Applied Psychology OPUS

Child Maltreatment and Resilience in the Academic Environment

by Josephine Palmeri

         Success within the academic environment is an important value instilled during childhood. Children who are able to gain academic success within their school years are more likely to have an overall sense of well-being throughout childhood and into adulthood (CDC, 2011a). Although it may be ideal for all children to perform well within the school environment, there are many outside factors that can hinder a child’s potential for academic success. Particularly, negative health outcomes related to child maltreatment such as neglect, hunger, and all forms of abuse (i.e., sexual, physical, and emotional) are strong indicators of poor academic performance (CDC, 2011a). Children who are maltreated are less attentive and engaged in school, have higher absenteeism, lower grades, lower test scores, and are more likely to drop out of school than children who are not maltreated (Langsford et al., 2007; Leiter, 2007; Shonk & Cicchetti, 2001; Vig & Kaminer, 2002). Unfortunately, over three million children across the United States are reported as experiencing maltreatment per year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010), which suggests that a significant portion of the American student population is subject to performing poorly in school.

        While a substantial amount of research claims that child maltreatment leads to academic failure, a growing body of literature conversely claims that said relationship differs depending on the personal experience of the individual and the specific type of maltreatment encountered (Coohey, Renner, Hua, Zhang, & Whitney, 2011; Jaffee & Gallop, 2010). The shift in perspective of the literature stems from the gap between the ways in which the construct of child maltreatment was formerly measured and is currently defined. Specifically, child maltreatment is defined as any act or series of acts of child abuse or neglect performed by a parent or other caregiver (e.g., religious leader, coach, or teacher) that result in harm to a child (CDC, 2011b). Because there are many different components that make up child maltreatment, researchers deconstructed this definition by type (i.e., abuse vs. neglect), length of time, and severity when examining how it relates to academic success (Coohey et al., 2011). As a result, recent literature shows that certain factors may compensate for the negative impact that maltreatment has on children’s academic achievement by allowing them to positively adjust to their negative situation (Coohey et al., 2011; Jaffee & Gallop, 2010). Thus, contrary to a formerly held and popular belief, maltreated children have the potential to succeed academically despite experiences of abuse or neglect.

        Formerly maltreated individuals who are able to overcome the negative affects of their abuse are regarded as “resilient”. Resiliency is defined as a process in which individuals display positive adaption despite experiences of adversity (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000). Luthar and Cicchetti (2000) developed a two-dimensional risk-resilience framework that includes being exposed to an adversity (i.e., risk) followed by the manifestation of a positive adjustment outcome (i.e., resilience). The positive adjustment outcome acts as a protective factor in the context of high-risk adversities, which may lessen their ability to negatively affect the individual. In the context of child maltreatment, protective factors can manifest through a variety of different venues. In particular, the maltreated child’s innate personal traits or attributes serve as significant protective factors against academic failure (Punamaki, Qouta, El Sarraj, & Montgomery, 2006). For example, Coohey et al. (2011) found that children with high levels of intelligence retained high reading and math scores despite encountering maltreatment. Children of high intelligence are also able to overcome the hardships associated with their maltreatment and adapt to the classroom environment by utilizing the resources available to them. In addition, Coohey et al. (2011) also found that those who were maltreated and were diagnosed with behavior problems had higher reading and math scores than those who were not diagnosed with behavior problems. The researchers suggest that this finding may be due to the extra attention that is often given to both students of high intelligence and students with behavior problems. Therefore, a child’s maltreatment is not masked by innate personality traits (e.g., high intelligence or misbehavior) and may serve as a protective factor for this population in that some trains direct school personnel to uncover the child’s abuse or neglect.

        While the findings of Coohey et al. (2011) show the diversity of personal sources of resilience, it may also suggest that maltreated children of average intelligence or behavior can go unnoticed within the classroom setting. Children who are maltreated, but not attention grabbing or seeking, may not be given the same opportunities or access to resources if they do not display a need for help, which can be especially difficult if the abuse has yet to be an invasive problem. In order to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to positively adjust and succeed academically, future interventions may find it useful to examine the behavioral patterns of maltreated children with high intelligence or behavior problems. Both groups of children are able to develop resiliency towards their adversities by gaining attention and using their support seeking skills. Therefore, interventions can incorporate these attention and support seeking skills into the classroom environment in hopes that all children (i.e., not just children with high intelligence or behavior problems) will seek help when needed, which in turn may manifest resiliency towards the onset of academic failure.

