CYC-Online 39 APRIL 2002
ListenListen to this

young people in care

Deprivation and Education

In an enduring text from thirty years back, Dr Mia Kellmer Pringle broadens the educational issues and possibilities facing deprived children, from infancy to adolescence.

Deprivation has many faces: the child who grows up in a home which is culturally and educationally unstimulating is handicapped by environmental deprivation; the child who is unloved and rejected by his parents suffers emotional deprivation; and the child who lives in residential care, for long periods or permanently, is deprived of normal family life. These three conditions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and there are also other kinds of deprivation which affect education. But for the purpose of this chapter I shall confine myself to these three situations, not least because they are of most immediate relevance to those working in the residential child care field.

Education is usually thought of in terms of what schools are aiming to provide. Yet how successful a child is within this more formal setting depends almost entirely on how successful his informal learning has been in the preceding years. Learning in the widest and yet most basic sense of the word begins at birth – every change, from the utter helplessness of the new-born baby to the comparative competence of the toddler and young infant, is due to learning. Maturation plays an essential part but it is of little avail without environmental opportunity. For example, if a baby remains confined in a cot he will not learn to walk, and unless he hears human speech he will not learn to talk, even though he is in all other ways ready to do so.

Neither opportunity for learning nor maturational readiness is, however, sufficient by itself. To these two ingredients a third must be added: motivation or a willingness to learn. This desire to learn is the essential driving force which has its spring in the quality of relationships available to the child. Fortunate is the child who is loved unconditionally by his parents, who set before him standards of behaviour and achievement which are reasonable in the light of his age and ability; and who provide an environment which is culturally and educationally stimulating.

Children who come into residential care have rarely been so fortunate. Recent evidence shows that even those who experience short-term care have got off to a poor start from the very beginning of their life; and throughout at least their first seven years, they continue to be a disadvantaged group (Mapstone, 1969). As one would predict, this then affects their educational progress and adjustment at school. This close link between deprivation and education was similarly shown in a series of studies relating to seven-, eleven- and fifteen-year-olds (Pringle, 1971).

Why should this be so? And what can houseparents do to reverse or at least mitigate the effects of past deprivation? In trying to answer these questions, I will first show how and why willingness to learn is so closely interwoven with the quality of emotional relationships, i.e. the link between learning and emotion. Then I will describe our new understanding of the nature of intelligence which has a central bearing on remedial action. And finally I will suggest ways in which residential care can become a positive, constructive and therapeutic experience.

Emotion and learning
How children learn was for a long time considered mainly in the narrow context of scholastic achievement. Now we know that it all starts very early. So early that, like the proverbial chicken and egg question, it is academic to ask which comes first, learning or emotion. A baby begins to learn from the day he is born and from this day, too, he is affected by parental, particularly maternal love. At best such love is unconditional: he is valued for his own sake and not because he is a boy or girl, fair or dark, attractive or plain. This caring affection is so all-pervasive that it communicates itself to him in everything his mother does for him.

Through being loved, the baby learns to feel love for her and goes on to learn what is involved in making a relationship with another person; that it implies not only receiving but also giving affection; not only making demands but willingness to satisfy the demands of others; no longer expecting immediate satisfaction but being willing to accept the frustration of delay; and being prepared to subordinate one’s wishes to those of others instead of being completely self-centred.

Because of this reciprocal bond he perseveres with learning to be dry and clean, to walk, to talk and eventually to succeed with school learning. If this early experience of love has been lacking, if he has been rejected or deprived, his learning will remain slow, difficult and often inadequate. According to his temperament, he will either be apathetic or unresponsive, or he will fight and protest against every new demand made upon him.

The unconditionally accepted and loved child learns three basic lessons: a pleasurable awareness of his own identity, his self; the joy of a mutually rewarding relationship and a desire for approval, which acts as a spur to learning.

Thus the pleasure of his parents in his progress provides the main incentive for his learning. Later, the approval of other adults important to him is the chief motivating force which makes him want to conform to expectations, to acquire new skills, respond to more taxing tasks and to master more complex knowledge – in short, to learn. The most important of these other adults are parent substitutes and then teachers.

It is because relationships with significant adults, and later with the peer group, provide both the incentive and the conditions for learning, that emotional disturbance and educational failure often follow similar paths. The rejected child is deprived not only of affection but simultaneously of the most effective incentive for learning. Hence he frequently becomes both backward and maladjusted.

The nature of intelligence
It used to be thought of as something rather like height – determined from the start, as it were, and unchanging once it was fully developed; hence some children were bright, the majority middling or average, and others were destined to be slow learners. Now we know that it is much more complex. Whatever a child's intellectual potential, it will only be realised if the right kind of stimulation – “mental food” if you like – is provided. Thus the environment can make or mar, retard or promote, the development of intelligence, that is the ability to learn.

