Elementary school-age children's conceptual understanding and factual knowledge about the causes of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), colds, and obesity are poorly understood, particularly among black children living in low-income, urban neighborhoods. We examined minority children's conceptual understanding about the causes of these illnesses. In addition, children's factual knowledge and misconceptions about the causal agents of AIDS, colds, and obesity were investigated. A developmentally based, semistructured interview was developed to measure children's level of understanding about the causes of each condition. Interviews were conducted with 239, predominately black, first, third, and fifth grade students attending two public elementary schools in a low income city in northern California. Interviews were verbally administered and tape recorded for later verbatim transcription. Children's responses to questions about causality first were scored based on their level of conceptual sophistication. Responses then were assigned to thematic categories reflecting the children's factual knowledge about the causes of AIDS, colds, and obesity. Increases in grade level were associated with higher scores for causality of AIDS (p < 0001), colds (p < .0001), and obesity (p < .01). In all three conditions, causality scores increased between first and fifth grades, but did not significantly vary between third and fifth grades. Gender, socioeconomic status, and number of adults living in the household were not significantly associated with causality scores. Within each grade, the finding of lower causality scores for AIDS, as compared to colds and obesity, points out the need for developmentally appropriate explanations to children about the causes of AIDS. Finally, children at all three grade levels lacked factual knowledge and had many misconceptions about the causes of AIDS, colds, and obesity. J Dev Behav Pediatr 15:239-247, 1994. Index terms: AIDS, colds, obesity, cognitive development, AIDS education, health education, illness concept.
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