Developmental Risks Research Paper Starter

Developmental Risks

(Research Starters)

Developmental risks are conditions acquired by a child before or after birth that cause developmental delays in later life. There are three major categories of developmental risk: established risk, biological risk, and environmental risk. Established risk is the possibility of hampered physical and cognitive development due to a diagnosed medical condition. Biological risk refers to infants who might eventually suffer from learning disabilities because of conditions they acquired before they were born. Environmental risk, on the other hand, refers to learning disabilities that can be caused by outside-world influences after a child is born. While there is little educators can do about most risk factors that affect a child, early intervention programs, like Head Start, may counteract these risks.

Keywords Behaviorism; Biological Risk; Child Development; Developmental Delay; Developmental Risk; Environmental Risk; Established Risk; Extremely Low Birth Weight (ELBW); Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; Learning Disability; Low Birth Weight (LBW); Nativism; Neonatal; Perinatal; Prenatal; Preterm; Very Low Birth Weight (VLBW)


Developmental risk refers to the danger that a child may experience in impeded physical, cognitive, social, or psychological development, due to a condition acquired before or after birth. There are three major categories of developmental risk: established risk, biological risk, and environmental risk (King, 1992).

Established risk is the possibility of hampered physical and cognitive development due to a diagnosed medical condition, such as blindness, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy (King, 1992). Biological risk is a phrase that came into use in the early 1960s (Kopp & Krakow, 1983) and refers to infants who might eventually suffer from learning disabilities because of conditions they acquired before they were born. These disabilities can come as the result of genetically acquired defects, infections and premature birth. They can also come from unhealthy practices engaged in by the mother, such as abuse of alcohol, drugs, or smoking. Environmental risk, on the other hand, refers to learning disabilities that can come from outside-world influences after a child is born. For example, studies have shown that children are environmentally at risk when there is only one parent living at home, the family lives in poverty, or they receive inadequate love and nurturing (Armor, 2006).

Developmental risks can also lead to developmental delays, which indicate the presence of learning disabilities. A developmental delay is the repeated failure by a child to reach established benchmarks of normal physical and/or cognitive development on time. A learning disability is any disorder that impedes a child's ability to learn.


Research on biological risks began in 1920, forty years before the phrase "biological risk" would find its way into professional nomenclature. Studies done since then can be organized into four major periods. The first period, which lasted from 1920 until World War II, saw initial formal and systematic studies done of development in children without disabilities (Kopp & Krakow, 1983). During the 1920s, developmental theorist Arnold Gesell laid out basic guidelines for normal and abnormal development in children that are still in use. A proponent of "nativism," Gesell believed that babies enter the world already possessing knowledge of it. Though many of Gesell's contemporaries were in step with his theories, another movement, "behaviorism," believed that babies and young children are more influenced by their environment following birth (Karoly, Greenwood, Everingham, Hoube, Kilburn, Rydell, Sanders, & Chiesa, 1998).

By the 1930s, a number of child development laboratories were in full operation (Kopp & Krakow, 1983). In 1930, the White House convened its Conference on Child Health and Protection. Using data amassed from the previous decade, the conference made a monumental contribution to the field of early childhood development: the Children's Charter: a 19-item list delineating conditions that must exist in the areas of health, welfare, education, and protection, to promote the best possible developmental outcomes in children. And in 1935, the federal government enacted Title V of the Social Security Act, which gave money to states to provide additional welfare and health services to mothers and young children. The Children's Charter and Title V constituted a new focus government was placing on the education and well being of all of society's children (Karoly et al., 1989).

The second major research period began at the close of World War II and lasted until the early 1950s. Studies were done mostly on emotional and intellectual impairments resulting from physical handicaps, such as those caused by polio and cerebral palsy (Kopp & Krakow, 1983). While in the 1930s the government had stepped up to provide health and welfare services to children, in the 1940s it went further, and provided childcare. As men went overseas to fight World War II, many women were forced to leave their children at home and find jobs. The Lanham Act, passed in 1940, provided federal funding for childcare programs across the country (Karoly et al., 1989). These programs became precursors for the federally funded early childhood intervention programs targeting at-risk children that would be launched twenty years later.

