The Impact of Exposure to Violence in School Aged Children and Cognitive Development

For many children, trauma exposure is a common and chronic experience. Chronic trauma exposure during childhood significantly increases the risk for emotional/behavioral disorders and academic failure (Overstreet & Mathews, 2011). Childhood trauma is a complex experience that can include abuse, maltreatment, and neglect and is a highly prevalent, major social problem of worldwide concern.The prevalence of physical child abuse has been reported to be as high as 44.1% in countries with emerging economies and 35% in North American community samples.

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Experiencing severe traumatic events during childhood is associated with poor functioning, cognitive deficits, and a variety of psychiatric conditions in adulthood (B??cker, et al., 2012). The purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between the exposure to trauma and the child’s cognitive development, emotional and behavioral problems.

Children who are exposed to familial violence and traumatic experiences are reported to have difficulties with a range of emotional and behavioral problems (e.g., lower school achievement) that implicate executive function (EF) deficits (DePrince, Weinzierl, & Combs, 2009).(1) Literature ReviewThis paper will use one of the three basic components of Piaget’s Cognitive Theory, schemas. Schemas are the basic building blocks of such cognitive models and enable us to form a mental representation of the world. Piaget (1952, p. 7) defined a schema as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.” Piaget emphasized the importance of schemas in cognitive development and described how they were developed or acquired. A schema can be defined as a set of linked mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and to respond to situations. The assumption is that we store these mental representations and apply them when needed (Piaget, 1952).

Exposure to trauma can lead children to certain consequences when they try to organize old or new knowledge. This means that a child exposed to trauma may not be able to gain new information from his or her past experience or use this information to create future experiences. According to DePrince, Weinzierl, and Combs (2009), executive functions (EFs) are comprised of such diverse abilities as directing attention, manipulating information in working memory, and self-monitoring. These functions are critical to goal-directed behavior, allowing us to maintain, update, and integrate information to “navigate our ever-changing environmental context”(Willcutt et al., 2005, p. 185). Therefore, Piaget’s cognitive development of schema explains the child’s ability to interpret and organize new information throughout his or her academic learning. Piaget used the word schema, as the cognitive or mental structures by which individuals intellectually adapt to and organize the environment (Wadsworth, 2004). Whereas, a child who has been exposed to trauma cannot develop logically but develop negative effects and functioning with emotional and behavioral difficulties.(2)

Trauma and Emotional and Behavioral ProblemsExposure to domestic violence may affect a child’s development negatively over time. According to Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith, and Jaffe (2003), a general amount of children’s development outcomes are modified by exposure to domestic violence, in particular social, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and general health. The assumption in the study was that exposure to domestic violence created a negative impact on the children’s emotional and behavioral adjustment over and above other factors. The researchers identified 41 studies that were relevant and acceptable by using a meta-analysis. A meta-analytic technique facilitates the combination of using a vast amount of studies to be refined and to interpret end results (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, & Kenny, 2003). The results showed that 40 of those studies showed that children who are exposed to violence will experience more difficult times than their other peers. In addition, the impact of exposure to violence shows a connection to other factors such as a child’s environment, family, and individual characteristics. Results found that children who are both witnesses and victims function more poorly than those who only witness the violence.

Also, a negative outcome showed that PTSD symptoms appeared to be one outcome, mainly in younger children. Lehmann’s (1997) study of child witnesses also found significant PTSD symptoms in over half of the sample, highlighting the interaction between trauma and the developmental stage of the child at the time of exposure. However, questions still remain unanswered in terms of long-term and short-term adjustments related to the adaptation to a traumatic experience (Wolfe, et al., 2003). Overall, progress has been made in determining possible factors that bring about exposure to violence, which is the environment, family, and individual characteristics. Families who are not aware of these factors may continue to lead children to be exposed to violence and be affected negatively.        Researchers state that exposure to violence is complex because it includes behaviors such as observing, hearing, watching the immediate effects of the event, or being told about the occurrence of the event. Spilsbury, Belliston, Drotar, Drinkard, Kretschmar, Creeden, Flannery and Friedman (2007) conducted a study, to analyze characteristics of domestic violence and stages of both behavioral and traumatic symptoms in a community and an ethnically mixed sample of 687 children who had witnessed violence. The data was collected by mental health specialists one to two weeks after the violence event occurred during family visits. The data included a review of the violent events that started the actions, an environmental checklist that took place on the mental health specialists’ first visit to the home, a family background questionnaire, and other measures of distress, trauma symptoms, and behavior problems (Spilsbury, et al., 2007). Overall, researchers found high levels of traumatic symptoms and behavioral problems in the sample of witnesses and children exposed to violence. Research on the effects on children of various traumatic events, such as disasters, accidents, and assaults, has generally indicated that the potential for psychological problems increases in situations viewed as personally threatening (Fletcher, 2003; Joseph et al., 1997; Nader, 2004; Yule, 1993).

