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School Success as an Adult is Influenced by Childhood Trauma


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

​​Success as an adult is associated with educational achievement. Unfortunately, kids who experience childhood trauma and maltreatment are more likely to struggle academically and later in life. There are many ways that kids experience maltreatment, including neglect, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. These events affect many aspects of development. Furthermore, different types of trauma can be associated with different outcomes that need to be understood in order to correctly focus resources and therapies.

In a recent paper Jay Ringle, M.A., at the Boys Town Child and Family Translational Research Center​, and his colleagues tested a developmental cascades model for potential direct and indirect effects of childhood maltreatment on adult educational achievement [1]. The developmental cascades model essentially means that a traumatic event or series of events can alter or disrupt a child’s developmental transitions, thus creating a cascading effect of maladaptation. One result of this can be lower adult academic achievement [2]. For this study, the researchers used longitudinal data on a sample of children and their families assessed 4 times over 30 years, starting in the 1970s [3, 4]. The data were a mix of self-report measures and agency-reported case information.

Finding direct impacts of any event over a long period of time is difficult, largely due to the number and variety of events that individuals experience. With that in mind, this study only found a direct effect of agency-reported cases of maltreatment — which are likely to be made up of more severe cases than just self-reported cases — and adult educational achievement. Further, the researchers did find several indirect impacts. For example, neglect predicted adolescent engagement academic engagement, which in turn predicted adult educational achievement. Adolescent school discipline reports were also predictive of adult educational achievement.

With regards to the different categories of abuse, the stud​y found that physical, emotional, and sexual abuse predicted early school-age attention problems that then predicted discipline issues. On the other hand, neglect indirectly impacted adult education achievement through lower ​school engagement in adolescence.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this study is that a case-specific educational approach will more benefi​cial to kids exposed to childhood trauma than a one-size-fits-all approach. This study provides some perspective on different types of childhood maltreatment and how it effects adult educational achievement through different pathways (e.g., attention problems, poor school engagement) The findings also provide a starting point for creating appropriate interventions. For example, positive school-based interventions for kids who have experienced maltreatment are likely to be a more effective approach than punishment. Additionally, developing alternative approaches to get kids who have suffered neglect to engage in school has the potential to make a difference in where they end up.

Boys Town has been taking care of at-risk kids for more than 100 years. Scientists at Boys Town National Research Hospital also conduct influential research on youth care programs so we can provide the best care possible here and help other schools and youth-care organizations to do the same. The findings from this study are published in Childhood Maltreatment [1]. Find more about our youth care and related research by visiting Child and Family Translational Research Center.


  1. Jay L Ringle, J.L., Mason, W.A., Todd I Herrenkohl H.I., et. al. (2020) Prospective Associations of Child Maltreatment Subtypes With Adult Educational Attainment: Tests of Mediating Mechanisms Through School-Related Outcomes. Child Maltreat. EPUB ahead of print.
  2. Masten, A. S., Roisman, G. I., Long, J. D., et. al. (2005). Developmental cascades: Linking academic achievement and externalizing and internalizing symptoms over 20 years. Dev Psychol, 41(5), 733–746.
  3. Herrenkohl, R. C., Herrenkohl, E. C., Egolf, B. P., et. al. (1991) The developmental consequences of child abuse: The Lehigh Longit​udinal Study. In R. H. J. Starr & D. A. Wolfe (Eds.), The effects of child abuse and neglect: Issues and research (pp. 57–81). Guilford Press.
  4. Herrenkohl, R. C., and Herrenkohl, T. I. (2009) Assessing a child’s experience of multiple maltreatment types: Some unfinished business. J. Fam Violence, 24(7), 485–496.

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