Factors Related to Successful Outcomes among Preschool Children Born to Low-Income Adolescent Mothers

By Luster, Tom; Bates, Laura et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Factors Related to Successful Outcomes among Preschool Children Born to Low-Income Adolescent Mothers


Luster, Tom, Bates, Laura, Fitzgerald, Hiram, Vandenbelt, Marcia, Key, Judith Peck, Journal of Marriage and Family


The purpose of this study was to describe how the experiences and circumstances of the most successful children born to low-income adolescent mothers differed from the experiences and circumstances of the least successfil children over the first 54 months of their lives. Success was defined as scoring in the top quartile for this sample on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R) when the children were 54 months old and about to make the transition to kindergarten. The experiences of the 22 children with the highest scores on the PPVT-R were contrasted with the experiences of the 22 children who had the lowest scores on the PPVT-R for this sample. The two groups differed markedly on measures of caregiving and home environment assessed when the children were 12, 24, 36, and 54 months old. In addition, mothers of the most successful children achieved more years of education, were more likely to be employed, had fewer children on average, tended to live in more desirable neighborhoods, and were more likely to be living with

a male partner. Case studies are also presented on four families (two from the most successful group and two from the least successful group) to further illustrate how the experiences and circumstances of children in the two groups differed

Key Words: parent-child relationships, poverty, preschool children, receptive vocabulary, resilience, teenage mothers.

Studies comparing children born to teenage mothers with children born to older mothers typically show that the children of teenage parents fare less well than their peers on a variety of measures (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Hayes, 1987; Moore, Morrison, & Greene, 1997). Children born to teenage mothers tend to perform less well than peers on measures of cognitive competence during the preschool years (particularly on language-based assessments), and by the elementary grades they tend to score lower on achievement tests. They are also at risk for being retained in grade. In their longitudinal study in Baltimore, Furstenberg and his colleagues (1987) found "massive rates of school failure" among adolescents born to teen parents; about half the adolescents had failed a grade.

Although children of teenage parents do less well on average than their peers on measures of cognitive competence and school performance, there is great variability within samples of children born to adolescent mothers on these indices. Why do some children born to teens do well while others do not? This was the primary question of interest in this study. Specifically, we were interested in factors related to successful outcomes in the cognitive domain among preschool children born to adolescent mothers. All the children in our study would be considered at risk for school failure based on the fact that their mothers were teenagers when they were born and based on the fact that their families were low income. Yet it was evident that some of the children were more competent than others as they prepared to make the transition to elementary school.

Despite some notable exceptions (e.g., Werner, 1994), we believe that far too little research has focused on why many children who are thought to be at risk for school failure are successful. This is particularly true in the literature on children born to adolescent mothers. Although many studies have documented the problems of children born to teenage mothers, we could find little that had been written about successful outcomes in these children. This strikes us as an important gap in the literature, given that studies that focus on successful outcomes are likely to be useful to those who plan programs for teenage mothers and their children.

The children in this study are firstborn children of adolescent mothers who were participating in a 5-year family support program. The mothers and the children were followed from the time the children were born until the children were 54 months old.

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