Studies and researchers have shown that being exposed or witnessing violence can be perceived differently by every child. In the event of experiencing violence and co-victimization is important from a child’s perspective. Wolfe, et al. (2003) found that child co-victimization (child also assaulted/attacked during the domestic violence event) led to increased odds of that child reaching clinically significant levels of traumatic symptoms compared to children who witnessed the event but were not victimized. Kernic et al. (2003), found that the relative risk of behavior problems for children both exposed to domestic violence and victim of child maltreatment was greater in size than those for children exposed to domestic violence only. Their results suggested that being victimized is very important and a result of being underscored. Not knowing how to identify the different types of exposure to the importance of whether the child is just a witness or also a victim can later be associated with trauma symptoms such as anger, anxiety and posttraumatic stress.The impact of violence exposure goes beyond emotional and behavioral disorders. It affects children’s views of the world and of themselves, their ideas about the meaning and purpose of life, their expectations for future happiness, and their moral development (Garbarino et al., 1991, Ney et al., 1994). According to Margolin and Gordis (2000), many children experience or observe violence within the confines of their own homes or within their own neighborhoods. The problems posed by children’s exposure to violence not only affect children’s physical health and safety, but also their psychological adjustment, social relations, and academic achievement. The purpose of this study was to was examine internalizing and externalizing behaviors associated with exposure to violence and how violence can disrupt typical developmental trajectories through psychobiological effects, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cognitive consequences, and peer problems using theoretical and empirical literature on children’s reactions to three types of violence; child maltreatment, community violence and interparental violence (Margolin & Gordis, 2000). Researchers concluded that the experience physical abuse teaches aggressive behaviors and acceptance of aggression as a norm in close relations (Dodge et al., 1997).

Margolin and Gordis (2000) mentioned that the data suggested childhood victimization experiences are related to a variety of aggressive and violent behavior problems that comes in relation to elevated levels of aggression and externalizing problems among maltreated children and those who have been physically abused (Dodge et al., 1990, Kolko, 1992). Although this behavior can be considered self-destructive, it can also be considered self-preservative, given that children tend to run away from home situations in which they are at risk for harm (Farber et al., 1984). Margolin and Gordis (2000) suggest that continued attention to identifying the variability in children’s reactions to violence and how the nature of response relates to developmental stage and environmental circumstances will assist in identifying important targets for intervention and prevention.(2) Trauma and Academic AchievementAccording to Margolin and Gordis (2000), abuse and exposure to violence have been linked to delayed cognitive development and poor academic functioning. However, violence has been linked to poor academic outcomes in children, but there is little understanding of the process underlying this relation (Lepore & Kliewer, 2013).

A longitudinal survey conducted by Lepore and Kliewer (2013) analyzed if sleep disturbance potentially mediates the associations between academic achievement and two forms of violence exposure; community violence and peer victimization. The purpose of the study focused on understanding the relationship between the violence exposure and academic achievement using two forms of violence mentioned above. 498 seventh grade students from three public schools participated in the study by using a modified version of the Survey of Children’s Exposure to Community Violence (Richters & Saltzman, 1990). The survey assessed the frequency when the child has been directly victimized (hit, slapped, or punched) or witnessed forms of violence. The participants specified how often they were victimized or witnessed violence in the past year (Lepore & Kliewer, 2013).

