Cumulative Risk and Low-Income Children’s Language Development

This study utilized an electronic data linkage method to examine the effects of risk factors present at birth on language development in preschool. The Pre­school Language Scale-3 (PLS-3) was administered to 853 low-income children, and cumulative risk data were abstracted from linked birth records. At least one risk factor was present in 94% of this sample, while 39% were exposed to three or more risk factors. On average, a girl’s PLS-3 Total Score decreased by 2.3 points with each risk factor; the average decrease for boys was 1.1 point per risk factor. The accumula­tion of multiple risk factors thus appears to increase the negative effects of poverty. Researchers are encouraged to use historical administrative data sets to support pre­vention and early identification efforts.


Risk has been broadly defined as exposure to the biolog­ical and environmental conditions that increase the likeli­hood of negative developmental outcomes (Brooks-Gunn, 1990). Identifying factors related to developmental dis­abilities has been a major focus of risk research. Tra­ditionally, a strong emphasis has been placed on early risk factors because the individual is believed to be par­ticularly vulnerable to biological and environmental con­ditions in the early phases of the developmental process. Biological risk factors center on the characteristics of the individual that negatively affect development, such as prematurity, low birthweight, and perinatal complica­tions (Adams, Hillman, & Gaydos, 1994). Environmen­tal risk factors include low socioeconomic status, adverse neighborhoods, and parental psychopathology (Laucht et al., 2000).

Poverty places children at increased risk for a host of problems, beginning at conception (Halpern, 2000). Pov­erty significantly heightens the risk of exposure to phys­ical health problems such as asthma, malnutrition, and elevated blood levels (Klerman, 1991); mental health problems (Gore & Eckenrode, 1996; McLoyd, 1990; McLoyd & Wilson, 1991); inattentive or erratic parental care (Halpern, 1993); removal from the home and place­ment in foster care due to abuse and neglect (Halpern, 2000); and deficits in cognitive development and achieve­ment (Duncan, Klebanov, & Brooks-Gunn, 1994; Levin, 1991). Some researchers have suggested that poor fami

lies are exposed to more risk factors than families not be­low poverty level and that the consequences of these risk factors can be more severe for the children in these fami­lies (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994; Brooks-Gunn, Kleba-nov, & Liaw, 1995; Liaw & Brooks-Gunn, 1994; McLoyd, 1990).

Children exposed to multiple risk factors are at an increased risk for developing a disability. One such dis­ability is specific language impairment (SLI), which is gen­erally defined as poor achievement in language despite having normal hearing and nonverbal intelligence (Spitz, Tallal, Flax, & Benasich, 1997). More specifically, it is a condition that causes a child to score a specified degree below average on standardized tests of language perfor­mance but at an average level on tests of nonverbal in­telligence (Fazio, Naremore, & Connell, 1996). To be at risk for SLI means that “individuals with certain charac­teristics are more likely to have an undiagnosed language impairment or will develop this condition in the future than children without these characteristics” (Finkelstein & Ramey, 1980, p. 546). Thus, SLI prevention means identifying at-risk children before a diagnosis is formally made. Early identification of these children is important to ensure that they will be placed in the appropriate re­medial programs designed to minimize or eliminate the effects of these risks.

Researchers have conducted a number of studies ex­amining the biological risk factors for SLI and other pro

gram placements by looking at the school outcomes of children who were placed in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) immediately postpartum. Children from this population are known to be at risk for later cognitive and academic difficulties because they usually are born prematurely, have a low birthweight (less than 2,500 g) or have respiratory distress. The bulk of the literature has indicated that although children from NICU environ­ments are at risk for more cognitive difficulties (such as mental retardation and learning disabilities), they are not at an increased risk for specific language problems, espe­cially when their scores are adjusted because of prematu­rity (Resnick et al., 1998; Rice, Spitz, & O’Brien, 1999; Siegel et al., 1982; Tomblin, Smith, & Zhang, 1997).

Several studies have demonstrated that language im­pairments generally run in families, with reported aggre­gation rates of between 40% and 70% (Beitchman, Hood, & Inglis, 1990; Spitz et al., 1997; Tallal, Ross, & Curtiss, 1989; Tomblin, Smith, & Zhang, 1997). This means that approximately half of the families of children with lan­guage impairments have at least one other family member who has a language problem. Thus, parental influences on offspring may be attributed to genetic factors. What is not known is how much of the intergenerational trans­mission of language difficulties is caused by a lack of environmental support for language.

The environmental context in which a child is raised has long been recognized as crucial in determining devel­opmental outcomes. Many children come from homes in which instability and a lack of continuity of care, accom­panied by inadequate nutrition and medical care, may constitute a level of environmental stress that is det­rimental to their functioning in a number of areas, in­cluding language (Wells, 1980). For this reason, the risk of language problems has been associated with socioeco-nomic factors and economic deprivation.


READ MORE : Cumulative Risk and Low-Income Children’s Language Development,Tina L. Stanton-Chapman, Derek A. Chapman, Ann P. Kaiser and Terry B. Hancock,Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 2004; 24; 227,  DOI: 10.1177/02711214040240040401


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