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A study looking at a wide range of family and parenting practices in low-income families identified factors that predict learning achievement and socio-emotional outcomes for children at the ages of 4½, 11 and 15 years.
- Learning stimulation at home was the key predictor of achievement in verbal skills and, to a lesser extent, math skills.
- An orderly household and close parental supervision were the strongest predictors of positive socioemotional outcomes, even more so than sensitive parenting.
Growing up in a low-income family has negative implications for a child’s development. Research has shown that much of that fact can be attributed to the financial and psychological strain that low income places on parents, who are less able to engage in positive parenting practices and to provide materials, time and energy to stimulate a child’s learning. But low-income families vary widely, in relation both to parenting and to children’s outcomes. This study focused on such variations to examine low-income families’ investments for promoting positive outcomes among children.
Data on 528 low-income families came from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), a prospective longitudinal study that followed US children born in 1991 through age 15, assessing their home environment and development at multiple points.
The researchers aggregated various individual parenting measures at different times in the child’s life into five “investment domains” and looked for associations between those parenting investments and children’s achievement and socio-emotional functioning over childhood and early adolescence. The five investment domains and significant findings are summarized below:
- “Safety and sustenance” measured the physical environment, breastfeeding and the child’s own reports of feeling safe.
Breastfeeding predicted vocabulary scores at 4½ years and at 11 years old.
The quality of the physical environment in the home predicted vocabulary scores at 4½ years, and children’s feelings of safety predicted vocabulary scores at 11 years old.
- “Structure” included dinner-time habits, parental efforts to take part in their adolescent’s learning, and mothers’ progressive child rearing beliefs.
Progressive child rearing beliefs, balancing behavioral control and encouraging autonomy, were associated with lower vocabulary skills at 11 years old and 15 years old. In other studies, progressive parenting beliefs are associated with better academic skills, but perhaps in low-income contexts, less belief in autonomy is a necessary adaptation.
- “Surveillance” was comprised of mother and child reports of parental monitoring.
Maternal monitoring predicted greater achievement and fewer behavioral problems at 15 years of age, both externalizing (e.g., anger, disruptive behaviour) and internalising (e.g. ,withdrawal, sadness).The link with fewer internalizing behavioural problems is greater than has been found in middle-income families in other studies, suggesting that greater supervision and monitoring may be particularly effective for ensuring the well-being of youth in low-income families.
- “Learning stimulation” included a wide range of measures, such as encouragement of early language skills, the presence of learning toys and materials, and cognitively stimulating mother-child interactions.
Learning stimulation was the strongest predictor of achievement at all ages, particularly at 4½ years, though more so for vocabulary skills than for math skills.
- “Socioemotional support” included positive parent-child communication, parent’s responsiveness to the child, avoidance of harsh punishment, good order in the household and maternal sensitivity during mother-child interactions.
Socioemotional support did not predict achievement at 4½ years of age, but it did predict fewer behaviour problems at 11 and 15 years. In particular, greater household order when the child was eight years old predicted fewer externalizing problems at both age 11 and 15 years.
Contrary to the predictions of the researchers, early childhood parenting investments between birth and five years old did not have a greater impact than later investments during middle childhood and early adolescence. This finding suggests that cumulative investments over time that the most difference in compensating for the harm posed by poverty in early childhood.
Longo F, Lombardi CM & Dearing E (2017), Family Investments in Low-Income Children’s Achievement and Socioemotional Functioning, Developmental Psychology