Family Composition and Circumstance

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Debbie Miller

Ellen E. Pinderhughes

Nancy K. Young

Charlie Ferguson


Much research has been conducted on what children need to grow up healthy, ready to learn, and to succeed in school. Many aspects of a child's growth and development, family circumstance, and school success have been studied, analyzed, and reported on in an effort to help parents, educators, health care professionals, and policymakers better understand what they can do to assure a child's success. A review of this research reveals two significant circumstances that seem to have the most impact on a child's growth, development, and ultimate educational success: poverty and family interactions. Barring significant birth defects or injury, these two circumstances hold the key to virtually every aspect of a child's life that affects his or her ability to grow up healthy and to learn. However, it must be noted that these two factors overlap in many respects and cannot be viewed in isolation. In addition, while it is recognized that a child's behavior is what is sometimes most disruptive to the family, due to the child's drug abuse, mental illness, disability, or other factors, the focus here is on the effects of outside factors on the growth and development of the otherwise normal, healthy child.

Effects of Poverty on Children

All other things being equal, children living in extreme poverty or below the poverty line for many years have the worst outcomes for health and school success. (The most chronically poor counties in the United States are in rural areas of Appalachia and in the South.) The effects of poverty are multiple and profound. Children who are born into families living in poverty generally do not receive adequate prenatal care. Lack of good nutrition for a pregnant woman can result in a baby that has a low birthweight, is more vulnerable to illness, is underdeveloped, and is likely to require more care, compared to the child of a well-nourished mother. Healthy brain development in children from birth to three years of age is critical in the development of speech and language, coordination, and reasoning. Children who suffer from poor brain development are at high risk for delayed speech and motor skills, neurological disorders, learning disabilities, and behavior problems.

Children living in poverty do not usually receive proper and timely health care, which can lead to chronic illness, such as asthma, or chronic infections, such as ear infections that can lead to hearing loss. They often do not receive required immunizations, which can delay school entry and lead to serious childhood illnesses. They are also more prone to complications from minor injuries or illnesses. Many mothers living in poverty suffer from depression, making them less able to properly nurture, stimulate, and interact with their children. As a result, their children suffer from neglect, failure to thrive, and decreased brain development.

Poverty frequently means that a family lives in a neighborhood that has a high rate of violence. Housing in these neighborhoods often exposes children to unsafe living conditions, including environmental toxins, poor ventilation, and infestations of rodents and insects. Low-income children have more than triple the risk of lead poisoning, which causes neurological damage and has been linked to lower IQ and long-term behavior problems such as impaired concentration and violence.

Poor families are more likely to be single-parent families with a parent who is young with unstable employment and low earning potential. These parents suffer stress associated with the constant strain of trying to provide adequate food, housing, clothing, and health care for their children. Parents under stress have a more difficult time providing the nurture and support necessary to establish positive bonding, enable speech acquisition, teach problem-solving skills, and promote early learning activities that affect school readiness. Parents living in poverty are more likely to have low educational attainment and less knowledge about early childhood education and brain development in infants. There are generally fewer books, educational toys and games, and outside opportunities for learning, such as family vacations and trips to a museum.

Children living below the poverty line are 1.3 times more likely to experience learning disabilities and developmental delays than are children who are not poor. Children with learning disabilities and developmental delays are more likely to experience school difficulties, and school failure at an early age is a leading indicator in school drop-out rates.

Families living in poverty also experience housing instability. Children who move frequently tend to have fewer friends, experience social isolation, and have higher truancy rates than those who grow up in more stable homes. In addition, social and educational services designed to support families in poverty are disrupted when the family moves frequently. Many families in poverty experience periods of homelessness, which exposes children to communicable diseases and the chaos found in shelters. Homeless children suffer increased rates of illnesses such as diarrhea, asthma, anemia, and infection. Simply being born into poverty affects a child's ability to grow up healthy, to be nurtured in a safe and stable home, to enter school ready to learn, and to remain in school and complete a high school education.

Family Interactions

Researchers have studied the effects on school success of single-parent families, blended families, extended families, divorce, death of a parent, foster care, adoption, and gay families. Within each of these family compositions, examples of children who thrive and children who fail can be found. But more important than family composition is family interactionhow family members relate to each other. Can a child who lives in a two-parent home where there is poor family interaction due to drug abuse, domestic violence, or mental illness be said to be at less risk of school failure than a child born into a single-parent family living in extreme poverty?

Family interaction significantly impacts the development of the children in the home, regardless of income level. However, research does show that certain types of family interactions are more common in low-income homes. For example, drug abuse and poverty are the two most common factors cited in domestic violence and child abuse cases.

