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October 26, 2000 Study holds hope for kids and parents



by Janice Hamilton

A new study stemming from a long-term Concordia project involving inner-city families shows that a surprisingly large number of the children have serious language and developmental problems, even at the preschool level, says Psychology Professor Lisa Serbin, of the Centre for Research in Human Development.

The report looks at children of the original participants, examining how health and psycho-social risk factors can be passed from one generation to the next. It also looks at the resiliency factors that allow children to do well, despite their disadvantaged backgrounds.

The project began in 1976 as a longitudinal study of the health and development of 1,770 children attending French-language elementary schools in inner-city Montreal. Half the children exhibited aggressive and/or socially withdrawn behaviour; the others served as a comparison group.
As they have grown up, many of the participants have experienced difficulties, from dropping out of school to substance abuse. Over the years, this project has generated more than 50 papers and theses by Concordia students and staff.

Disturbing findings

In this latest study, funded by Health Canada, Serbin, Dale Stack and Alex Schwartzman looked at 175 one- to six-year-old children of the original participants, focusing on their health and early cognitive, language, social and emotional development.

“The basic finding was that a tremendous number of the offspring are having serious problems at a preschool level,” said Serbin, noting this is disturbing because the sample is community-based. When first enrolled in the study in the 1970s, the parents were in regular schools, and not enrolled in special classes or clinical settings.

“In this study, 53 per cent of the children were found to have problems worth noting. We did not have anything like that in the parents’ generation, although many of the parents developed problems over time.”

The study found that 36 per cent of the children have more than one problem, including delayed language and behavioural difficulties, and almost one-quarter have IQ scores below 85, meaning they will probably continue to have developmental delays. Very few of these problems had been identified by health professionals prior to the study.

An additional 11 per cent were experiencing serious family problems, such as parental alcoholism, which indicates that these children may be at risk for problems in the future. A third also had health problems, such as frequent ear infections, heart problems, and other serious conditions. More boys than girls had behavioural, developmental and/or health problems.

While Serbin acknowledges it is not surprising that problems reappear in successive generations, the degree was surprising, as were the severity of some of the problems, and how early they were visible.

On the positive side, 47 per cent of the children are not having problems, and many are doing well. “The temptation is always to focus on the kids who are doing poorly, but the ones who are doing well are also interesting,” she said. The researchers are trying to identify the factors that make children resilient, or able to succeed despite their disadvantaged backgrounds.

Unquestionably, she explained, the most powerful resiliency factor is parental education. “Just finishing high school makes a noticeable difference.” Adequacy of family income, level of stress in the family, and adequacy of social and emotional support for the parents also come into play, as does parenting, especially the mother’s responsiveness to the child.

Cognitive stimulation in the home, including the presence of books and educational toys, is another predictor of success.

“The parents can play a tremendously important role by stimulating their children,” Serbin said. “We didn’t anticipate how powerful a factor this is, but it makes a huge difference in development. This means we could educate parents about how to do this for their kids, and daycares should be regarded as early child development centres, not just babysitting.”

She concluded that “there is a lot of hopeful stuff in here,” and the study has important implications for early intervention and prevention.