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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The development of children's understanding of illness Kampman, Jacqueline Ida


This project addressed the issues of how children's understanding of illness and its underlying dimensions might change over development as a function of age, cognitive level, or experience with particular illnesses. Sixteen subjects at each of four age groups were recruited: kindergarten, grade 3, grade 7, and adults. The child groups were selected to correspond roughly to the preoperational, concrete operational, and beginning/basic formal operational levels of cognitive development. Firstly, subjects were asked to give verbal definitions and diagnoses for illness in general as well as for five specific illnesses (colds, chicken pox, allergies, diabetes, cancer) which were selected to vary on a hypothetical continuum of familiarity, visibility, severity, contagiousness, and the control one has over onset or healing. Secondly, subjects were asked to rate on a 7-point scale the dimensions of severity, susceptibility, control over onset and control over healing for illness in general, for the five specific illnesses, and for ill persons of four different age groups (infants, children, adults, elderly). In their descriptions of illness in general, it appears that subjects were more likely to focus on the ill person rather than illness itself; whereas, subjects were more likely to focus on an illness1 specific symptoms and its etiology in their descriptions of specific illnesses. Significant developmental trends were apparent even in definitions and diagnoses of those illnesses which are most familiar and have the most visible symptoms (ie. colds, chicken pox); however, within particular age groups, the level of sophistication in both definitions and diagnoses of specific illnesses was dependent on the familiarity/visibility of the particular illness under discussion. There were also age differences in subjects' ratings of the illness dimensions; these differences were most pronounced for severity and susceptibility. Interestingly, all subjects appear capable of significantly and accurately ranking specific illnesses on these four dimensions. With development, increasing differentiation was made between specific illnesses on the bases of these dimensions. As well, there were age differences in subjects' differentiation between different aged ill persons on the bases of these dimensions. These results suggest that young children are aware of and understand (albeit in a limited way) these four dimensions of illness before they are able to convey this information in their verbal descriptions of illness.

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