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.
Docs Can Help Identify Kids at Risk
She adds that pediatricians may be in a unique position to identify children at risk for learning problems as they enter school, because most school systems require a battery of immunizations during this time.
"Pediatricians can provide guidance and help get children into services for speech or language delays as early as possible," she says.
Because the study involved mostly economically disadvantaged children, it is not clear if the findings apply to children who do not live in poverty.
"We can't say for certain that these findings apply to other populations, but it makes sense that this would be relevant for any child," she says.
Risa J. Garon, who has spent 25 years counseling families dealing with separation from a parent because of divorce and other causes, says learning issues are often overlooked when there is conflict in the family.
Garon is executive director and co-founder of the National Family Resiliency Centers in Maryland, and she has written many books on the subject, including, Talking to Your Child about Separation and Divorce: A Handbook for Parents.
"It is important that the (custodial) parent is involved at school from the beginning and provides the structure to ensure that homework and school work get done," Garon says. "Many parents become lenient because they feel bad about the situation or they are just overwhelmed. But they need to stay vigilant."