In families where one or both parents abuse drugs or alcohol, children are frequently neglected, and sometimes injured or abused. In addition, much of the family income is spent on supporting the drug habit, and the family suffers from the diminished resources available for food, clothes, housing, and medical care. Children growing up in homes where drug abuse is present are frequently exposed to violence, unpredictable behavior, overt displays of sexual behavior, absence of one or both parents, poverty, homelessness, and a lack of consistent supervision. Children are often truant from school and may lack school supplies and appropriate seasonal clothing. Nonrelatives are frequently present in the home and prevent the child from maintaining a close relationship with one or both parents. Children may also be expected to perform most household chores, such as cooking and cleaning, and to care for younger siblings or elderly grandparents. Children living in these circumstances may appear tired, lonely, sad, angry, afraid, malnourished, dirty, withdrawn, aggressive, anxious, or defensive, and they may exhibit a wide array of physical symptoms including complaints of stomachaches and headaches, hair loss from stress, nervous tics, stuttering, and thumb/finger/hand sucking when not age appropriate.

Children who live in homes where neglect, abuse, and/or domestic violence are present suffer many of the same effects as those mentioned above. The interactions between adults, and between adult and child, significantly impact the child's growth and development. Children who are abused or neglected suffer from low self-esteem, anger, depression, fear, anxiety, and feelings of abandonment. They manifest these feelings through physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes sleeping or eating disorders. Very young children are particularly vulnerable to neglect and abuse in homes where domestic violence is present. The victim of domestic violence, which is most often the mother/woman present in the home, may ignore her children to appease the offender. Very young children are particularly at risk of injury or abuse from shaken baby syndrome or battered child syndrome.

Effects of Government Intervention

When the government intervenes to protect children living in homes with drug abuse, domestic violence, or child abuse, the family interactions are again affected. Once a determination is made that a child's safety is at risk, one of two approaches are generally taken: either the child is removed from the home and placed in a home with relatives or in foster care, or the family is provided with in-home counseling and support services. In-home services are considered less intrusive and disruptive to the child and the parent-child relationship. In an ideal situation, the in-home service provider visits with the family members at home and conducts counseling sessions with all family members to help the family interact in more positive ways. However, family members frequently resent the intrusion of an outsider and the child is blamed for the intrusion.

The focus of Child Protective Services, an array of agencies and collaborations designed to assure the safety of children, is specifically on the safety and well-being of the child. As a result, the adults in the home may view the child as the reason for the intervention, causing additional stress on the child. The child may feel guilty that his parents are required to attend counseling sessions, court hearings, or to pay for services. The parents may talk openly around the child about the intrusion and inconvenience of such services, and about their resentment. If the services are not effective, then additional court hearings are held and there may be additional finger pointing and blame directed at the child. Ultimately, the child may be removed from the home, again causing the child to feel that he or she is being punished.

When a child is removed from home, family interactions are very much affected. The child may be in a safer environment, but there is stress associated with the change in living circumstances. In general, the parent may not be happy with the removal of the child from the home. The parent may call or visit the child and accuse the new caretaker (either a relative or foster parent) of not caring for the child properly, and again the parent may cast blame on the child for causing the disruption.

The parents may also be required to make child-support payments while the child is out of the home, and they may have to receive some type of treatment or counseling as a condition for the child to return home. If the parent fails to complete the court-ordered treatment, the child may view that failure as an indication that the parent has abandoned or does not love him or her. It is reasonable to believe that any period of time in which the child is out of the home is a time of stress and confusion. Even when the child feels more physically safe when not at home, there are emotional attachments that bind the child to the home and make the removal difficult.

Effects of Mental Illness

The term mental illness describes a broad range of mental and emotional conditions that disturb a person's behavior, mood, thought processes and/or social interpersonal relationships. Children who live with a family member who is mentally ill must deal not only with the stigma of mental illness in their family, but also with the stress caused by that illness. While the extreme circumstances of mental illness are widely reported in the news (such as mothers who, while suffering from depression, kill their children), the much more common situations of a parent who suffers from some type of mental disorder or a parent who is caring for a relative with mental illness are found in millions of homes in the United States. Some of the most common types of mental illness are:

  • Depression, which is characterized by extreme or prolonged periods of sadness.
  • Schizophrenia, a very severe illness characterized by disordered thought processes that can lead to hallucinations and delusions.
  • Bipolar disorder, which is a brain disorder involving periods of mania and depression.
  • Dementia, which is a loss of mental function usually associated with advanced age and characterized by memory loss, personality change, confusion or disorientation, impairment of judgment, and deteriorating intellectual capacity. There are many types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

Mental illness can occur in any family. When it first occurs, the family members may at first deny that something different has happened. During an acute episode, family members may react with surprise, fear, and alarm, and once the episode is over there may follow a period of relief and calm. But, as symptoms persist, it becomes clear that life will never again be normal.

