top of page

Early Intervention Critical for At-Risk Youth

Orignally published in July 2014.

We’ve all heard the phrase that “children are our future.”


Yet in ways less commonly grasped, the child is in fact the adult’s future – or as poets have suggested, “The child is father to the man.”


There are two simple points to be made: First, the collection of neural synapses that we call the human brain is wired to acquire reading, arithmetic and related skills during particular stages in the brain’s development, beginning early in childhood. Second, given these “sensitive periods” of brain development, chronic stress from child abuse and/or neglect can result in permanent adult impairment.


It is therefore essential to ensure young people have the best possible chance at success as early as possible -- especially in cases of at-risk youth, where early intervention has the greatest potential for long-term impact.


The brain has what neuroscientists call “plasticity,” which allows learning to be lifelong; but in the most cases, lifelong learning is built on the firm foundation of childhood skill development. As a result, because pivotal abilities start in the pre-school period and continue into the teenage years, we must be thoughtful about improving – and helping to assure – the language arts and math skills of children, as well as intervening when necessary so that abused and neglected children can be put swiftly on the right path before permanent damage is inflicted.


Put directly, Adults are apt to live healthier, more productive lives when they as children, have received love, nurturing, and affirmation. Alternately, a life may be negatively affected  quite early on if abuse or neglect results in impaired cognitive development. While the adult human brain isn’t normally fully formed until about age 20, right from post labor, babies are thinking and learning as they interact with their environments. By age 2, children can say 50 words and put two of them together, e.g., "More milk."  After growing dramatically, by age 5, 2,500 words are normally in the child's vocabulary. Language is stimulated by face-to-face baby talk and repetition of sounds, as well as by hearing songs and stories, which build brain circuits that lead to saying words.  In fact, it's not rare to hear 3 or 4-year olds speak several languages.


However, just a bit later teenagers struggle with foreign language classes; and when we're 30 or 40, we don't dare attempt to learn a second language, much less third.


By and large, if children have not become proficient in reading by age 9, they may never be particularly good readers as adults.  It's even said that planners can predict prison needs based on the number of fourth-grade students who have deficient reading skills.  Moreover, by the end of fourth grade, 9 and 10-year-olds can add, subtract and understand fractions.  Children who do not acquire the ability to read and write and perform basic arithmetic in a timely manner are far more likely not only to drop out of high school but also to withdraw far earlier from psychological engagement with school.  The long-term consequences involve remarkably reduced life opportunities -- low-skill jobs or unemployment, poorer health and greater likelihood of living in poverty or in one of our prisons.


It's critical, then, that we have positive pre-school and K-6 education, affirming experiences in the home, and vital interventions to assure that students are on the right track.  Otherwise, as early as kindergarten, the educational playing field will be incredibly uneven. Since some students will know thousands fewer words than their peers, the chances of their later recovery are greatly diminished.


Beyond issues of slow development because parents don't have the appropriate fiscal or other resources to assist their children's development, there are the extremely pressing problems of abuse and neglect.  The 2010 Child Federal Maltreatment Report noted that not quite 1 percent of the 74 million (740,000) U.S. children age 17 or younger suffered from abuse.  Overall, 78 percent were neglected, 17 percent physically abused, 9 percent sexually abused and 8 percent psychologically abused.  (Some encountered more than one type of abuse.)  The causes were most often rooted in poverty and substance addition.


Just as there are critical or sensitive periods for learning particular language and math concepts, there are especially critical periods during which abuses can result in impaired brain development.  At base, we know that nutritional deficits such as iron deficiency have permanent effects on the ability to learn.  In addition, we understand that warm, stable, supportive human contact is of incalculable importance in developing psychologically healthy children. Conversely, sexually abused children are twice as likely to have anxiety disorders, nearly four times as likely to have drug abuse problems, and more than four times as likely to manifest anti-social behavior.  Neglected children may have stunted growth, lack self-control, have low self-esteem, and be less competent than their peers.  One study found that by age 21, up to 80 percent of abused children had at least one psychiatric disorder, such as depression or anxiety.


What are the mechanisms here?  Abused and neglected children have traumatizing experiences that elevate cortisol, which, in turn, can damage parts of the brain vital for memory, learning and even emergence of a conscience.  In young children, abuse or neglect cause chronic stress, and the brain's neural pathways involved with the fear response grow stronger.  These children experience the world as hostile, leading to changes in brain structure and function, affecting long-term cognitive and language development, reducing memory ability and limiting social competence.  The cascading effects of child maltreatment are enduring, promoting the possibility of mental retardation, substance addiction, reduced self-control, violent crime and even suicide.


Identification and focused programs of treatment are vital, with interventions much more apt to succeed if implemented early.  The price of failing to identify and treat child abuse and neglect is profound.  Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the yearly cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States approaches a stunning $100 billion -- with adult criminality accounting for well over half the amount.  Beyond monetary consequences, the staggering human costs are psychiatric disorders, educational failure, delinquency, unsatisfactory preparation for adulthood, poverty, and parents who are themselves much more likely to be guilty of child abuse and neglect.  Indeed, in the absence of successful treatment, the intergeneration outcomes are terrifying:  90 percent of child abusers were themselves maltreated as children.


 -- Al Karnig, President Emeritus, California State University, San Bernardino

Dr. Al Karnig

President Emeritus

California State University,

San Bernardino


Dr. Albert Karnig was president of California State University, San Bernardino from 1997 to 2012 – only its third president. He served as Provost at the University of Wyoming and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Arizona State University. He also directed ASU’s School of Public Affairs, which at the time was ranked among the nation’s ten leading public policy and administration programs.


His scholarly contributions as a faculty member included books published by the University of Chicago Press and Greenwood Press, more than 60-refereed articles, numerous monographic, and service on various editorials.


"90% of child abusers were themselves maltreated as children."
"...the yearly cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States approaches a stunning $100 billion -- with adult criminality accounting for well over half the amount."




bottom of page