The researchers hypothesized that violence exposure in the community or peer victimization would be positively correlated with sleep disturbance, which would be negatively associated with GPA. The end result was that higher levels of violence exposure were associated with more than one type of violence, increasing the risk for poorer academic outcomes among youth. These results suggest that sleep problems to help account for how violence exposure might affect academic performance (Buckhalt et al., 2009b; Wolfson and Carskadon, 2003). Furthermore, this study showed that the exposure to violence is a risk factor for academic achievement outcomes in children. Overall, children who show academic problems and sleep disturbances comes to show that they might be witnessing or directly experiencing violence in their life (Lepore & Kliewer, 2013).A recent national study found that over half (56.8%) of children in the United States who reported being exposed to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) had also been maltreated in their lifetimes (Hamby, Finkelhor, Turner, & Ormrod, 2010). However, child exposure to IPV in the U.S. vary. Being exposed to IPV has shown to affect three to four-million children annually (Yates, Dodds, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2003). Kiesel, Piescher, and Edleson (2016) conducted a study that examined the relationship among children’s experiences of child maltreatment (CM) and IPV, alone and in combination with children’s academic performance. The researchers used and collected a data set from 2,914 children from the Minnesota-Linking Information for Kids (Minn-LInK), which collects administrative data from multiple agencies in the child’s academic performance. Results showed significant differences in their academic performance and reading performance by negative experience depending on their experience of CM or IPV. CM and IPV, individually or combined, showed that children performed less well at school. Furthermore, children with the poorest outcome were those exposed to IPV alone.

IPV exposure through witnessing the violence, hearing about it later, or living in the aftermath of the violence has been found to have adverse effects on child development (Holden,2003). Unfortunately, Kiesel (2016) concluded that children who experienced CM and/or were exposed to IPV, whether alone or in combination, attended school at lower rates than peers who had no history of child protection service. IPV and CM lead to problematic behaviors, whereas children exposed to CM alone or IPV alone showed the lowest rate of attendance and achievement levels. Researchers concluded that children who are exposed to IPV and/or CM are likely to underperform at school, but those who are primarily exposed to IPV have the poorest outcomes in academics. Which comes to show that those exposed to violence lead to the increase of protection and great attention from teachers and counselors that is needed for those individuals.Exposure to violence during childhood not only directly influences young people’s educational outcomes but also exerts indirect influences on their achievement through its impact on young victims’ social relations and psychological health (Huang & Mossige, 2012). A study conducted by Huang and Mossige (2012) examined past experience of violence which included abuse during childhood on academic achievement. The study focused non-physical, physical and sexual violence, and two types of victimization; abused and witnessing abuse. Their purpose was to scrutinize the relationship between the experience of violent acts and their academic achievement before the age of 13. Researchers used data from Youth survey on violence and abuse (LUVO)’ done in 2007, using 6,979 children while in their last year of middle school. The results showed that long-term effects of violence and abuse against children impair the educational career of the young victims (Huang & Mossige, 2012).

In addition, the importance of not just toward parenting at home but that counselors and teachers resulted to be an important factor. The researchers stated that violence against children should be highly looked upon at home, school, and community. Also, the overall community, and parents, should be acknowledged about the long-term effects of any violence against their child and measures that can be applied to help (Huang & Mossige, 2012). Furthermore, poor services across the country, (Falck and Vorland 2009) many children and young people do not have access to immediate help in a crisis situation. Experiences of abuse may cause a serious impact on children such as depression, behavior problems, and PTSD (Banyard et al. 2004) where each of these symptoms may have negative effects on school performance, a more available and efficient support system, co-operating with schools, would be a good preventive strategy to avoid early school leaving and to improve academic performance (Huang & Mossige, 2012). Having more access to immediate help and sufficient resources are required to help and prevent further violence toward children.Cicchetti and Toth (1995), mention that the child’s environment and adverse experiences occurring therein can affect such things as affect regulation, peer relationships, and self-perception, and these factors, in turn, can influence more distal child outcomes. Thompson and Whimper (2010) conducted a study on children’s reading level in a group of children who were at high risk of maltreatment and/or witnessed violence. Researchers hypothesized that if witnessing violence, it contributed to low reading levels when viewing their socioeconomic and other factors.

The study analyzed 12-year-old children in their transition to middle school, a particularly important time for academic achievement (Burchinal, Roberts, Zeisel, & Rowley, 2008). 316 families with an infant and at high risk for maltreatment were recruited, where 245 were 4 years old and took the annual assessment to collect their data once they were at the age of 12 or past that age. The findings concluded that the children who witnessed violence were at high risk of having a low reading level. Furthermore, children who reported witnessing violence that involved a family member was 1.5 times to have low reading levels compared to a child who did not report family violence. In addition, maltreatment also showed an impact on reading problems when it came to multiple variables.Children who have been reported as maltreated are also likely to have witnessed family violence, to come from low-income families, and to be exposed to elevated community violence. On the other hand, an effect of maltreatment might be found in other academic outcomes, or there may be specific effects to forms of maltreatment (Thompson & Whimper, 2010). Overall, an ideal form of support for children who witnessed violence, family violence, in particular, impacts children’s reading ability and should be looked into having options to help children who have been exposed to family violence.

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