Children are particularly affected by the strange behavior of a parent or older sibling. They may have little knowledge about mental illness and blame themselves for what is happening to their relationship with a loved one. They are frequently afraid to discuss their feelings with others, particularly their friends or people outside their families, and they therefore become isolated and withdrawn. How other family members handle the situation is critically important to the child. If other family members, particularly the other parent, become distraught and helpless, then the child will become even more distressed.

A child will receive less attention at this time, because other family members are attending to the member with the illness. The child may begin to exhibit behavior problems at home and at school, become depressed or withdrawn, and exhibit sleeping or eating disturbances. Every episode becomes more difficult to handle, and the child may try to escape by running away from home. Even though the child is not being abused, the effects appear similar, with anger, aggression, fear, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and sadness all being possible outcomes.

Similar circumstances exist when a family is faced with caring for an extended family member who develops dementia or any other mental illness. If the family member moves into the home, the child is sometimes displaced from his or her room, daily routines may change, and finances may be strained. All of this is very disruptive to children, particularly school-aged children. It is difficult for a child to see a change in the behavior of a beloved relative (grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.), which might frighten the child. The presence of this person in the household affects the parent-child relationship, as parental responsibility is shifted and there is less time to spend with the child. The resultant stress and concern can create serious family problems. Family life is disrupted and often unpredictable, and the needs of the ill family member often become the priority.

What Do Children Need to Be Successful?

Although much research has focused on issues that negatively affect the outcomes for children, little research has focused on what characteristics make children successful. In the mid-1990s the Search Institute, led by Dr. Peter Benson, conducted a nationwide survey of 100,000 young people in more than 200 communities to learn about the assets of successful teens. This research specifically targeted teenagers, but the implications of how the assets were developed are applicable to children of all ages.

The survey identified forty developmental assets that help young people make better decisions, choose positive pathways, and grow up to be competent, caring, and responsible. These assets are grouped into eight categories: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identification.

Support. Children need to feel loved and supported by their family. Teens reported that spending time with parents, being hugged, being told that they are loved and doing things as a family are important to them. Children learn to love by example. Eating at least one meal per day together as a family, spending time with each child individually, listening and valuing their opinions, respecting their concerns, attending school events, and going to worship together are all examples of how families can show support and love to their children.

Empowerment. Young people need to feel that they are valued by their community and that they have the opportunity to contribute to the welfare of others. They need to feel safe at home, at school, and in the neighborhood. Those surveyed reported that they need and want to feel useful in their communities, and that they need to have opportunities to give service back to the community.

Boundaries and expectations. Young people need to know what is expected of them and whether their activities and behaviors are acceptable, or "inbounds." Boundaries are important not only within the family, but in the school and neighborhood as well. Families need clear rules and consequences for behavior, as well as ways of monitoring behavior. When the rules are clearly communicated and the consequences are fairly and consistently enforced, children are more comfortable controlling their own behavior, and they make better choices. Teenagers report that positive adult role models are helpful and desirable. Adult role models can be teachers, scout leaders, coaches, parents of friends, or adults they meet and know through community activities such as worship, community service, and sports.

Constructive use of time. Young people need opportunities for constructive and creative activities. These opportunities can occur through participation in faith-based organizations and youth programs; through lessons in art, dance, music, drama, and sports; or through learning skills at home, such as cooking, decorating, sewing, building, or designing. Parents can encourage their children to explore arts, sports, or other creative outlets by volunteering to help with a sports team or youth group, or by taking the child to local museums, dance performances, or plays. Activities such as these encourage physical activity, promote problem-solving skills, stimulate creativity, and help young people meet others with similar interests. As an interest in such activities develops, there is less opportunity or interest in watching TV, hanging out on the street with undesirable companions, or experimenting with drugs and sex. As children grow older, parents can encourage them to obtain part-time employment to earn money and teach them how to manage their money.

Commitment to learning. Young people need to develop a lifelong commitment to education and learning. Children need to experience at a very young age that learning is fun and that parents value education. Every effort should be made to assure that the child is successful in school. Parents should also model lifelong learning by engaging in new learning experiences, taking part in community and government life, and helping their children apply their knowledge to real life activities. Parents should visit their child's school, talk with the teacher, and help with homework. Parents can help their children bond with their school by encouraging participation in school activities, showing school spirit, inviting school friends home to work on projects, and participating in school cleanup and work days.

Children who are good readers are better learners, so children should learn to read for pleasure as well as for schoolwork. Parents should start reading to children when they are very young, and they should teach children that books have wonderful stories and interesting information. It is helpful to take children to the public library as soon as they are able to look at picture books. As children grow older, books can be read together and discussed. Parents can start a young-reader book club with their child and their child's friends to encourage them to read together.

