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Children's Health

Parental Absence Stifles Kids’ Learning

Children Separated from a Parent Face a Higher Risk of Early Learning Issues and Struggles at School
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 16, 2008 -- Young children who experience separation from a parent are at increased risk for learning problems as they enter kindergarten, new research shows.

While the emotional and behavioral impact of separation from a parent on young children is well recognized, the study is one of the first to examine the effect on learning as children begin school.

Children in the study who had been separated from a parent scored significantly worse than children with intact families in testing designed to measure key early learning issues.

The study included children from mostly economically disadvantaged homes.

"These were children who were already disadvantaged due to poverty who showed learning difficulties even before they started kindergarten," says pediatrician and lead researcher Sandra H. Jee, MD, MPH, of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

'Ripple Effect for Learning'

A total of 1,619 children between the ages of 4 and 6 living in Rochester, N.Y., and entering kindergarten in the fall of 2003 were included in the study.

A parent or caregiver was asked to complete a survey detailing each child's separation from one or both parents during the course of the child's life. The survey did not address the reason for the separation.

Another survey measured the custodial parent or caregiver's assessment of the child's developmental abilities, such as whether he or she could tie shoelaces or cut with scissors.

Measures of healthy development included how well a child learned new tasks, how well he or she used language to express ideas, how literate the child was, and the child's quality of speech.

The surveys revealed that 18% of the children in the study had been separated from a parent for more than one month at least once prior to entering kindergarten.

Overall, children who experienced such separation scored worse than other children in the ability to learn new tasks and in their pre-literacy skills, but not in language and speech skills.

The findings are published in the May/June issue of the journal Ambulatory Pediatrics.

"This study shows that any separation creates a disruption in the family that most likely will have a ripple effect for learning," Jee says.

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