Environmental Influences on Young Children's Behavior (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.

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