The third significant research period lasted from the late 1950s until the late 1960s and focused on perinatal risk factors. The term "perinatal" refers to development that takes place in a fetus from five months before birth until an infant is one month old. The reason for this new focus was a growing concern in the scientific community over the generally poor outcomes of preterm infants: babies born before the thirty-seventh week of gestational development and weighing 2,500 grams or less. In the past, preterm births had been linked to blindness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and other debilitating conditions. But studies would in time reveal that poor outcomes of many infants were due not only to being preterm and underweight, but also to inadequate nutrition, substandard care from poorly trained professionals, and questionable treatment methods (Kopp & Krakow, 1983). Because of advancements made in childcare and medicine in later years, preterm death rates would decline steadily and preterm survival and success would become more common.

The 1970s heralded a fourth research epoch in which new technology was used to study children with and without developmental delays. Researchers in the 1970s benefited tremendously from knowledge brought forth by studies done in the 1960s, and used it to make further strides. During this decade, scientists gained an increased understanding of the genetic origins of developmental delays and diseases. Significant advancements were also made in newborn intensive care technology and in the study of conditions in the uterus and how they affect an unborn child (Kopp & Krakow, 1983).

Today doctors and pediatricians have the benefit of a wealth of new information and greatly improved pre- and neo-natal care technology. All of this has improved dramatically the survival odds of preterm babies and those born significantly underweight. Until recently, newborns deemed to have Extremely Low Birth Weight (ELBW) — weighing 800g or less — had almost no chance of survival, but the neonatal intensive care unit now offers hope (Goldberg-Hamblin, Singer, Singer, & Denney, 2007).

Low infant birth weights fall into three categories: Low Birth Weight (LBW), at or under 2,500g; Very Low Birth Weight, at or under 1,500g; and ELBW. Developmental prospects for infants born weighing at least 2,500g have always been good, but these prospects diminish with LBW babies, more with VLBW infants, and are worst for ELBW newborns (Goldberg-Hamblin et al., 2007). As birth weight drops, the probability of developmental delays and other problems increases. Diagnoses for learning disabilities become more common, as does placement in special education programs (Hollomon, Dobbins, & Scott, 1998).

Infant mortality, developmental delay, physical and cognitive disabilities, chronic health conditions, and academic failure have all been linked to children born preterm and underweight (Goldberg-Hamblin et al., 2007). For this reason, preterm and low-weight births and the biological risk factors that bring about these conditions are a chief concern in prenatal and neonatal research.

Further Insights

Biological Risk

A number of biological risk factors can lead to preterm and low-weight birth. For example, children born to minority groups have a greater chance of being underweight. Only 6 percent of Caucasian babies are born under LBW, and only 1 percent VLBW. But these rates almost double in minority-born infants (Hollomon et al., 1998).

Babies whose mothers used drugs can also be born underweight. A late-1980s study done by the Boston University School of Medicine examined 1,226 expectant mothers, 27 percent of whom used marijuana, and 18 percent, cocaine. It was found that babies born to cocaine-abusing mothers weighed an average of 93g less than those who did no drugs and were about 0.7 centimeters shorter in length. Babies whose mothers smoked marijuana were born 79g lighter and 0.5 centimeters shorter (Fackelman, 1989).

Another late-1980s study revealed that women who use cocaine during the first trimester of pregnancy risk causing subtle neurological damage to their babies. Researchers at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago gave a neurological functioning test to infants of cocaine-abusing mothers The babies were found to be less responsive to faces and voices and had problems being attentive (Fackelman, 1989).

A national study done in Norway between 1970 and 1991 revealed a significant link between smoking during pregnancy and reduced infant birth weight. The study, which polled almost 35,000 women, revealed that birth weights of infants born to smokers were, on average, 197 grams less than of those born to women who did not smoke. And this gap increased with age. Birth weights of babies born to smokers less than 20...

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