Positive values. Young people need to develop strong values that guide their choices. These values include caring, equality and social justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, and restraint (believing that it is important not to use drugs or alcohol and not to be sexually active). These values help young people make good decisions and it is important for parents to help their children develop these values. It is not enough just to tell children what their values should be; parents must demonstrate that they have these values and how these values translate into everyday life. Children learn by example, so if parents are caring, honest, responsible, and demonstrate restraint in the use of drugs and alcohol, then children will learn these things. As a child grows older, parents can label the values and show how they and others incorporate these values into their lives.

Social competencies. Young people need skills and competencies that equip them to make positive choices and to build relationships. Life is full of choices, and how young people make those choices will affect how they spend their time, who their friends are, what work ethics they have, who they choose as a mate, and how they raise their own children. The ability to make choices, and to see how those choices impact the future, is critical in becoming a successful adult. Very young children have a very short sense of time, and they make choices based on what is immediately available to them and what they need or want in that moment. But as children grow older they can learn that choosing to watch TV now means that there is not enough time later to read a story or play a game. Parents can begin to help children understand how a decision will affect their goals. Goal-oriented decision making is a skill that must be learned and practiced successfully.

Another social competency is learning to make friends. Friendships will not last long if a child is self-centered and insensitive to the feelings of others. Parents can help children learn to be empathetic and sensitive by discussing with them how other people feel when they are treated unkindly or when they are hurt. Children learn to respond with empathy and kindness when they see their parents respond to them with these same feelings.

Children must also learn to be comfortable with people of different cultures, races, and ethnic backgrounds. This is sometimes more difficult if the family lives in a very homogenous neighborhood, but through books, films, television programs, and newspapers parents can make children aware of the different people and cultures in the world, and teach them that just because something is different it is not to be feared or disliked. In communities where people of different cultures live, it is important for parents to treat everyone with respect and to introduce their child to experiences of different cultures. Parents can take the child to markets and stores that sell products of different countries, listen to music from other cultures, or invite people of different cultures to speak to a class about their customs, dress, and food.

Children need to learn to resist negative influences and peer pressure. Parents can help by engaging in role-playing situations with them and talking with them about choices that their friends are making. Children need to learn active resistance and about the dangers of being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Children also need to learn how to resolve conflict peacefully. Parents can start teaching children at a very young age that hitting is not acceptable behavior, and how to resolve conflicts without violence. Parents must also model this behavior in their choice of discipline and in their own behavior.

Positive identification. Young people need a strong sense of their own power, purpose, worth, and promise. Teenagers reported in the Search Institute survey that it was important for them to feel that they have control over things that happen to them. Parents can reinforce their children's sense of power and worth in many ways. Helping children learn to make good choices and praising them when those choices are made, helping children identify their strengths and showing them how to use those talents, and giving children time for recognition are all ways of building self-esteem. It is important for young people to feel positive about their future, and to feel that their life has purpose.

Teenagers easily fall into periods of depression due to hormonal changes that occur during different stages of development, and due to the peaks and valleys that occur in friendships and relationships. One day they are on top of the world and the next day everything seems pointless. Some of this is quite normal in the life of a teenager, but parents can help them view their lives with some perspective and minimize the negative feelings that occur.

Parents should not always shield younger children from failure and disappointment. It is important for children to experience failure along with success, as these experiences help cushion hard times later in life. Children who have learned to cope with disappointment and felt the pride of having overcome adversity become much more resilient teenagers and adults.

While much of what has been learned from research on family composition and circumstance seems quite logical, the impact of this research is profound. It helps explain why some children rise above seemingly overwhelming odds of poverty and family composition to succeed, and why others struggle.

See also: Child Protective Services; Family, School, and Community Connections; Family Support Services; Parenting; Poverty and Education.


Benson, Peter L.; Galbraith, Judy; and Espeland, Pamela. 1998. What Kids Need to Succeed. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, and Duncan, Greg J. 1977. "The Effects of Poverty on Children." The Future of Children 7 (2):5571.

DeYoung, Alan J., and Lawrence, Barbara. 1995. "On Hoosiers, Yankees, and Mountaineers." Phi Delta Kappan 77 (2):104112.

National Center for Children in Poverty. 1997. Poverty and Brain Development in Early Childhood. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia School of Public Health.

Sherman, Arloc. 1997. Poverty Matters: The Cost of Child Poverty in America. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.

internet resources

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. 2001. <>.

Pathways to Promise: Ministry and Mental Illness. 2001. "Impact of Mental Illness on Families." <>.

Psychiatry24×7. 2001. <>.

