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Killings in the neighborhood take toll on young minds

June 18, 2010 |  8:08 pm

In the week that a homicide has occurred on their block, school-aged African American kids in predominately low-income neighborhoods suffer a steep slide in verbal and language skills that are key to reading, learning and thriving, a new study has found.

The study found that faced with similar levels of mayhem in their neighborhoods, Latino children did not appear to experience significant declines in academic performance. And slayings in study neighborhoods populated by white children were so rare the study could not discern an effect.

The effect was seen among African American children even when they were not directly exposed to the violence, suggesting that the fear and anxiety caused by proximity to an act of violence can, in some communities, ripple outward across social networks and disrupt the intellectual circuitry of entire neighborhoods. In neighborhoods where violence is endemic, the study suggests that children's academic progress can be severely stunted.

"The pattern of findings is consistent with the literature on acute stress disorder, which is defined as a response to a threatening event that induces fear, helplessness or horror," writes Patrick Sharkey, a New York University sociologist and author of the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Among other symptoms are reduced awareness and difficulties in concentration for a period last at least two days and as long as one month after the stressor."

The study combined several databases to arrive at its striking findings. It cross-checked data on all reported homicides between 1984 and 2002 in Chicago neighborhoods with children's performance on cognitive tests administered in the course of two University of Michigan studies: the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, and a three-city study of welfare, children and families (of which only Chicago-based children were scrutinized). 

Chicago's 6,041 homicides recorded during that period afforded lots of opportunities to discern the effects of such violence on children who lived on the block where it took place and within the census tract of the crime. Some of those assessments of language and verbal skills took place within days of the violence. Others happened to have been administered a week or later after the event.

The result allowed Sharkey to discern not only a proximity effect of neighborhood violence -- that the cognitive function of black children closer to a killing was more significantly affected than that of children farther away. The results also showed a temporal effect -- that in the days after a homicide, the effect of the violence on cognitive performance was dramatic. But a week after a slaying, African American schoolchildren began to regain their cognitive composure.

In the days after a slaying, however, the effects on children who lived nearby was profound and far-reaching. The performance of these African American children slid dramatically on several tests that are reliable predictors of a child's academic performance in the long term. In total, data from some 1,100 African American children 5 to 17 were used in the study.

For a helpful guide to the lasting effects that witnessing a horrific event can have, check out this well-written article. If a child you know has witnessed violence, check out this site, and this helpful guide to choosing a mental health professional who can help. 

--Melissa Healy

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