Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Specific Features of Cumulative Cognitive Deficit (CCD) in Internationally Adopted Children 
Posted Date

Parents of school age internationally adopted post-institutionalized children sometimes express their concerns and frustrations over the slower than expected academic progress of their children in school. After an initial phase of seemingly fast new language acquisition and adjustment to their new homes and schools, some of these children may show significant difficulty in their academic work (which, in turn, often brings behavioral and emotional problems). Their learning difficulties may persist and even worsen, well after the time when their academic problems may be attributed to bilingual and adjustment issues. Moreover, as they progress through the developmental stages and school grades, they seem to fall farther and farther behind in their performance on academic tasks and cognitive tests.

What happens even more often, the overall dynamic of cognitive and language development and performance of some internationally adopted children fails to match the comprehensive and relentless efforts of their adoptive parents and professionals in different fields. These children may experience what is known as the "Cumulative Cognitive Deficit" (CCD) - a term coined by a psychologist, M. Deutsch in the 1960s, CCD refers to a downward trend in the measured intelligence or scholastic achievement of culturally/socially disadvantaged children relative to age-appropriate societal norms and expectations. The theory behind cumulative deficit is that children who are deprived of enriching cognitive experiences during their early years are less able to profit from environmental situation because of a mismatch between their cognitive structural maturity and the requirements of the new, more advanced learning situation. According to current research, there are several major characteristics of CCD:

    1. Cognitive language deficiency that blocks cognitive processing.
    2. Lack of age-appropriate cognitive skills, which results in progressive cognitive/behavioral incompetence.
    3. Insufficient task-intrinsic motivation in cognitive activities, which may appear as an attention and memory problem.
    4. Chronic mismatch between the child’s learning capacity and his/her academic placement, teaching style, and level of instruction.
CCD is usually associated with certain emotional/behavioral problems. Constant failure in cognitive activities feeds upon itself in a negative spiraling fashion which results in low self-esteem, lack of interest in and constant frustration associated with cognitive efforts. Lack of intrinsic motivation in cognitive activities grows with age and becomes one of the major characteristics of CCD. The causes, nature, and dynamic of CCD in internationally adopted children are in many ways akin to the same phenomenon in the general population. It looks as if the child is "racing against time" being unable to catch up with age-appropriate academic standards. Because of the discrepancy between steadily rising academic requirements and relatively slow cognitive/language progress in some of the internationally adopted children, the overall trend appears to be a "downward" one. Resembling the population at large in its nature and dynamic of development, the CCD in internationally adopted children has the following specific features:
  • Traditionally, in education and cognitive psychology, the causes of CCD have been attributed mostly (if not exclusively) to a "culture of poverty", that is, to ongoing cultural/educational deprivation. As opposite to this "single cause approach", the determinant of CCD in internationally adopted children may be associated with a combination of medical (e.g. failure to thrive syndrome), socio/economical (neglect/abuse, poor nutrition), and cultural/educational deficiencies in early childhood. Consequently, the remedial efforts should be multifaceted.
  • The effect of bilingualism on cognitive functioning depends in part on whether children are adding a second language to a well-developed first language (the so-called "additive" model) or whether a second language is sharply replacing the first language (the "subtractive" model). The subtractive nature of new language acquisition in IAPI children definitely contributes to CCD (Gindis, 1999) and may constitute the "core" factor in cumulative cognitive deficiency in IAPI children. It may even be suggested that CCD might be reinforced during the time when the first language is lost for all practical purposes and second language is barely functional communicatively and not in existence cognitively. The overall length of this period depends on child’s age and individual differences, but all IAPI children adopted after three years old appeared to live through this period and for some of them, it is the time when their cognitive weaknesses were consolidated into CCD.
  • In internationally adopted "older" (school-aged) children, there are cultural differences that may be perceived as "incompetence" in social, cognitive, or adaptive behavior domains. A value of cognitive activity, intrinsic motivation in cognitive operations, learning behavior in general, and attitude toward teaching authority may be influenced by cultural differences. We have to understand that CCD in IAPI children is diagnosed against the US middle class norms and expectations.
  • In internationally adopted children, CCD may occur concurrently with or as one of the consequences of such behaviorally defined disabilities as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Attachment Disorder – these are the most often psychiatric diagnoses found in these children. More research is needed, however, to define this clinically observed correlation.
  • The phenomenon of CCD is attributed to cultural/educational deprivation experienced in the early formative years. Most internationally adopted children now live in middle-class families with well-educated parents. Probably for the first time in the history of CCD, families are not ongoing contributing factors in CCD; on the contrary, they may be considered as powerful remedial factors. Due to adoptive parents' sensitivity to and awareness of possible learning problems in their children and because of higher parental expectations in this respect, symptoms of CCD are earlier reported and are more often subjected to professional attention.
Dr. Boris Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, the lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.
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