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New Study to Identify Risk Factors for Cognitive Delay in Preschool-aged Children

Details of an NIH supplementary grant funding a two-year study of socio-demographic and birth roles' impact on cognitive delay.

by David Price (January 2010)

A new project is investigating early risk factors for cognitive delays in preschool-aged children. The project, which is funded by a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, is seeking to better understand the role played by socio-demographic (e.g., poverty) and gestational or birth factors (e.g., low birth weight) in contributing to the early and repeated incidence of cognitive delay.

morgan_paul.jpgPaul Morgan, assistant professor of special education at Penn State, Marianne Hillemeier, associate professor of health policy and administration at Penn State, and George Farkas, professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, are using the $400,000 NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award (R21) to analyze the dataset known as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). The ECLS-B is a longitudinal dataset in which the cognitive, behavioral, and physical functioning of 14,000 children born in the United States in 2001 is evaluated at the ages of nine, twenty-four, forty-eight, and sixty months. No study to date has investigated children’s development in such a multifaceted manner using a nationally representative sample over its first few years.

"Young children with cognitive or behavioral delays by school entry are at high risk for a range of negative long-term educational and social outcomes," Morgan says. "This project will capitalize on the availability of a new, nationally representative dataset to illuminate the multiple pathways that lead to cognitive delay during young childhood and so may help identify promising avenues for early screening and intervention."

A better understanding of the early risk factors for cognitive delays would give early childhood researchers and practitioners important information about a child's cognitive development before entering kindergarten. By providing accurate estimates of the factors that elevate a child’s risk for cognitive delay, the project will help identify promising avenues for early intervention.

"One of the things that should come out of this project is that the field should have a better understanding of the earliest risk factors for later cognitive delays—that is," Morgan adds, "a better understanding of how early we can predict cognitive delays and how stable the early manifestation of cognitive delays is across the preschool period."

The project is already contributing new knowledge.

“One of the things that we’re learning from our initial analyses is that poverty, low maternal education, and other socio-demographic factors really begin to act as strong predictors of very low cognitive functioning in children even by twenty-four and forty-eight months, and that these socio-demographic factors outweigh prematurity, low birth weight, and other types of gestational and birth factors that are typically screened for by pediatricians and early intervention professionals," Morgan explains.

The two-year study is investigating a range of research questions and is already yielding multiple publications and conference presentations. Several manuscripts are currently under review. The study is scheduled to conclude in the early summer of 2011.