How Can We Help Economically Disadvantaged Children Achieve Academically?

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By LillyBelle Deer, Paul Hastings, and Camelia Hostinar, UC Davis*

The authors are all researchers in the UC Davis Department of Psychology. They wrote this policy paper for the UC Davis Center for Poverty and Inequality Research.

Children growing up in economically disadvantaged contexts are at risk of underperforming academically. In a recent study, we set out to examine whether early-life family income predicted long-term academic achievement, and to investigate the role of executive function in explaining this association. We found that task-based executive function played a significant role in explaining the association between early-life family income and later academic achievement. 

This suggests that childhood executive function may play an important role in perpetuating income-based educational disparities. It also identifies childhood executive function as a target for public policies being adopted to reduce such disparities.

Income-based disparities in academic achievement emerge early in life and persist into later childhood and adolescence. By adulthood, those from low-income backgrounds complete less schooling overall. And, because the academic-achievement gap between low-income youth and their financially better-off peers often translates into a gap in adult earnings and overall socioeconomic status, limited education contributes to the transmission of socioeconomic disadvantage to the next generation, research showed.

To promote academic success in students from economically disadvantaged households effectively, it is crucial to find the developmental pathways through which family economic circumstances affect children’s academic outcomes. Some of these pathways, such as executive function, may be more amenable to intervention than others. Executive function reflects neurological activity that allows children to exercise increasing levels of cognitive control over their responses to environmental stimuli. It enables them to focus, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, reflect, and plan ahead.

Chronic exposure to poverty-related stressors—neighborhood violence, family chaos, racial discrimination, noise, pollution, and so on—alters the neurobiological systems that support executive functions. This shifts children from a more “reflective” to a more “reactive” pattern of responding. This in turn leads children from homes with low financial resources to be seen by their parents or teachers as less competent in various aspects of self-regulation and to exhibit poorer performance on task-based measures of inhibitory control, working memory, and attention shifting. It follows, then, that intervening to improve executive function skills can improve academic achievement for children from high-poverty schools and thereby reduce the achievement gap. With this in mind, our study focused on executive functions during middle childhood because these skills become consolidated during middle childhood and adolescence.

Assessing the role of executive function 

We drew on data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). This ongoing birth-cohort study aims to follow more than 14,000 participants from birth into adulthood, with the goal of understanding the role of environmental and genetic factors in shaping a wide range of developmental and health outcomes. 

The first measure taken was total family weekly income, assessed through maternal self-report when the child was 33 months and 47 months of age. The second measure was academic achievement at age 16-18, including, for example, application and acceptance to university. The third measure was executive function, assessed at multiple time points and from multiple sources between ages 7 and 11.

Executive function mediates the link between income and achievement

As expected, lower early-life family income predicted lower academic achievement in adolescence. When examining the associations among executive-function measures and early-life income, the Opposite Worlds task (a measure of cognitive inhibition), Counting Span (a measure of working memory), and the teacher-reported measure of behavioral inhibition showed the strongest associations with indices of early-life income.

Our results point to executive function skills as an important factor in the relation between early-life income and academic achievement during adolescence. We found that low early-life income predicted poorer task-based executive function performance, which in turn predicted poorer academic achievement. 

Improve executive function, close achievement gap   

Executive function allows children to shift and maintain attention as needed during a lesson, remember classroom rules, inhibit inappropriate impulses, hold and manipulate items in working memory to aid reasoning, and use planning to solve problems effectively. Our study found that executive-function skills are important predictors of academic success. It thus supports the role of executive function in middle-to-late childhood as a foundation for long-term academic success, and as a mediator between early-life family income and academic achievement.

Our findings support the value of policies and intervention programs that aim to improve executive function to reduce income-based disparities in academic achievement. Indeed, boosting executive function in the preschool years may help close the achievement gap between poor children and their better-off peers. Our study also highlights executive function between the ages of 7 and 11 as another possible target, with potentially far-reaching benefits for academic achievement.

Read the article and research references in full here.

*LillyBelle Deer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology; Paul Hastings is a professor of psychology and Camelia Hostinar is an assistant professor of psychology, all at the University of California, Davis

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