Debbie Miller


In the 1990s an average of 120,000 children were adopted yearly in the United States. Adoption involves the legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from birth parents to adoptive parents. The adopted child, adoptive parents, and birth parents form what is known as the adoptive triad three entities profoundly affected by this process. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 60 percent of Americans are touched by adoptioneither as a relative, friend, or member of the adoption triad.

Most children are placed with their adoptive families through public child-welfare agencies or licensed private adoption agencies. These agencies typically place children after obtaining legal custody of children due to the voluntary or involuntary termination of birth parents' rights. Children are also placed with adoptive parents directly by birth parents; attorneys typically facilitate this process of independent adoptions.

Although the legal exchange of rights and responsibilities of parenthood is common to all adoptions, there are different types of adoption. Infant adoptions involve the placement of infants; older-child adoptions typically involve the placement of children over age three. In transracial adoptions children of one race are placed with a family of a different race, while in international adoptions children from one country are placed with a family in another country.

Adoptions vary in how much contact or information is shared between adoptive parent and birth parent. Harold Grotevant and Ruth McRoy offer the following definitions: confidential adoptions involveno contact at all; mediated adoptions involve the exchange of nonidentifying information through a third party; and fully disclosed adoptions involve the exchange of at least some identifying information and often include face-to-face meetings.

Adoption and Children's Development

Two questions typically get asked about adopted children. First, are they better off in adoptive families than they would have been in foster care, institutions, or with their birth families? Coping with the loss of the birth parent is often an important theme for adopted children. However, research on their adjustment clearly shows that they have more positive emotional and behavioral adjustment than children who are raised in foster care, in institutions, or with birth families who continue to have serious problems that impair parenting. Furthermore, Richard Barth and his colleagues have shown that adoption in infancy can greatly minimize the vast problems in learning, social relationships, and emotional development among children who were prenatally exposed to drugs. So, adoption can be an appropriate solution for children whose birth parents cannot, or will not, provide adequate safety and nurturance.

Second, how do adopted children fare in comparison with children in families that more closely resemble their adoptive families? Adopted children tend to receive more mental health serviceswhich some professionals view as a sign that adopted children have many more problems than do their peers. However, adoptive parents also are more likely to seek professional helpfor various reasonsthan are biological parents. In general, many studies suggest that most adopted children tend to have more adjustment problems than nonadopted children. These problems include school adjustment and learning problems; impulsive, hyperactive, or rule-breaking behavior; and drug use. However, it is important to note that for most adopted children, these problems fall within what is considered a normal range.

Given the slightly higher risk for adopted children to have adjustment difficulties, what are important issues that adoptive families face as children develop? In infancy and toddlerhood, the critical challenge is for adoptive parents to form healthy relationships with the child. Known as a secure attachment, this relationship can enable the child to have success in later years forming friendships, learning in school, and learning about the world.

In the preschool years the important step for parents is to begin the process of telling about adoption. David Brodzinsky's work indicates that teaching children about adoption is an ongoing process throughout childhood that should start with words that the child can understand. He and his colleagues have shown that children's understanding of adoption evolves over yearsfrom an ability in the pre-school years to make a simple distinction between adoption and birth as paths into a family, to an ability in adolescence to understand the abstract themes associated with termination of parental rights and adoption.

During the elementary years, as adopted children become able to understand that in order to be adopted someone had to give them up, they become vulnerable to having difficulties with their sense of self. During these years, it is especially important for parents and adopted children to talk openly about adoption.

In the adolescent years, when youth rework their identity, the meaning of being adopted may have little or great significance, depending on how adoption has been handled by family, peers, and the larger community. As adopted adolescents work on their identity, they may explore questions of searching for information about one's birth parents. Marshall Schechter and Doris Bertocci note that although young people vary in their need for information about, or contact with, birth parents, their curiosity about their origins is quite normal. Although little is known about the outcome of searching during adolescence, adults who have searched for birth families have generally been satisfied with the outcome.

Unique Issues with Different Types of Adoption

Placements of children from foster care are somewhat risky: 10 to 15 percent disrupt or fail, sending children back to foster care. Children who are older, or have severe behavior problems (e.g., fire setting, sexual acting-out, suicidal behavior) are most likely to experience disruption. The adopted child comes with his or her own experiences with previous families and expectations for how families function, and these do not always fit with the expectations that adoptive families have. Flexible parenting styles, maintaining realistic expectations about the adoptee and the placement, and a clear commitment to the placement are important qualities that can enable families to be successful.

In international adoptions challenges for families include medical problems and cultural differences. Children who come from countries lacking in adequate medical care often have physical problems, including infectious disease, growth delay, and neurological diagnoses as a result of their preadoptive experiences. In addition, language and other cultural differences between the adopted child's home country and the adoptive family's country may further complicate adoptive family life.