This ability needs to be nourished, from the word “go”, just as the body does. And in the same way, what happens during the earliest years of childhood is the most crucial: in the physical field about half of the eventual adult stature is attained between conception and the age of two-and-a-half years; while from conception to the age of 4 years, half of the total intellectual growth takes place.

What then is the necessary “mental food” to which I referred? Its very ordinariness leads us to underestimate its vital importance. It consists of exploration, play and language. All normal children have a strong urge to explore, to welcome the challenge of new situations and to gain a sense of achievement from eventual mastery. This urge to find out persists – or at least, can and should persist – throughout life. Yet for the majority of children who are received into care it does not do so. Why?

Evidence has been accumulating on the damaging effects of a culturally impoverished or deprived environment on intellectual growth. This is a home – be it with a small or capital H – which fails to provide the necessary “intellectual food” to develop the child's potential to the fullest extent (Dinnage and Pringle, 1967; Crellin, Pringle and West, 1971; Pringle, 1971). Without the necessary diet of rich opportunities for play and for language development, the ability to learn remains stunted. The consequences are most severe and all-pervasive during the earliest years of childhood. It is then that the basis is laid for speech development, for problem solving, for independent thinking, in short, for learning how to learn; and perhaps most important of all, it is again during the pre-school years that parental expectation and stimulation provide the child with the motivation to want to learn.

The exact difference which an enriching or depriving home background respectively can make, needs a great deal more research. “However, a conservative estimate of the effect of extreme environments on intelligence is about 20 I.Q. points. This could mean the difference between a life in an institution for the subnormal or a productive life in society. It could mean the difference between a professional career and an occupation which is at the semi-skilled or unskilled level.” (Bloom, 1964).

The earliest years, then, are most basic for laying the foundation for intellectual development. Unlike physical development, however, it continues to grow until the age of about 50 years though it becomes much slower after 17 years or thereabouts. This means that it is never “too late”. Hence those who undertake the care of deprived children and young people need never give up hope – indeed, an optimistic attitude, a real belief in the possibility of change and improvement play an essential part in all rehabilitation. Which brings me to how residential care staff can counteract, or at least mitigate, the effects of deprivation.

Practical implications
Just as the under-nourished child requires a carefully balanced diet to build up or restore him physically, so judiciously balanced care is needed to build up or restore a deprived child's emotional health and to develop his intellectual potential. The role of the residential staff is crucial in this. How much can be achieved in reversing the effects of early deprivation has only been fully realised in recent years.

There is evidence from a variety of sources: studies of identical twins, reared apart, where the one brought up in a more favourable environment shows more favourable development than his less fortunate twin; illegitimately born children, who show much better emotional adjustment and educational attainment, when growing up in adopted homes, than those who have remained with their own mothers in a stressful, deprived environment; or immigrant children who show much higher educational achievements than their parents because they were afforded much greater opportunities in their adopted country.

In short, although the effects of an unstimulating home background, of unhappy relations between child and parents, or both, are likely to lead to emotional difficulties, stunted intellectual development and poor educational achievements, change can be brought about. As always, the earlier this is attempted the less difficult it is; and prevention is better than cure. How, then, can it be achieved?

I will discuss this separately for the different age groups, but the basic principles are, of course, the same for all children: to establish a loving, secure, mutually satisfying relationship with a caring adult; to kindle or rekindle curiosity, the desire to learn; and to provide an environment which stimulates language development and intellectual growth.

The pre-school child. The younger the child, the greater the shock of being removed from home; his inevitably limited understanding of verbal explanations adds to his bewilderment. Also a young child often feels it is his naughtiness which has led to his being sent away from home and hence being unwanted. Limited language ability remains a difficulty in the first task of restoring a sense of security, of being welcomed and valued. Establishing a personal bond of affection is the only means of doing so, but to achieve this a small staff is required where changes of personnel are kept to a minimum, especially during the initial stages. Once a secure relationship has been created with one adult, the child can then reach out to new ones.

High priority needs to be given from the outset to stimulating speech and intellectual development. The opportunities which surround a child in the educated, literate home must be provided in abundance just because they have been missing in his early days. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, songs, and being talked to, long before he can speak himself, are essential activities; they must not be regarded as merely incidental and subsidiary to physical care, habit training and general homemaking tasks. Similarly, being played with is as essential as having suitable toys available.

