Abstract: Maternal Trauma and Children in Public Preschool Programs (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Maternal Trauma and Children in Public Preschool Programs

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR H, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Brenda Jones Harden, PhD, Professor, University of Maryland at College Park, College Park, MD
Jacqueline Gross, PhD, Post-doctoral researcher, University of Maryland at College Park, College PArk, MD
Rebecca Watkins, Research Assistant, University of Maryland at College Park, College Park, MD
Background and Purpose:

There is convincing evidence for the early childhood origins of academic disparities between children from low-SES vs. middle-SES backgrounds (Duncan et al., 2010; Halle et al., 2009). These disparities may be a consequence of parental functioning and parents’ experiences of adversity. For example, children from low SES backgrounds are more likely to have mothers with compromised physical and mental health, as well as increased parenting stress (Ekono et al., 2016). Further, low-SES children and their caregivers are more likely to have experienced trauma (Ghosh Ippen et al., 2011).

Scholars have proposed that parental functioning (i.e., health, stress) is one mechanism through which trauma impacts parenting and child outcomes (Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 2001). In line with this conceptualization, the purpose of the current study was to examine the influence of maternal trauma experiences (i.e., community violence, family violence, child maltreatment) on parental functioning, parenting, and child outcomes.


Participants were 275 caregivers and their preschool-aged children, who were a subsample of a larger preschool evaluation study. The mean child age was 5.8 years (M=69.59; SD=6.71). Slightly over half (52.6%) of the children were female. Most caregivers were employed (60.1%), and were African American (64.7%). On average, each household contained 2.41 (SD=1.21) children.

Measures used in this study were the: Trauma History Questionnaire (Green, 1996); Philadelphia Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Screener; Parenting Stress Index - Short Form (Abidin, 1995); Center for Epidemiologic Studies – Depression Scale (Radloff, 1977); Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale (Straus et al., 1998); and the Woodcock-Johnson IV Test of Academic Achievement (Schrank et al., 2014).


Descriptive analyses of caregiver data revealed that: 31% reported being emotionally or physically abused; 15% reported witnessing domestic violence; 16% reported being sexually abused; 40% reported living with someone who engaged in very high-risk behavior; and 14% reported that they were ever in foster care. Regarding experience of ACEs, 34% reported zero; 66% reported at least 1; 56% reported 2+; 42% reported 3+; and 33% reported 4+.

Using hierarchical multiple regression analyses, maternal ACE exposure ACEs  (B=.026; p< .001) and parenting stress (B=.185; p< .001) had a significant influence on reported parenting behaviors (i.e., child maltreatment). Further, mothers’ witnessing community violence had a significant influence on children’s WJIV early literacy scores (B=-3.902; p=.036).

Conclusions and Implications:

Consistent with extant research, results of this study demonstrate high rates of ACEs among low-income families (Sacks et al., 2014), that parenting stress is a strong predictor of parenting behaviors (Crnic et al., 2005), and that exposure to community violence is related to compromised academic performance (DeLaney-Black et al., 2002). Future analyses will examine parental functioning and parenting as mediators between maternal trauma and child outcomes. These results will be discussed in the context of social work practice for young children, including trauma-informed service delivery, screening and intervention for trauma in early childhood programs, and the delivery of parenting programs specifically for caregivers who have experienced trauma.