Transracial adoptions have been very controversial, largely because they often involve European-American parents and adopted children of color. Research generally shows that transracially adopted children can adjust as well as children adopted by families of the same race. The success of such placements are determined, at least in part, by how well adoptive parents promote a sense of ethnic pride, how well they raise their children to be prepared for the discrimination they face, and how well they function as a family of color in the world.


Adoption provides children and families with an alternate path to family life that can be both similar to and different from biological family life. Usually, the differences pose unique challenges and complications for family life and children's development; however most adopted children tend to adjust as normally as do nonadopted children. An understanding of the complications and similarities by allnot just the 60 percent of persons touched by adoptioncan facilitate more appropriate support for adoptive families and adopted children.

See also: Family Composition and Circumstance, subentry on Foster Care; Out-of-School Influences and Academic Success; Parenting.


Barth, Richard P.; Freundlich, Madelyn; and Brodzinsky, David M. 2000. Adoption and Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Exposure: Research, Policy and Practice. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Brodzinsky, David M., and Pinderhughes, Ellen E. 2002. "Parenting and Child Development in Adoptive Families." In Handbook of Parenting, 2nd edition, ed. Marc H. Bornstein. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brodzinsky, David M. ; Singer, Leslie M.; and Braff, Anne M. 1984. "Children's Understanding of Adoption." Child Development 55:869878.

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. 1997. Benchmark Adoption Survey: Report on the Findings. New York: Evan B. Donaldson Institute.

Grotevant, Harold D., and McRoy, Ruth G. 1998. Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Groza, Victor, and Rosenberg, Karen F. 2001. Clinical and Practice Issues in Adoption: Bridging the Gap Between Adoptees Placed as Infants and as Older Children. Westport, CT: Bergen and Garvey.

Schecter, Marshall D., and Bertocci, Doris. 1990. "The Meaning of the Search." In The Psychology of Adoption, ed. David M. Brodzinsky and Marshall D. Schechter. New York: Oxford University Press.

internet resources

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute 2002. "Overview of Adoption in the Unites States." <>.

National Adoption Information Clearing-house. 2000. "Adoption: Numbers and Trends." <>.

Ellen E. Pinderhughes


Substance abuse is a family disease, one that can be transmitted both genetically and through the family environment. Children in families are affected by substance abuse in several ways, as illustrated in Figure 1. This chart shows that legal and illegal use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATOD) can affect children through a number of avenues, including prenatal exposure in utero. This has very powerful policy implications, including its message that prenatal drug exposure, while very important in its effects on younger children, is only one of the several ways that children can be affected by these substances. Children are also exposed through their parents' and caretakers' use and abuse, through commercial media messages advertising alcohol and tobacco, and through community norms and regulations regarding substance use. The legality of a substance, as well as the way in which children are exposed to its use, plays a significant role in its effect on a child. Often, an emphasis is placed on the effects of illicit drugs, rather than on the harmful effects of tobacco and alcohol. At the federal level, for example, there is an annual "National Drug Policy Strategy" document; no such documents exist for alcohol or tobacco.


Both prenatal and postnatal exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs can affect children in lasting ways. Children who fail to form secure attachments to their parents or caregivers because of their parents' or caregivers' inability to give them sustained attention, children who live in a home where violence and substance abuse are frequent, children who grow up in neighborhoods where there are ten times as many liquor outlets and ads as in the rest of the community, adolescents who receive daily messages that to use alcohol is to be surrounded by attractive people having funall of these situations can have a lasting effect on the children involved.

According to the California State Commission on Children and Families, "prenatal exposure to tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs increases a child's risk of mental retardation, neurodevelopmental deficits, attention deficit disorders with hyperactivity, fine-motor impairment, as well as more subtle delays in motor performance and speech. Maternal smoking and infant exposure to environmental tobacco smoke has been linked to asthma, low birth weight and an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome" (p. 56).

As important as these effects are, however, a 1999 report of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cited data showing that 11 percent of all children in the nation live with a parent who is either alcoholic or in need of treatment for their abuse of illicit drugs. According to this report, "children prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol represent only a small proportion of the children affected and potentially endangered by parental substance abuse" (p. ix).

Thus, as important as prenatal exposure is, a much larger number of children are exposed to milder effects of substance abuse than those exposed to its extreme effects in utero such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which has definite facial and other characteristics. The policy and practice questions this raises include whether measurable results will be more readily achieved by targeting severe or milder risk cases; and for which children, and at which points in their development, intervention should be attempted. It may be more appropriate to think of treatment funds being allocated to the most affected children and families, early intervention funds being allocated to those that are at risk of becoming seriously involved, and prevention funds being allocated to a much wider group of children whose needs are not as severe.

How Are Schools Affected?

