Drug-Exposed Children Essay

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Public concern about the education of drug-exposed children dates back to the mid-1980s. During that time, prenatal drug abuse among poor urban women became epidemic, which resulted in unusually high numbers of drug-impacted children enrolling in school. Many of these children demonstrated developmental impairments. Interest concerning the educational prognosis for these youngsters resulted in a public discussion about the future of children whose mothers abused drugs while pregnant and had inadequate prenatal care and poor maternal health. This entry reviews the needs of these children and describes appropriate interventions.

During the 1980s, drug-exposed children became an urban educational issue. Educators had many preconceived beliefs about what to expect from these youngsters in the classroom. School officials were bracing themselves for the worst, assuming that these children would have extremely low intellectual functioning or mental retardation and be uncontrollable, and that schools would not know how to handle these children. Most troubling was the idea that this population would consume most of the special education funding, placing further strain on school resources for children with developmental challenges.

More sophisticatedly designed research on children prenatally exposed to drugs and their developmental outcomes have given educators hope for working with this population. Studies have shown that although these children have early childhood delays, which for the majority will lead to later educational difficulties, their impairments are not as severe as was once believed. With appropriate intervention, most can reach appropriate developmental milestones. In fact, many drug-exposed children have tested within the normal cognitive range on commonly used intelligence test measures.

So, how are public schools responding to the needs of these children? In Educating Drug-Exposed Children, Janet Thomas points out that public school systems have not seriously addressed this issue. The book gives attention to the dilemmas teachers face in working with this population and the three key issues involved in educating these children. The first issue is behavioral and learning problems. Teachers have found that there are specific patterns that present challenges to working with these children in a regular classroom setting. Although many of these children show potential, their behavioral and learning problems cause many to be referred for special education placement, which is not always appropriate to address their needs.

The second issue is the psychosocial risk factors that present obstacles to positive educational outcomes of school-age children. These things include but are not limited to inconsistent caregiving, lack of educational continuity, frequent absences, and exposure to drug abusing environments. Teachers have found that these factors are prevalent in the drug-impacted population and that they have as negative an effect on school performance as do behavioral and learning problems.

The third issue is the need for guidance on how schools can effectively intervene. Teachers have expressed a need to develop a professional knowledge base for dealing with this population. Public schools have no assessment tool for detecting the symptoms of prenatal drug-exposure, a problem that is often missed when using traditional measures. Teachers have no professional guidance on how to effectively intervene on behalf of this population in a special education or regular education environment. For this reason, these children are among the most educationally at-risk populations.


The educational difficulties of drug-impacted school-age children are best addressed in the context of school and community. Educational policies and programs focusing on these children’s specific needs are necessary to effectively intervene with this population. Such interventions must take a comprehensive approach, start before these children enroll in school, address psychosocial risk factors, and provide guidance for schools working on behalf of these children.

Drug-exposed children with developmental issues should be identified for early childhood interventions before they enter school. Intervening as early as possible will help prevent their issues from developing into more serious problems. Tracking systems are especially needed in school communities where there are large numbers of children whose mothers abused drugs while pregnant.

School-based social support systems are needed in public schools to assist these children as they move through the educational system. Such services should be community oriented, extending support to the caregivers of drug-impacted, school-age children. This can be a powerful collaboration for advocating for the educational need of drug-exposed children with developmental challenges.

Building the knowledge base about drug-exposed children is the most important aspect of addressing these children’s school failure. Education professionals must become more proactive in contributing to the understanding of how drug exposure impacts children and what are effective education practices. Other populations with birth-related developmental challenges have been clearly defined and appropriately studied, and the drug-impacted population deserves equal attention.


  1. Thomas, J. Y. (2004). Educating drug-exposed children: The aftermath of the crack baby crisis. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

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