By Lisa Rapaport
Children who suffer adverse experiences tend to do worse in school than kids who don't, but a U.S. study suggests parents may still help improve academic outcomes by simply talking to their kids.
Adverse childhood experiences, commonly called ACEs, can include witnessing parents fight or go through a divorce, having a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse problem, or suffering from sexual, physical or emotional abuse. ACEs have been linked to what's known as toxic stress, or wear and tear on the body that leads to physical and mental health problems that often continue from one generation to the next.
For the study, researchers examined survey data on almost 66,000 students ages 6 to 17 gathered during the 2011-2012 school year. Overall, 44% hadn't experienced any ACEs at all. Another 25% had exposure to one type of ACE, while 11% experienced two ACEs, 7% experienced three ACEs, and 13% were exposed to four or more ACEs.
"As the total number of ACEs a child encounters increases, school performance and engagement decreases," said lead study author Dr. Angelica Robles, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Novant Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Compared to kids who didn't experience any ACEs, children exposed to four or more ACEs were more than twice as likely to repeat one or more grades at school, four times more likely to routinely skip homework, and three times more likely report not caring much about school, researchers reported July 8 online in Pediatrics.
Even for kids who endure a lot of adversity, however, certain protective factors may still help minimize the effect of these stressors on their school performance.
Negative school outcomes were less likely with protective factors like safe neighborhoods, supportive neighbors, non-smoking households, regular family dinners, and parents who take time to have conversations with their kids.
Compared to kids with no more than three such protective factors, children with six or more were less likely to repeat a grade, to routinely skip homework or to report not caring about school. This was true even for children who faced adversity.
"The strongest protective factor this study determined was having a parent that can talk to their child about things that matter and share ideas," Robles said by email. "By having open communication and positive daily conversation, they build a stronger relationship with their child, which has the most protective effect."
"The relationship parents have with their child can make a big difference," Robles added.
The study wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how certain protective factors might directly impact the potential for ACEs to cause worse school outcomes.
One limitation is that researchers relied on data from parents to determine whether kids were exposed to ACEs, and it's possible that this might underestimate how many children were exposed to ACEs like abuse or neglect by their parents.
Even so, the results still offer insight into strategies that may help kids succeed in school and thrive despite exposure to ACEs, which most kids experience at some point, said Dr. Rebecca Dudovitz, coauthor of an accompanying editorial and an associate professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"School outcomes are especially important because they are associated with lifelong health and wellbeing," Dudovitz said by email.
"Kids who do better in elementary school are more likely to do well in high school, college, and beyond," Dudovitz added. "More years of education are associated with living longer, healthier lives and even with having healthier children, so we think that the health benefits of a good education can even be passed down to the next generation."
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