In his description of the contexts of human development, Bronfenbrenner (1979) emphasizes the potential impact of the family on each learner. In a family in which there is responsiveness, reciprocity, and a mutual positive feeling, the learner is more likely to have a positive impact. Bronfenbrenner stresses the need for the developing individual to have a strong and enduring emotional attachment to another individual in order to facilitate learning and development. Several family factors may, then, have an impact on the individual to the extent that he or she may be identified as emotionally/behaviorally disordered.

Family Composition

Historically, a substantial number of children have spent all or part of their childhood in a one-parent household because of the death of a parent, divorce, or having an unmarried parent. Hernandez (1994) reports that 28% to 34% of Euro-American children born between 1920 and 1960 lived with one or no biological parents during their childhood. Based on projections of children born since 1980, he contends that 50% of Euro-American children may be living with one parent. Among African American children this figure may reach 80%. These projections are linked to an increase in the percentage of parents who divorce in Euro-American families, and an increase in the percentage of parents who divorce or never marry in African American families.

According to Bronfenbrenner (1970), the absence of a father in the family contributes to low motivation for achievement, inability to defer rewards, low self-esteem, susceptibility to group influence, and juvenile delinquency among children. These characteristics are more marked in boys than girls.

Bronfenbrenner (1970) describes the social changes that have occurred in families since World War II as "the unmaking of the American child." He argues that, for the most part, children are no longer brought up by their parents. For several reasons, actual responsibility for the upbringing of children has shifted away from the family to other settings in society. In past generations, families were larger, allowing for more natural child care practices and greater parent/child support. In addition, children were acquainted with a substantially greater number of adults in different walks of life and were more likely to be active participants in adult settings when they did enter them. Currently, children have a small circle of friends and often friendships are limited to child care settings, school bus or car, telephone contacts, and prearranged activities. Finally, parents simply do not spend as much time with their children as in previous generations. Bronfenbrenner suggests that if institutions in our society continue to remove parents, other adults, and older youth from active participation in the lives of children, and if the resulting vacuum is filled by the age-segregated peer group, we can anticipate increased alienation, indifference, antagonism, and violence on the part of the younger generation in all segments of our society, including middle-class and affluent children. If children have contact with only their own age-mates, there is a reduced possibility for learning culturally established patterns of cooperation and mutual concern.

Very young single mothers experience additional stressors. Prater (1992) contends that keeping single mothers in school and successful is essential to the welfare of their children. In her study of 10 African American adolescent mothers at risk of dropping out of school, Prater reports that several structures and strategies supported these mothers in their efforts to remain in school and be supportive of their babies. School-based clinics, with family-planning services, were essential. In addition, peer counseling and a network of positive role models were recommended. The mothers reported a high level of insensitivity from their teachers, who gave them little recognition for their unique roles as parenting students. Affordable day-care or baby-sitting services were essential, in that the intergenerational pattern of early pregnancy produced very young grandmothers who did not have the time, desire, or money to stay home and baby-sit their grandchildren.

Child Maltreatment

Child maltreatment is an ongoing pattern of behavior in which individuals involved influence one another and cause disturbances in the caretaking process (Cicchetti, Toth, & Hennessy, 1989). Asen, George, Piper, and Stevens (1989) found that the identification of the typical pattern of abuse was a helpful first step in planning the management and treatment of families engaged in child abuse. Although educators are not the primary help-giving professionals in cases of maltreatment, they should be aware of the various kinds of maltreatment. Asen et al. identified eight patterns of abuse: helpless and help-recruiting, professional, transgenerational, stand-in, distance-regulating, transferred, cultural, and denied.

In the helpless and help-recruiting pattern, families appear to have a limited range of skills for dealing with everyday issues and thus resort to abuse. In professional abuse, the professional becomes overinvolved in the family's problem and assumes parents' duties and responsibilities. Transgenerational abuse occurs when the grandparents become involved in rearing their grandchildren by accepting the caretaking role or as a consequence of sharing a residence with their child's family. In some cases, this results in a repetition of the cycle of poor parenting and abuse that occurred when the grandparents were rearing their children. In other cases, the fact that the child's biological parents remain dependent on the grandparents gives the grandparents a second opportunity to parent. In this situation, unresolved problems related to the parent's own childhood may be reactivated.

The fourth pattern of abuse discussed by Asen et al. (1989) is stand-in abuse. If one parent has a close relationship with the child and the relationship between the parents is distant, then abuse of the child may represent a means of punishing the partner without undermining the marriage. In times of crisis, the child is singled out and punished or the child learns to behave in a manner that elicits abuse. In distance-regulating abuse, the child learns that the only way to achieve close physical contact with the mother or father is to behave in such a way as to evoke punishment. The child appears to seek the positive contact that follows the parent's anger and punishment.

Transferred abuse is a complex and difficult pattern to understand. Intense experiences from the parent's past are transferred to the present, and the child becomes the target of the feeling associated with the parent's past experiences. The parent apparently superimposes the past on the present. Cultural abuse is evident when families state that their behavior toward their children is appropriate from the perspective of their cultural origins, even though their behavior is not accepted in the culture in which they presently live or by authorities within that culture. The final pattern discussed by Asen et al. (1989) is denied abuse, in which the child is injured but the cause of the injury is denied by the abusing parent.

Maltreatment rarely occurs in isolation; the vast majority of maltreated children are submitted to a combination of physical neglect, physical abuse, and verbal abuse (Ney, Fund, & Wickett, 1994). The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Public Law 93-247), uses the terms child abuse and child neglect to reefer to physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, or neglect of an individual less the 18 years of age by a person responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances that indicate that the child's health or welfare is harmed or threatened. Reported incidents of child abuse and neglect increased 225% from 1978 to 1987 (Alsop, 1990).

Children who have experienced maltreatment demonstrate differences from nonmaltreated peers in behavior and achievement. Crittenden (1989) reported that maltreated children are often disruptive, defiant bullies who have frequent interpersonal confroations with peers and teachers. Some of these children may be defiant, spending more time fighting than learning. Others may become so compliant and concerned over meeting others' standards that they rarely experience joy or satisfaction. Overcompliant abused children are so concerned with finding the right answer that they are frequently unable to attend to and manipulate ideas and concepts.

In a study of the long-term impact of three kinds of abuse—physical, emotional, and sexual—on children, Mullen, Martin, Anderson, Romans, and Herbison (1996) reported that a history of any form of abuse was associated with increased rates of psychopathology, sexual difficulties, decreased self-esteem, and interpersonal problems. Mullen et al. found a similarity among the three kinds of abuse and adult outcomes, although there was a trend for sexual abuse to be associated with sexual problems, emotional abuse with low self-esteem, and physical abuse with marital breakdown. Some of the associations between abuse and adult problems were accounted for by childhood disadvantages from which the abuse often emerged.

Child and parent characteristics, alone, are not sufficient to explain child maltreatment (Janko, 1994). The environment may add elements of stress or support to the child-caregiver relationship, such as having enough money, food, housing, health care, and the availability of adults to share caregiving responsibilities. Stressors occur within the family, through community resources, and in responses to social policies. As Janko suggests, a young mother who is learning to parent her challenging baby in the context of brief weekly visits with the child protection worker, while lacking psychological and emotional support that comes from reliable family and friends, consistent meals. a place to sleep, and the knowledge that her belongings are accessible and safe, is under significant stress.