Due to advances in medicine, childhood illness that once were fatal are now highly treatable, and children with chronic illnesses are more likely than ever before to have relatively normal social and academic lives. Most studies on the effects of chronic illnesses indicate that chronic conditions are associated with poor academic performance and higher anxiety and other mental health symptoms. It is less clear how these two negative outcomes are related. For example, is the relative poor academic performance in these children due symptoms of depression or anxiety?

A recent article published in the journal Child: Care Health and Development examined the academic performance and anxiety symptoms in children with chronic illnesses in Canada. The study included 534 children with chronic illness (ages 10 to 15) and 978 healthy peers. The authors examined the academic achievement scores in mathematics and anxiety symptoms. The authors also controlled for a number of explanatory variables, such as household income, gender, educational handicaps directly related to the chronic condition, and rural vs. urban setting.

The Results:

1. Children with chronic illnesses had significantly lower mathematics achievement scores than healthy peers. This finding was not explained by the presence of higher levels of educational handicaps (Learning disabilities, mental retardation, etc) in the children with chronic illnesses. On the contrary, the authors noted a paradoxical finding. As expected, healthy children with an educational handicap scored lower in mathematics achievement than healthy children without an educational handicap. However, among kids with chronic illness, those with an educational handicap scored higher in mathematics achievement than those without an educational handicap.

2. The authors did not find any differences in anxiety symptoms when comparing the children with and without chronic conditions. In addition, the lower levels of academic achievement found in the children with chronic condition was not explained by anxiety symptoms.

I think the most surprising finding in this study was that children with chronic conditions AND an educational handicap scored higher on a test of mathematics achievement than did children with chronic conditions but WITHOUT an educational handicap. It is likely that those with an educational handicap received significant educational support when compared to kids with chronic conditions but without a clear educational handicap. These results have some serious implications for prevention efforts. Kids with chronic conditions that do not have a clear education handicap may be “falling through the cracks,” in that their educational problems may not be severe enough to catch the attention of teachers and/or parents yet these kids may be falling behind when compared to their healthy peers.
Martinez, Y., & Ercikan, K. (2009). Chronic illnesses in Canadian children: what is the effect of illness on academic achievement, and anxiety and emotional disorders? Child: Care, Health and Development, 35 (3), 391-401 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2214.2008.00916.xResearchBlogging.org

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2 Responses to What are the effects of chronic illnesses on academic achievement?

  1. Anonymous says:

    perhaps what is missing in consideration of chronic illness and academic achievement is number of days absent, which could have a significant effect on continuity of instruction, peer relationships, etc.

  2. Thank you for the comment. Yes, number of days absent is one of the factors used to explain the effects of chronic illnesses on academic performance. So this would probably play a role in differentiating the kids with chronic illnesses from the healthy peers. However, I’m not sure that days absent would explain the interaction with educational handicap. That is, it is very unlikely (although the paper did not show data one way or another) that the sick kids without a handicap had more days absent than the sick kids with a handicap. There are probably other factors that explain why the one WITH the handicap performed better.

    Thanks! Nestor.

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