Poverty, stress have far-reaching effects on child development
- study finds By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
July 28, 2002

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Research has shown that the region’s socio-economic development is intrinsically linked to early childhood care and development, Paediatric Epidemiologist and Head of the Department of Child Health, Faculty of the Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies, Dr Maureen Samms-Vaughan, said.

Dr Samms-Vaughan, who in association with others conducted a study of the behaviour and development of Jamaican children in the five to six years age group said that researches have also shown the way forward for Caribbean children and the roles governments, communities and parents need to play in the future development of the Caribbean.

She presented a summary of the study at the first plenary session of the Fourth Caribbean Early Childhood Conference which opened at the Ocean View Hotel and Convention Centre at Liliendaal last Monday.

Many children in the Caribbean, she noted, grow up in a socially challenging environment, that can have long-term effects on their individual development.

The Jamaican study, with relevance to the rest of the Caribbean, she said found that socio-economic status, parenting education, parenting stress and reading books as well as early childhood experience affected every single outcome of children. Nutritional status, supervised leisure activities and the home learning environment also affected most outcomes.

Using a quote, she said, “It will take the political will of governments, the cohesion of communities, the passion of early childhood specialists, the skill of teachers and the love of parents to improve the status of children and the well-being of humanity.”

Giving a background to the study, Dr Samms-Vaughan said it was commissioned by the International Consultative Group on Early Childhood and Development because of concerns of late development, grade repetition and school failure, particularly in developing countries, more so in the primary school. The ICG felt that the problems in the primary environment were related to the pre-school environment. Four countries identified for the research were Colombia, Jordan, Kenya and Jamaica.

The Jamaican study was supported by a number of partners including the UWI, UNICEF (Jamaica) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

The survey followed the national survey which used the Jamaican labour force, taking into account information related to the employment of adults. The survey covered a .5% sample of Jamaican households. The study looked at parenting in terms of family structure, behaviour and academic achievement in terms of the functional and social environment. Parents and teachers were informed about the study.

More TVs, fewer toilets

Dr Samms- Vaughan said it was found that the majority of pre-school children lived in low socio-economic conditions which was not surprising as Jamaica is a developing country. Forty per cent of the major earners of the family were either semi-skilled or unskilled and ten per cent were unemployed or receiving benefits. Some 80% of the families had television but only 30% had modern toilet facilities.

In terms of the effects of children growing up in poverty, cognitive and incognitive tests found, as in other parts of the world that poor performance differences widened after a year.

“Poverty,” she said, “not only had an initial effect but a worsening effect over a period of time.” The study found that behaviour patterns were different. Most children growing up in poverty were more aggressive and more delinquent. Poverty impacted directly on children’s behaviour and indirectly on their social environment.

While poverty eradication is the long-term goal for achieving equity in human resource development, Dr Samms-Vaughan said that governments have the difficult task of improving nation states by providing adequate allocation for the most vulnerable of children. However, it was found that half of the number of children in the region required targeted intervention.

Communities, she said, needed to use their little resources for childhood care and development; while parents needed to educate themselves about responsible parenting, not bearing more children and putting resources into parenting.

Distance parenting

On the structure of families, it was found that the traditional two-parent families were not in the majority but accounted for 40% of families; parenting from a distance was a reality, particularly for fathers; and in 50% of families fathers were absent. The study found that a whopping 25% of fathers never had a live-in relationship with the mother and child; another 25% said that they had lived once together but no longer had a relationship with the child because they became distant with the mother; 25% of fathers were not present because of migration. In cases where the father was absent, either a stepfather, mother’s boyfriend or grandfather — and some of these were constantly changing — took the role of father-figure.

Parenting from a distance or parenting inadequacy (mother not being able to care for child) occurred in only 20% of cases for mothers. Extended family, usually a blood relative, adopted the role.

The study found that most of the parents in their thirties, had only primary education and children from this background suffered the negative effects of migration, single parenting, parenting from a distance, emotional insecurity; and moving from one home to another.

Parents, she said, really need to get the message about how migration impacts on their children. “You’d be surprised how many parents do not understand how migration affects their children. When we move from one country to another, we as adults get stressed, we don’t expect the children to become stressed out but to adapt to environmental changes. We expect them to bounce back.”

Parenting messages, she said, need to address the issue of parenting from a distance and to include the extended family (not only of child-bearing age) which is an integral part of the Caribbean culture. Since many parents are functioning at a primary education level, this means that messages must be delivered at this level to be effective.

This means that the action agenda for government should be, Dr Samms-Vaughan said, that parenting education has to become a national priority. For communities this means that parenting classes must be a main agenda item in schools, churches, community organisation and groups. Family counselling should be available to prevent some of the problems which affect the children due to parenting from a distance. Apart from the need for parents to educate themselves with parenting issues, she said, they needed to identify relationship difficulties, seek amicable solutions and continue parenting despite the distance usually caused by a failure in relationships.


While most Jamaican families were found to function normally across all social classes the study found parents reported high levels of stress. In terms of parenting, parents found children too demanding, lacked a sense of bonding with children, and felt incompetent as parents. The study found that children affected by parental stress did not perform well at school and had more behaviour problems than children who came from homes with less parental stress. Parental stress also led to harsh discipline.

Parental stress, Dr Samms-Vaughan said, must be recognised and acknowledged and efforts made to reduce it must be a national priority because of its effect on children. Community resources should be used to reduce stress; community physicians need to identify and manage stress and parents need to educate themselves about stress, identify it and seek help.

The study also recommended that governments grant tax incentives to businesses that support parenting; education parenting institutions; and have day care centres set up as part of their programmes, among others similarly related. In relation to leisure time, it was found that 80% of the children watched television; few children were consistently reading books - 50% of them read one to two books per month and those who were reading were from the higher socio-economic classes; harsh discipline was common along all the social classes. Excessive television also led to significant behaviour problems.

Children, the study said, should be encouraged to watch less television; take part in more supervised leisure activities; reading clubs should be encouraged; and parental participation in children’s activities should be encouraged.

Government should support children programmes in the communities; and provide for libraries in the communities.

In the area of health and nutrition, Dr Samms-Vaughan said that only five per cent of Jamaican children went to paediatricians for general check-ups.

Burns and scalds were common injuries. Children were generally well-nourished. Very few children had ever been to the dentist for a check-up. Hearing and visual impairment were common. Some 34% had visual impairment and 10 per cent had hearing impairment which were largely unidentified. If parents had identified behavioural problems in children they had not sought any help.

The suggestion was that there was need for the community and government to cause children to be screened at home and at school for medical problems and for parents to take children for regular health checks.