Cognitive Ability of Preschool Children Exposed to Violence at Home

Tuesday, 14 July 2009: 9:10 AM

Judee E. Onyskiw, RN, PhD
Faculty of Health and Community Studies, MacEwan College, Edmonton, AB, Canada

Learning Objective 1: describe findings of past research on the impact of children’s exposure to violence at home on their health and well-being.

Learning Objective 2: describe the findings of this population-based study examining the impact of children’s exposure to violence at home on their cognitive ability.

BackgroundThe early home environment is critical to children’s optimal health and development. Yet, many children are raised in violent homes. Children exposed to violence at home have a wide range of emotional and behavioral problems. Relative to our knowledge of these adverse outcomes, though, little is known about the impact of witnessing violence on children’s cognitive ability.  


The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of exposure to violence at home on preschool children’s cognitive ability.  

Methods The study employed a repeated cross-sectional design using five cohorts of preschool children who participated in a national survey of Canadian children (N = 20,665). Approximately 8.0% of these children had witnessed some violence at home. Children’s cognitive ability was assessed using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (PPVT-R; Dunn & Dunn, 1981). This test of receptive language correlates well with measures of intelligence, predicts academic achievement, and has been used in large-scale studies with ethnically diverse samples.  Data were analyzed using regression analysis.


Results showed that children exposed to violence at home scored lower than nonexposed children in the general population. However, witnessing violence at home did not contribute significantly to children’s cognitive ability. Mothers’ education and amount of time spent reading to the child both contributed positively to children’s cognitive ability. The model explained approximately 12 to 17% of the variance in the cognitive ability of the preschool children who participated in five different cohorts of this national survey of children.


The effect of exposure to violence on children’s cognitive ability differs from the effect of exposure on other aspects of children's functioning as reported in the majority of past research. This information will provide further evidence to develop appropriate interventions to assist vulnerable children living in violent families.