Jessica is an obviously intelligent fifth grader who is drawn to short stories and novels when her class visits the library. Yet she does poorly in English. Her reading comprehension scores show almost no gain in more than a year.
Mel, a usually upbeat fifth grader in another school, got into trouble for kicking a boy in the head. This is the fifth episode in the school year that Mel has seriously injured another child. Classmates describe Mel as a "bully who kicks and punches for no good reason." At other times, he is more level. He often goes days without a troubling incident.Jessica and Mel are having disappointing and worrisome school years. In both their situations, concerned and skilled staff at their schools are unable to help these children get on track. Repeated tutorial help for Jessica, and Mel's many visits to a school counselor, have helped only temporarily.
These children share two outside-school, family difficulties: child neglect and abuse, and several family moves that have meant many school changes.
Experts have known about the close links between child neglect and child abuse, and subsequent academic and behavior problems at school. Dr. John Eckenrode, at Cornell University, in New York, has shown that particular school difficulties can be a function of the type of insult that is suffered at home.
Physically abused children are more likely to struggle with discipline problems. Neglected children get lower grades, and are more than twice as likely to repeat their grade. Sexually abused children do not have significantly different academic functioning or behavior problems in elementary school than children who are not abused. (The far-reaching, damaging effects of sexual abuse often do not show themselves until later in the child's life; then the effects touch many areas, including academic function, social behavior, intimate relationships and mood.)
Boys and girls suffer the same sorts of problems and personality damage as a result of these types of abuse.
More recent research is showing that family moves and school transfers may hurt these children as much as being abused. Maltreated children are known to have more family moves than other children. Abused and neglected children and their parents move twice as frequently as other families.
The families of neglected and abused children are typically withdrawn and unstable. In addition to moving more, neglecting and abusing parents are more isolated from their neighborhoods. Even when these families do live in one place, they are less likely to establish social networks that might lend the child a feeling of permanence.
These new findings, which show that either family moves and school transfers in themselves may be destructive or that moves and transfers are particularly difficult for neglected and abused children, have important implications.
From the standpoint of a school's approach to a known neglected or abused child, it is probably very helpful to minimize school transfers. (My review of children's school records shows that transfers are a characteristic reaction to academic failure and behavior problems.)
In general, it is likely that identifying mobile families and school-transferred children would be a good idea. By giving these children extra support and extra opportunities to gain control over their lives, they may be able to avoid, to some degree, the negative effects of moving.
Maltreated children need help to cope with loss of friends, changing teachers and interrupted curricula. Intervention may help them become more confident and successful in the face of family neglect and abuse.