilities (Brown, 2004). According to Brown (2004), about 12% of all live births in the United States were born preterm in 2003 and represented a 13% increase from 1993. An additional variable for the increase in preterm births, according to Brown, was the increasing age of new mothers and the increased use of in vitro fertilization.

Also, 7.8% of babies born in the United States were classified as dysmature or low birthweight (less than 2,500 grams or 5.5 pounds) in 2002 (Casey Foundation, 2005). Infants born premature and/or dysmature are likely to be especially challenging for parents because of frequent crying, poor sleeping patterns, difficult to feed and, in general, to comfort. Crying behavior may be constant and irritating due to the high-pitched nature of the premature child's cry. It is no wonder that these infants are at high risk for maltreatment by caregivers, especially inexperienced, young parents.

Early childhood teachers need to understand that challenging behaviors associated with prematurity and dysmaturity will decrease as the infant develops beyond the normal 9th month of gestation. Patience, support from others, and a sense of humor will get most caregivers through this difficult time. The behavior of most children born prematurely will be consistent with their peers before their second birthday.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

First introduced in 1973 by Kenneth Jones and David Smith at the School of Medicine, University of Washington, the term fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) refers to the consumption of too much alcohol by the mother during pregnancy. It is one of the leading preventable causes of disabilities in young children (Fritz, 2000). May and Gossage (2005) estimate a prevalence rate of FAS of 5 to 20 cases per 10,000 births in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. According to Chavez, Cordero, & Becerra (1989), incidences of FAS per 10,000 total births for different ethnic groups were as follows: Asians, 0.3; Hispanics, 0.8; whites, 0.9; blacks, 6.0; and Native Americans, 29.9.

The long-term detrimental consequences on these children may include permanent neurobehavioral and affective disorders and many other developmental disabilities (Randall, 2001). Fritz (2000) lists the following problems associated with children exposed to excessive alcohol in utero:

  • central nervous system abnormalities,
  • impaired motor skills,
  • behavior and cognitive abnormalities, and
  • various physical problems, including heart abnormalities, scoliosis, and hearing impairments.

Schonfeld, Mattson, Lang, Delis, and Riley (2001) documented significant deficits in verbal and nonverbal fluency among children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure.

Lead Poisoning

Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2002) reports that lead in the US. population has decreased by 68% between 1991 and 2002, lead poisoning is still "the most common environmental health problem affecting children in the United States" (Enders, Montgomery, & Welch, 2002, p. 20). Lead is a neurotoxic substance that is absorbed through the lungs and stomach. Lead poisoning is the accumulation of too much lead in the body after repeated exposure.

The most common sources of lead poisoning today include lead-based paint found in older homes; lead-laden dust and soil found around old buildings; and lead-based materials such as old plumbing systems, which affect water supplies (Enders et al., 2002). Interestingly, children absorb about half the lead they ingest, while adults absorb only 10%. In addition to their greater absorption rate, young children are at greatest risk from lead poisoning "because of the impact on (their) developing central nervous system" (Enders et al., 2002, p. 20). Children who have elevated lead levels demonstrate a variety of problems, including developmental disabilities and behavioral difficulties.

Child Maltreatment

Child maltreatment, a generic term, may be used to describe physical abuse (20% of child maltreatment), sexual abuse (10%), neglect (60%), and emotional or psychological abuse (5%) (National Association of Counsel for Children (2005). More than 3 million cases of child maltreatment are reported in the United States each year. This figure compares to 1 million cases reported in 1980 (National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, 2004).

Clearly, child maltreatment is the ultimate example of a dysfunctional interaction between caregivers and the children in their care. The study of child maltreatment allows researchers to understand the many and interacting variables associated with caregiver-child relationships and interaction patterns. These variables include social and cultural factors, environmental factors, characteristics of the caregiver (parent or early educator), and the characteristics of the child or victim (see Zirpoli, 1990, for a complete review of each of these factors).

Breaking the Cycle of Child Maltreatment

Given the variables associated with child maltreatment, how can teachers and other caregivers help break the cycle? Some solutions require significant changes in national priorities and attitudes. Early educators, however, are in the best position to advocate for these changes.

First, we must put an end to the widespread tolerance of physical punishment of children. As professional educators, we can start in our own educational settings. Second, we must advocate a highest-priority status for children and the issues related to their protection and enrichment (physical, mental, and emotional). This stance means full funding for Head Start; the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; and other effective programs that serve impoverished children. Third, we must ensure that all caregivers, regardless of background or income, have the appropriate, necessary community support to provide their children with a protecting, healthy, and enriching environment. Such support means that appropriate prenatal care for all women, appropriate medical care for all children, and quality early educational settings for all children are available, regardless of family income or ability to pay. These are sound investments for the future of our nation's children and for the future of our nation.