For schools, the issues of substance abuse in families arise at many levels of the preschool and school experience. These include:

  • The mandated responsibility of schools to identify younger preschool-age children with disabilities, some of whom have been affected by exposure to alcohol and drugs.
  • The effects of parental substance abuse on early learning, such as parents' willingness and ability to read to their children regularly.
  • The effects of parental substance abuse on the home learning environment, such as whether there is a quiet place to study and a predictable schedule for homework.
  • The effects of parental substance abuse on the development of peer-resistance skills that address the learned techniques of responding to negative pressure from peers.
  • The effects of adolescent substance experimentation, use, and abuse on learning and social skills.

A 2001 analysis of the impact of substance abuse on schools conducted by researchers at Columbia University found that "substance abuse and addiction will add at least $41 billion10 percentto the costs of elementary and secondary education this year, due to class disruption and violence, special education and tutoring, teacher turnover, truancy, children left behind, student assistance programs, property damage, injury and counseling" (Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, p. 6).

Schools' Responses

Schools have responded with a variety of practices and policies, ranging from zero-tolerance zones to drug resistance education and individual counseling. Recent assessments of "what works" have emphasized the following ingredients in successful school-based and school-linked programs:

  • They are developmentally appropriate.
  • They are culturally sensitive.
  • They include the perspectives of young people.
  • They have sufficient dosage (and when needed, booster features) to make a difference. In this context dosage refers to the intensity of the program; some models of prevention programs provide as little as 17 hours of instruction during the fifth grade year, which has been shown to be an inadequate dosage to achieve any lasting impact.
  • They are multifaceted, reflecting the dimensions of peers, parents, and the larger community.
  • They are evaluated in enough depth to make midcourse corrections possible.

The U.S. Department of Education has rated several programs "exemplary" and "promising," based on seven criteria developed by the department.

It should also be pointed out that from birth to age eighteen children spend only 9 percent of their lives physically at school, suggesting that one of the most important things schools can also do to respond to the problems of substance abuse is to support effective family-and community-focused prevention and intervention programs.


The effects of family substance abuse on schools and learning are pervasive. However, as concerns about adolescent tobacco, drug, and alcohol use have grown, so have the tools available to respond with both preventive and intervention activities. Schools should not venture into these arenas alone, but need to understand the available approaches and the literature on what works.

See also: Drug and Alcohol Abuse, subentry on School; Risk Behaviors, subentry on Drug Use Among Teens.


California State Commission on Children and Families. 2000. Guidelines. Sacramento, CA: State Commission on Children and Families.

Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. 2001. Malignant Neglect: Substance Abuse and America's Schools. New York: Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Drug Strategies, Inc. 2000. Making the Grade: A Guide to School Drug Prevention Programs. Washington, DC: Drug Strategies.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1999. Blending Perspectives and Building Common Ground. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services.

Young, Nancy K. 1997. "Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Children." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 29 (1):2342.

internet resource

U.S. Department of Education. 2001. "Safe, Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools: Expert Panel for Exemplary and Promising Programs." <>.

Nancy K. Young


According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's Children's Bureau, the number of children in foster care nationwide increased 93 percent between 1986 and 1999, from approximately 280,000 children to 581,000 children. Approximately 70 percent of the children in foster care in 1999 (405,000) were school-age children. The following paragraphs provide a definition of foster care before discussing the influence of foster care on students' academic growth and development.

Foster Care

Foster care is a substitute arrangement for children whose families are not able to provide basic social, emotional, and physical care, and who therefore require a substitute caregiver to assume the parental role to provide care, supervision, and support, on a short-or long-term basis. According to the Child Welfare League of America, "children should be removed from their parents and placed in out-of-home care only when it is necessary to ensure their safety and well-being" (p. 7).

Foster care (i.e., out-of-home care) is part of an array of child-welfare services that includes family support programs, family preservation programs, and permanency planning. The array can be described as a continuum, with out-of-home care viewed as a third line defense, following family preservation programs. Family support efforts focus on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, working to educate parents and alleviate a multitude of stressors that may increase the likelihood of maltreatment. Family preservation programs, foster care, and permanency planning efforts occur after a charge of child abuse or neglect has been substantiated by the public child-welfare agency. Family preservation programs, though not instituted in all abuse and neglect cases, provide intensive, in-home services in an effort to avoid out-of-home placement. Permanency planningefforts to establish a permanent home for the child, either with his or her biological family, through adoption, or in legal guardianshipbegins immediately, and permanency is the final goal for a child involved with the child-welfare system. Foster care is defined as a temporary arrangement for children while their families work to resolve the issues that resulted in an out-of-home placement for the child. However, foster care may also be a long-term option when other permanency efforts (i.e., family reunification, adoption, legal guardianship) are not successful.

