Posted by: Ticktock | May 21, 2008

Absence Makes the Grades Go Lower


A new study by the University of Rochester Medical Center has shown a correlation between a student having an absent parent and a decrease in that child’s academic progress.  The study is published in the latest edition of the journal Ambulatory Pediatrics and was done on 1,619 children entering kindergarten.  18% of those students had experienced separation from a parent for a duration of at least a month, and those particular children scored less well than their domestically intact counterparts.  The majority of the children were economically disadvantaged, which may be relevant when analyzing the data. 

I recently interviewed Sandra Jee, who headed this study, and she was kind enough to answer my questions.  Her unedited responses are below…

Why did you choose not to ask the parent to specify the reasons for separation?

Ideally, I would know the reasons for separation. I agree that this is important. This data, however, were not collected. In particular, I have an interest in foster care, and I would like to know which of these children were in foster care and/or kinship care. In future waves of data collection, this information will be gathered.

Do you think you may follow up on more detailed information in future studies?


Did you find that the duration of absence in the parent correlated to the degree of school problems in the child?

Unfortunately, since this was a very large dataset involving multiple domains for data collection, we did not get this information. Also, we can’t predict school problems YET, since this is self-reported data upon entrance to kindergarten. We just know that there are some reported delays for items that are more “objective” that require parent observation, vs. just subjective feelings about the child’s abilities.

Did you factor whether the children had siblings? Did that seem to make a difference?

Good question. I don’t know the answer to this question, but we do have data on # of people in the household. I do not recall that # of household members had an impact on performance in these domains. Data were collected on # of siblings in the home, but we did not analyze this variable.

Did you find any significance in whether it was the father or mother who was absent?

In general, the majority of reporters were mothers (something like 88%, I believe), as these were the parents who were bringing the child to school for the kindergarten entrance evaluations. (which is where we conducted these surveys). The question asked whether the child had been away from “a parent”, and did not specify mother vs. father.

Kindergarten seems like a young age to assess academic progress. Will you be following up your results as the children mature?

Yes, this is part of a large data collection of children in the Rochester City School district. Longitudinal data on these children are being collected. I am not principally responsible for this effort. This particular study was based upon previously collected data from the agency doing primary data collection.

Are you worried that self-administered assessments are not always a reliable way to judge skill level? Some parents might be dishonest and others may be subjectively confused about their child’s progress.

Yes, there are of course, limitations to all data. Self-administered assessments are not perfect. However, the questions were objective questions on observable behaviors, which should decrease subjective bias in reporting. Yes, I agree some parents might be dishonest, but that does not seem to make intuitive sense to me. If my child is entering kindergarten, I don’t think there is much to gain by being untruthful about his abilities, if I want to maximize his potential, and enhance understanding of what the issues (e.g. learning, social, etc) may be for him.

How significant was the difference between the scores of children of separation and their domestically-intact counterparts?

There were significant differences in the learning difficulties and pre-literacy domains. This is, however, an at-risk sample of inner-city children, who may have other issues (e.g. poverty, violence in the home, other social pressures) that also are impacting learning and development. This study, however, suggests that those children who have experienced separation (for whatever reason that may be), are at greater risk for learning problems, or appear to be at greater risk, at least prior to entering kindergarten. How this will play out in the future cannot be surmised from the data.

I hope those answers your q’s. I don’t wish to provide a negative view of single parenting, and I fear that some parents may misinterpret these findings. What we know is that inner-city children are at-risk for learning difficulties, and separation from a parent may also be a marker for some other types of social issues and pressures that those children may be confronting.

My thanks to Sandy Jee for the kind responses. Best of luck to her on the future of this longitudinal study, and we look forward to hearing more from this in the future!


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