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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 100 MAY 2007 / BACK
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child development

Deprivation and Education I

Mia Kellmer Pringle

An article dating from 1971/2 which we are reprinting in two parts. See Part 2 here.

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 are, however, sufficient by themselves. 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 22 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 allpervasive 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.

To be concluded next month. This feature: M.L. Kellmer Pringle (1971/2). Deprivation and education. In Pruden, E. (ed.) Annual Review of the Residential Child Care Association: Education.

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