Children may live in a variety of foster-care settings, depending on the characteristics of their case. Children with urgent substitute care needs may be placed in receiving or shelter homes for a short period of time. Like the array of child-welfare services, the remaining foster-care placement settings can be viewed as a continuum from the least restrictive environment and level of service intensity to the most restrictive environment and level of service intensity. In kinship foster care, children are placed with a relative; licensing requirements and eligibility for a foster-care payment for costs associated with raising the child depend on policies set by individual states. Family foster care is provided by foster parents who are licensed by a state or county after completing minimal training and meeting health and safety standards, and they receive a federal or state fostercare payment for each child residing in their home. Foster family agencies are private agencies contracted and licensed by the state or county to provide substitute care similar to family foster care but often with a greater level of service intensity. Group homes and residential treatment centers serve children with more specialized needs (i.e., emotional and behavioral difficulties) than other placement settings, are generally operated by private agencies contracted and licensed by the state or county, are more restrictive in their environment and therapeutic in their focus, and are staffed by individuals with more specific skills.

Vulnerability of Children in Child Welfare

School-age children in foster care have any number of life experiences that make them vulnerable to bad outcomes, particularly if those experiences occurred at a young age. Judith A. Silver provides an overview of the risk factors frequently experienced by children who become involved with the child-welfare system and are placed in foster care. Citing Arnold Sameroff, Silver notes that the link between risk factors and outcomes is not deterministic, but the risk factors increase the likelihood of having a negative outcome, such as low test scores. Poverty, the principal risk factor, is a condition faced by the majority of families known to the child-welfare system. Poverty's impact ranges beyond low-socioeconomic status, influencing the effect of other risk factors. A second risk factor, maternal substance abuse, is associated with negative outcomes for children (i.e., low birth weight, premature birth) that influence neurodevelopmental functioning. Exposure to violence, whether during pregnancy or in the home as a child, is another important risk factor that affects a child's mental health as well as his or her cognitive development and ability to learn. Attachment (the stable, emotional connection with a caregiver) is an important consideration for children in foster care, given that the natural parenting structure has collapsed, children have been removed from their biological families, and face placement within a new and unfamiliar home with new and unfamiliar people. Finally, a substantial proportion of children in foster care are there due to the maltreatment inflicted upon them by a caregiver. Maltreatment can vary (physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect), but "all forms have predictable outcomes: devastating effects on sense of self, and emotional, social, and cognitive capabilities" (Silver, p. 15).

The Impact of Foster Care on Student Learning

The impact of foster care on student learning is difficult to assess. The difficulty is due to what Gilles Tremblay calls a "constellation of factors" that determines the influence of foster care on a child (p.87). Tremblay has organized the factors into five categories: (1) factors relating to the child; (2) familial factors; (3) placement factors; (4) factors related to professional assistance; and (5) external factors. Parsing out the influence of these additional variables to gauge the unique effect of being in care on student learning is problematic.

The educational standing of school-age foster children while in foster care and when leaving foster care is less ambiguous. Researchers using cognitive assessments, academic achievement outcomes, school completion outcomes, and school behavior outcomes as a measure of scholastic achievement have found that children are not faring well while in foster care, or when they leave the foster-care system at the point of their eighteenth birthday.

School-age children in foster care have not faired well in general IQ assessments or on more specific assessments of cognitive functioning. According to reports by Annick Dumaret (1985), Mary Fox and Kathleen Arcuri (1980), and Theresa McNichol and Constance Tash (2001), average IQ scores were 100 or below, and a high number of those studied (up to 46%) were rated as doing poorly on assessments of cognitive functioning.

Performance at the age-appropriate grade level, grade retention, course grades, test scores, and graduation are common indicators of academic performance. A number of studies have found that large percentages (up to 47%) of children in foster care were performing below grade level and that children in foster care were behind in their progress or performing below average across a range of academic subjects. In addition, a high percentage (up to 90%) of children in foster care repeated at least one grade over their academic career. Researchers also reported that low percentages of students in foster care achieved passing grades, and many had low grade point averages. Children in foster care did not make gains in standardized test scores over time while in care, and scores were below the fiftieth percentile. School completion percentages were low for children discharged from foster care on their eighteenth birthday and a high percentage of children in foster care reported dropping out of school.

School behavior outcomes are important components of educational progress. Attendance appeared to be problematic for some children in foster care, as did general classroom behavior. Study findings for suspension and expulsions were less definitive.


Assessing the impact of foster care on student learning is difficult due to the influence of various factors. However, research indicates that school-age children in foster care face difficulties in the learning process. Additional research, as well as policies and interventions, are required to assist children in achieving educational goals to ensure a lasting quality of life.

See also: Child Protective Services; Family Composition and Circumstance, subentry on Adoption; Out-of-School Influences and Academic Success.


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Charlie Ferguson

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