National Post

Thursday, October 10, 2002

Quarter of children at risk: study

Huge study's findings 'confront the stereotype': New Brunswick professor finds behavioural and learning problems cut across class lines

Heather Sokoloff
National Post

More than a quarter of Canada's 4.4 million children have behavioural and learning problems that put them in danger of dropping out of school, researchers say.

The majority of the 1.25 million "vulnerable" children are not living in poor families, concludes a major federal survey of 20,000 Canadian children to be released in Ottawa next week.

Douglas Willms, the lead researcher, said he was surprised to find that three other factors -- parenting style, how a family functions and whether a mother is depressed -- are the strongest predictors of which children will get a good start in life.

"These results confront the stereotype that the majority of children who have problems at school or display behavioural problems are from poor families. It is simply not the case," said Dr. Willms, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick.

"Childhood vulnerability cuts across income levels."

Children were classed as "vulnerable" if they scored poorly on behavioral and cognitive tests that measured such things as vocabulary, mathematics ability, tendency toward violent behaviour and emotional health.

The researchers believe such children are at greater risk of dropping out of school, being unemployed, suffering from emotional problems and demonstrating aggressive behaviour.

The ongoing research, compiled in a book titled Vulnerable Children, has already influenced federal social policies such as Canada's universally available one-year maternity leave.

Among the findings:

- Mothers who work outside the home are not putting their children at risk. Stay-at-home mothers are slightly more prone to depression, which can have detrimental effects on their child's development.

- Vulnerability is more prevalent among boys than girls, 31% compared with 26%. However, boys who act out often get attention from parents and teachers, while girls tend to internalize their problems, suffering in silence.

- Reading to children improves their behaviour as well as their vocabulary skills. But researchers found parents spend less time reading to their children during the preschool and elementary years, increasing their chances of becoming vulnerable.

- Girls reach puberty earlier when they grow up in a stressful, less nurturing environment. Early puberty is more common in girls who are overweight, which is increasing among all social classes.

- Poor children who attend daycare have superior vocabulary skills to those who are cared for in the home. Children from high-income families did well in all settings.

- The most successful schools and classrooms did not use computers but did use calculators, did not practise streaming, had teachers specialized in mathematics and had fewer disciplinary problems.

Although poverty is not a strong predictor of vulnerability, Dr. Willms found poor children are more likely to be vulnerable than their middle-class and affluent counterparts.

In the lowest quartile of family income, 37% of children were vulnerable; in the second-lowest quartile, 28.6%; in the second-highest, 25.4%; in the highest, 24.2%.

Dr. Willms used the data to form a series of policy recommendations aimed at eliminating childhood vulnerability.

"We don't consider vulnerability a lifelong condition, but rather a marker that these children are susceptible to poor outcomes, such as employment or poor mental health, in the long term unless there is a concerted effort to intervene."

Provinces must improve public schools, the most important universal system for achieving equality, through testing programs to ensure accountability and increased teacher training, especially in mathematics specialization, said Dr. Willms, who holds a federally funded Canada Research Chair in education and conducts research for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He also suggested that provinces improve early childhood development by improving daycare quality and numbers. About 40% of Canadian four- and five-year-olds spend part of their week in some type of care arrangement while their parents work outside the home. Most are looked after by extended family members, while only 12% attend licensed daycare.

"It's harder to identify which children are vulnerable when they are younger, so the emphasis needs to be on universal programs that are really directed at improving children's language skills and giving them the best possible start for school."

Parenting classes are another way to bolster young children's chances of getting a good start. Where such classes exist, they are usually for parents of infants. But parents of older children could use support to learn to handle teenage outbursts and aggressive behaviour.

The researchers found children perform better in school when their parents monitor their behaviour, are responsive to their needs and encourage independence. This type of parenting, called authoritative parenting, is contrasted with an authoritarian style, where parents are highly controlling. A third style, permissive parenting, is overly nurturing and provides few standards for behaviour. "Both positive and negative factors are found in rich and poor families alike, and in single- and two-parent families," said Dr. Willms.

"The effects of good parenting far outweigh the effects associated with living in a low-income family."

Researchers analyzed data on infants through 11-year-olds from Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth to find out what factors influence childhood vulnerability. The massive federal research project examines childhood development from birth to adulthood. Researchers are following 20,000 children from 1994 to 2006, evaluating such aspects as their temperament as infants, who they befriend as adolescents and how they interact with teachers and principals. Results on vulnerable adolescents will be released within two years.

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