Because these activities are enjoyable, not only for the child but also for the adult, they must not be regarded as a luxury and “a bit of a waste of time”. Rather, regular daily periods should be devoted to these activities; in addition, every opportunity needs to be used during the day for conversation and verbal stimulation. Mixed age groups of children also help. In such family groups, younger children learn from and imitate older ones. Being only with one’s own age group is less stimulating to language development while staff, in turn, are not faced with a whole group of toddlers all at the “eternal questioning” stage.
Even the youngest infant should be given some personal toys. Only if exclusive ownership is granted will a toddler gradually learn to develop a sense of responsibility for his own belongings and a pride in them. Also, possessions are a talking point, as much for children as for adults. Some people contemptuously dismiss “baby talk”. But only if we talk to babies will they outgrow the need for baby talk. The more we speak, sing and read to children, the more readily do they learn to enjoy the give-and-take of conversation with contemporaries and adults. This enjoyment and skill forms the basis for the later mastery of the three R’s in school; and, more important still, for participating to an increasing extent in our predominantly verbal culture.

The middle years of childhood. How best to compensate for the effects of inadequate parental care and of environmental deprivation still needs exploration. Such rehabilitation requires the most highly skilled care if it is to succeed. The basic fact is beyond dispute: loving care is not enough, while a mainly institutional or custodial regime evades the real issues. All residential facilities, whether hostels, homes or special schools, must become remedial and therapeutic communities. Only then can removal from home become a positive, constructive means of intervention.

What the infant needs remains also a basic requirement for the older child: rewarding relationships with adults and peers, and a stimulating environment to foster his learning abilities. Stimulating here often means allowing the child to behave, to talk and to play at a level much below that of his actual age. Owing to previously experienced deprivations he is likely to be immature for his years; he needs to cover the ground which bridges the gap between where he is and where he has to get to, in order to hold his own with his contemporaries. This includes talking with and reading to him regularly, especially if he has remained poor at it himself.

In addition, specific provisions must be sought for overcoming educational and social disabilities. Like any good parent, residential staff need to find a school where remedial groups and special classes for learning difficulties are provided. Unfortunately, in too many schools these are still inadequate or non-existent. In case of unmet need, the Social Services Department can provide these facilities themselves and employ remedial teachers to give help within the residential setting. Making available remedial treatment within the residential setting of a children's Home (soon to become community homes), both for short and long-term cases, has been found to be effective over a period of years now in a number of areas (Pringle, 1971).

To coach or not to coach is a question facing many a houseparent. There is no straightforward answer. Some children prefer to forget their they value; others find support in sharing their anxieties about school educational difficulties, even hide them from those whose good opinion work with someone they trust and whose help they welcome. If help is given, it is advisable to do so in consultation with the teacher to avoid confusing the child by a different approach. In most cases it is not mere coaching which is required. Rather a compensatory programme of enriching experience which widens the child's whole horizon is needed to overcome the cumulative effects of prolonged deprivation. Often, too, this needs to be linked with a comprehensive remedial scheme.

In some cases learning difficulties may be so severe or resistant that a full psychological examination is indicated. Then the houseparent, like any good parent, should seek specialist advice. Its availability varies greatly from one part of the country to another but, given persistence and patience, it can be obtained. Though neither quick nor easy remedies can be expected, a comprehensive assessment of the child's strengths and weaknesses, and an appropriate treatment programme are of great help.

The adolescent. For the child whose earlier years have been deprived – emotionally or intellectually – adolescence brings greater dangers and greater opportunities. Greater dangers because his early experiences are likely to have left him immature, insecure and educationally adrift; greater opportunities because he has now a second chance to make satisfying, mutually rewarding relationships with significant adults outside his immediate family.

During the years from 12 to 17 a second weaning takes place from dependence on parents and on authority in general; simultaneously there is a search for other model figures. This offers the chance to any adult closely concerned with the care of adolescents to have a profound influence on their personal and intellectual development. This requires a willingness to offer a relationship which enables the child to learn more adequately what was denied him in earlier years.

The unloved, rejected adolescent has failed to learn to make satisfying relationships. Often too he has felt or has actually been rejected by the educational system which he in turn has rejected as being of little relevance to himself. Yet the need to earn his living, to become independent and to find some interpretation of life, however vague or simple, remains. It is a period of heightened emotional awareness and receptiveness, but also of increased insecurity because he is on the threshold of a new world. The more his parents and his teachers have failed him, the more distrustful of adults will he be. Once his trust has been won he will become much more demanding than youngsters of his age. So the task of rehabilitation is arduous, complex and slow.

The same applies to educational rehabilitation. Indeed, very considerable resistance needs to be overcome, stemming from his profound belief in the inevitability of failure. Allied to this is a rejection of an educational approach or materials which in his eyes appear “childish”. There are now books and other equipment available which avoid this pitfall, and it may well be worth while to have a stock available in all residential homes catering for the older age groups.