        Along with personal traits and attributes, research suggests that certain demographic factors of children who encounter maltreatment, such as gender and race, can be a protective factor against academic problems. Research shows that females are twice more likely to develop resiliency than males (DuMont, Spatz Widom, & Czaja, 2007). Females are less impacted by the stigmatization related to being abused or neglected, which enables them to seek help and grow from their experiences…Jaffee and Gallop (2010) found that race can also be a protective factor. More specifically, the researchers used a national survey to examine academic achievement in 2,065 children who were placed into child protective services. The results indicated that although approximately 40 percent of the participants were functioning normatively within the school environment, children who identified as Black were less likely to achieve or maintain resilience than the children who identified as White. The researchers imply that these findings are related to the widespread achievement test gap between the Black and White populations (e.g., Aronson, 2010; Jaffee & Gallop, 2010), which shows that demographical attributes can impair resiliency as well. Overall, these findings suggest that certain populations (e.g., males, blacks) should be targeted when developing interventions on promoting academic achievement in children who were maltreated.

        Resiliency is not only an effect of certain demographic factors, but environmental influences have the power to foster or squelch resilience. For example, social supports, secure attachment to primary caregivers, positive relationships with adults, and communication/emotional sharing with others are all protective factors against adversities (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000). In cases where child maltreatment is not occurring within the home, a supportive family environment that provides nurturance, stable family relationships, child monitoring, parental employment, and access to health care are all useful coping mechanism in that they allow the child to positively adjust within a safe space. However, limited literature examines how these protective factors may influence the academic achievement of maltreated children. One reason that this paucity exists is because roughly 80% of child maltreatment occurs within the child’s home, specifically by the child’s parents (CDC, 2010; Gilbert et al., 2009). Thus, children who are maltreated within their homes may not develop resiliency through secure attachment and positive relationships with their parents, yet may be able create positive relationships in a supportive environment outside of the home.

        Children who are maltreated often seek support from community members such as teachers or other adults in school (CDC, 2011c), as well as from their peers. Essentially, social support systems play a crucial role in promoting resilience among maltreated children. Within the literature on children maltreatment there is a trend suggesting that the school environment plays a substantially important role in promoting resiliency against academic failure (CDC, 2011c; Coohey et al., 2011; Jaffee & Gallop, 2010). Those children who had social support and resources to cope with their maltreatment typically gained these means through academic connections. This may suggest that older maltreated children are less likely to receive academic support due to their increased likelihood of academic failure. Therefore, future interventions should stress the importance of social support within the school environment of young children who follows into middle childhood and adolescence. Both maltreated and non-maltreated children will realize at a young age that they have access to resources that will help in times of adversities if they have a community and strong social support.

        While research on the role of resiliency in the relation between child maltreatment and academic achievement has grown over the years, there is still an extensive amount of research to be conducted. More specifically, the experiences of maltreated children can vary based on many different factors—whether it is their experiences of maltreatment, their personality traits, or factors outside of their home (e.g., socioeconomic status and neighborhood). Since the manifestation of resiliency can vary based on all of these factors, it may be difficult for interventions to promote resiliency in all maltreated children because different protective factors may only work for certain populations. However, researchers should continue to examine the role of resiliency across populations and different cases of maltreatment. By researchers taking into consideration that child maltreatment is not a uniform experience, future interventions may be able to develop preventive measures that work within and across populations.


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Author's Biography

Josephine M. Palmeri is a senior in the Applied Psychology Honors program. She is currently a member of Dr. Selcuk Sirin's Meta-Analysis of the Paradox (MAP) research team. Her honors research project examined the relation between acculturative stress and risk-taking behaviors in first generation immigrant adolescents within an urban context. Her main research interest lies in adolescent development. After graduating, she plans to continue her studies in a counseling psychology graduate program.