Young Mothers' Disadvantage, Not Their Age Itself, Accounts for Their Children's Educational Problems

D. Hollander

First published online:

The children of teenage mothers have an elevated risk of educational problems and disabilities when they reach kindergarten, but this risk is not directly attributable to the mothers' young age.1 Rather, a population-based study of Florida youngsters shows, their deficits are caused by socioeconomic and demographic factors that place their mothers at a disadvantage--particularly having a low level of education, being unmarried and being poor. By contrast, children born to women older than 35 have impairments and academic problems in kindergarten even when their mothers' background characteristics are taken into account.

The study was based on the records of 339,171 Florida-born children who entered public school kindergartens between the 1992-1993 and 1994-1995 academic years. From these records, the researchers determined whether a child was in a regular kindergarten class, a class for those with academic problems (i.e., mild educational difficulties) or a special education class designed for pupils with one of seven disabilities (physical or sensory impairment; profound, moderate or mild mental handicap; learning disability; or emotional handicap). Birth certificates yielded information on the mothers' age (which the researchers categorized as 11-17, 18-19, 20-35 or older than 35) and other characteristics; the child's receipt of free or reduced-price lunch at school was used as an indication of poverty.

Regardless of maternal age, the majority of children (62-70%) were in regular kindergarten classes, and most of the rest (28-35%) were in classes for youngsters with academic problems; fewer than 1% were in any type of special education class. To assess the association between maternal age and children's placement in a class geared toward academic problems or special needs, the investigators estimated odds ratios, using children born to 20-35-year-olds as the reference group.

In the first set of analyses, which did not control for any maternal background variables, children of both 11-17-year-olds and older teenagers had elevated odds of being in classes for pupils with profound mental handicaps (odds ratios, 1.9 and 1.6, respectively), mild mental handicaps (2.0 and 1.6), emotional handicaps (1.8 for both groups) and academic problems (1.4 and 1.3). Children born to women older than 35 had higher odds than those born to women aged 20-35 of being placed in classes for youngsters with physical impairments (1.5), moderate mental handicaps (2.3) and academic problems (1.1).

However, controlling for mother's education, marital status, poverty and race, as well as the child's sex, produced striking changes in the results for teenagers' children. In this set of analyses, these youngsters did not have increased odds of any adverse outcome and had significantly reduced odds of some: Compared with children born to women aged 20-35, those born to teenagers had lower odds of being placed in classes for pupils with moderate mental handicaps (0.6-0.7) and academic problems (0.90-0.96); youngsters born to older teenagers also had reduced odds of placement in classes for those with learning disabilities (0.7). Results for children born to women older than 35, by contrast, were essentially unchanged in the multivariate analysis, although these youngsters now had significantly elevated odds of being placed in classes for children with mild mental handicaps (1.4).

Adding perinatal factors (e.g., birth weight, labor complications and prenatal care) to the control variables did not affect the results for children born to either teenagers or older women. When parity was included, however, the protective effects of having a teenage mother disappeared. This finding, the researchers suggest, may reflect that children of teenage mothers have fewer siblings and therefore get more of their mothers' attention than youngsters with older mothers.

Further analyses, aimed at determining the relative importance of each control variable, showed that maternal education had the greatest effect on odds ratios. When this factor was dropped from the set of controls, all but one of the protective effects of being born to a teenager lost significance. Moreover, without maternal education as a control, children born to older teenagers had significantly elevated risks of being placed in classes for pupils with sensory impairments (odds ratio, 1.4) or emotional handicaps (1.2). Marital status, poverty and race also played important roles in predicting which children born to teenagers would have difficulties in kindergarten.

In a final set of analyses, the researchers explored the possibility of an effect of age among the youngest mothers. (Since all women who gave birth at ages 11-17 had a high school education or less, it was not possible to separate the effects of age and education in this group.) Basing their calculations on the children of women who were unmarried and poor (the vast majority of the youngest mothers), they found that for each year younger a teenager was when she gave birth, her child's chances of being placed in a class designed to address emotional handicaps increased by 44%, and the chances of placement in a class for youngsters with mild mental handicaps rose by 24%. White children suffered only from an increased risk of academic problems the younger their mothers were, but black kindergartners were increasingly likely to have moderate or mild mental handicaps, learning disabilities or emotional problems. Noting the lack of an association between maternal age and the most severe disabilities, the researchers conclude that environmental, rather than behavioral, factors may explain the disadvantages found among children of the youngest mothers.

The investigators point out that while maternal age per se does not appear to have an adverse effect on educational outcomes, it may have an indirect effect by influencing educational attainment, marital status and poverty status. "Fortunately," they conclude, "factors such as maternal education are [remediable], and intervention programs targeted at teenage mothers...ameliorate some of the negative consequences of teenage parenting. These findings underscore the importance and value of high school graduation programs for teenage mothers."--D. Hollander


1. Gueorguieva RV et al., Effect of teenage pregnancy on educational disabilities in kindergarten, American Journal of Epidemiology, 2001, 154(3):212-220.