Children from better-off families on average do better in literacy and maths tests

Photo: Anthony Albright. Creative Commons.

Data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian children – 10,000 children born in 2003/4 and 1999/2000 – found that children’s performance in literacy, reasoning and mathematical tests is highly correlated with the amount of investment by parents in their education, which is possibly one reason why children from better off families develop better cognitive skills.

Parental investment is highly correlated with cognitive skills in children. Parental stress and poor neighborhood characteristics have less impact on these skills. When it comes to noncognitive skills, such as having good friendships, the reverse is true—parents’ stress and neighborhood characteristics are highly correlated with children’s noncognitive skills, parental investment less so.

A possible explanation is that performance in these cognitive tests can be improved by buying better support, such as private tutoring, private schooling and more extra-curricular activities.

The researchers, Rasheda Khanam and Son Nghiem, also found that children with better educated mothers and fathers were more likely to do better in cognitive tests, as well as children from homes with books and computers. The only health factor they found that is linked with lower performance in tests is low birth weight.

Children from wealthier families also appeared to do better behaviourally – being kind and helpful, getting on with peers, being well behaved, feeling confident in one’s own abilities, being happy and not being hyperactive.

These correlations, however, disappeared when controlling for the stress of parents and their parenting styles. Having less money is linked with more parental stress, but if all parents with a particular level of stress are compared, their income does not correlate with differences in the child’s behaviour. So the correlation is with the stress, rather than the money itself.

The researchers found that behaviour depends more on home environment, such as positive parenting style, parent’s mental health, especially mother’s mental health, out of home activities, and the child’s own physical health and gender. The researchers found:

  • Girls are more likely to show kindness and helpfulness than boys (termed “pro-social” behaviour) but more likely to have emotional problems. Boys are more likely to be hyperactive and have problems with discipline, friendships and bullying (both being bullied and bullying).
  • Children who have better physical health are less likely to have problems with behaviour.
  • Children with better educated parents are less likely to be hyperactive.

Children living with both parents are less likely to be hyperactive.

  • Children with healthy parents (physically and mentally) are less likely to behave badly and are more likely to be pro-social.
  • Children who experience positive parenting, particularly on the part of the mother, are less likely to be hyperactive and more likely to behave better.
  • Children living in a better neighbourhood are more likely to show kindness and helpfulness.
  • Children who enjoy more out of home activities are more likely to be more social, less hyperactive, and have fewer friendship and behaviour problems.

Finally, the researchers found that children who do less well both in tests and in behaviours, were more likely to be doing less well when older, suggesting a long-term effect linking early experiences with later life experiences.

Khanam R & Nghiem S, Family Income and Child Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Development in Australia: Does Money Matter? Demography, 2016