Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Advocates' Perspectives on the Early Academic Success of Children Born to Low-Income Adolescent Mothers*

Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Advocates' Perspectives on the Early Academic Success of Children Born to Low-Income Adolescent Mothers*

Article excerpt

Qualitative analyses were conducted to examine family factors related to individual differences in the early school success of children born to low-income adolescent mothers from the perspective of paraprofessional family advocates. These families were participants in a 5-year family support program. Achievement test scores and teacher ratings were used to identify the most successful and least successful students in first grade. Interviews with the advocates about the life experiences of children in each of these groups revealed differences between them in the areas of caregiving practices, maternal characteristics, child characteristics, and contextual sources of stress and support. Given that family service providers are rarely used as informants in this way, the possible strengths and limitations of this approach are discussed.

Key Words: achievement, adolescent mothers, elementary school, paraprofessionals, parenting.

The transition to school is an important developmental transition for children (Belsky & MacKinnon, 1994; Entwisle & Alexander, 1998). Children who get off to a good start in elementary school tend to do better on later assessments of achievement and school performance than do their peers who struggle early on, and ultimately, they tend to obtain higher levels of education (Schweinhart, Barnes, Weikart, Barnett, & Epstein, 1993). Several longitudinal studies show that children's performance in kindergarten or first grade is predictive of high school completion (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997; Ensminger & Slusarcick, 1992; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Schweinhart et al.).

In the early elementary grades, children are developing attitudes about school and about their ability to succeed in that setting (Entwisle & Alexander, 1998). They also are acquiring basic academic competencies (e.g., learning to read) that lay the foundation for later school success. Moreover, in the earliest grades, children begin accumulating a school file of grades, test scores, attendance records, and behavioral assessments that may affect the expectations that teachers in later grades have for these children.

This qualitative study focuses on family Influences on the academic success of first-grade children born to low-income adolescent mothers, a group identified as at risk for school failure (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Whitman, Borkowski, Keogh, & Weed, 2001). A disproportionate number of children born to adolescent mothers perform poorly on measures of achievement, are retained in grade, and eventually drop out of school. However, there is considerable variability in the outcomes of children born to these mothers (Dubow & Luster, 1990; Furstenberg et al.). Many children who are considered to be in high-risk environments do well in school (Clark, 1990; Jarrett, 1999; Wang & Gordon, 1994). What happens in the years prior to school entry that may influence how successful these children are in the early elementary grades? Specifically, how do the family experiences of children who are successful in the early elementary grades differ from the family experiences of children who are struggling in the early elementary grades?

To examine family influences on the early school success of at-risk children, we interviewed paraprofessional family advocates who worked with the families for up to 5 years-from the prenatal period until the children were about to enter kindergarten. Each interview focused either on a child who was (a) doing relatively well in first grade, based on test scores and teacher ratings, or (b) was struggling in school. Given that the family advocates had worked with these families for most of the children's lives, we explored their perceptions about why some children were faring better than others. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to use family service providers as informants in this way.

Theoretical Perspective and the Interview Protocol

An ecological perspective was used as a theoretical framework to guide the development of the interview protocol (Belsky, 1984; Bronfenbrenner, 1999). …

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