As to tackling the adolescent’s educational backwardness and the part played in this by the houseparents, similar considerations apply to those discussed for younger children. There are no ready guidelines – each youngster needs to be considered in the light of his background, his personality and the educational facilities available both at his school and in the residential community.

The way ahead
There has been comparatively little study of the language development and scholastic attainment of children living in residential care. My own series of studies of the relation between deprivation and education was prompted by the fact that teachers of such children thought that many of them showed serious learning problems at school.

The findings confirmed that their views were justified (Pringle, 1971). Hence, whatever additional help, provision or treatment are, or may in future be used to supplement residential care, houseparents will inevitably – like a child's own parents – shoulder the major responsibility for fostering emotional, intellectual and language development.

In the light of these recently recognised needs, priorities may have to be reconsidered. The maximum possible time should be devoted to talking to children, reading and telling them stories, encouraging them to make up and act simple plays about everyday occurrences, inviting them to relate anything that has happened during the day – all aimed at helping them to express their feelings, ideas and thoughts. Deprived children need this help far beyond the stage when it is normally required because so many of them have missed these experiences at the right time.

Quick results cannot be expected. If there is a slow growth in the child's capacity to use and enjoy language, then gradual improvement in intelligence, adjustment and educational progress is likely to follow. Mixed age groups in residential units may also help: younger children learn from and imitate older ones, while the latter can be encouraged to play with, talk and read to the little ones, ostensibly to help houseparents but at the same time improving their own power and desire for self-expression.

The term “substitute care” tends to suggest that it is second best compared with parental care. If the aim is a pale imitation of ordinary family life, this must be so. However, there is evidence, both from Israel and Russia, that this need not be the case, even for very young children (Bronfenbrenner, 1970; Pincus, 1970). Rather than providing a substitute home, the aim should be to create a different environment which offers an alternative form of care with its own satisfactions and challenges. The term “community living” was chosen by such pioneers as Leila Rendel some fifty years ago, and it is perhaps a tribute to their leadership that the residential establishments, envisaged in the 1969 Children Act, are to be called “community homes.”

Several ideas are implicit in this concept. Perhaps the two most important ones are that true community living can be an alternative way of life, neither better nor worse, but just different. Secondly, that it must be involved in the larger community in which it finds itself; rather than be inward looking and self-sufficient. There are many ways in which such involvement can be fostered. Of particular relevance in relation to language development and scholastic progress is the contribution of young volunteers from secondary schools and colleges of education. These young people may be willing in the evenings and at week-ends to give individual and intensive help to a child. Such a scheme, in addition to providing a valuable link with the outside community, would also foster greater understanding of the aims and practice of residential work.

In brief, my argument can be summarised as follows. First, that love is not enough in caring for hurt, unhappy and damaged children, though it is and always will remain, an essential ingredient. Secondly, that a knowledge of normal child development is a necessary basis for understanding the needs of deprived children. Thirdly, that house-parents need to add to their many other responsibilities a very specific concern for the language development and educational progress of the children in their care. Fourthly, that realistic yet positive standards of expectation are a vital ingredient in bringing about change. Fifthly, that the peer group has great re-educational and therapeutic value. And lastly, that though residential care is an alternative means of looking after children in a community setting, the houseparent will always be concerned with and for every child as an individual.


Bloom, B. S. (1964), Stability and Change in Human Characteristics. Wiley and Sons, New York.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie (1970), Two Worlds of Childhood, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.

Crellin, Eileen; Pringle, M. L. Kellmer, and West, Patrick (1971), Born Illegitimate. National Foundation for Educational Research, Slough.

Dinnage, Rosemary, and Pringle, M. L. Kellmer (1967), Residential Care–Facts and Fallacies. Longman in association with the National Children's Bureau, London.

Douglas, J. W. B. (1964), The Home and the School. University of London Press.

Mapstone, E. (1969), “Children in Care”. Concern, No. 3, National Children's Bureau. London.

Pincus, C. (1970), They came from the four winds. Herzl Press, New York.

Pringle, M. L. Kellmer (1965, 2nd. ed. 1971), Deprivation and Education. Longman, London.

Pringle, M. L. Kellmer (1966). Adoption–Facts and Fallacies. Longman in association with the National Children's Bureau, London.

Pringle, M. L. Kellmer, ed. (1969), Caring for Children. Longman in association with the National Children's Bureau, London.

Pringle, M.L. Kellmer (1972) Deprivation and Education, in Pruden, Edward (ed.) Education: Annual Review of the Residential Child Care Association (19) page 16-24

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App