A fair start in life begins even before children enter school

How socioeconomic background affects a child’s development
Alex Fokin, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Alex Fokin, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Even before they start school, children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds differ in their cognitive, language and socioemotional skills – and these early skills are of essential importance for their educational careers and opportunities in later life. For the sake of society, too, it is essential to find strategies and approaches that will ensure comparable opportunities for all children, whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds.

In recent years and decades, numerous studies have shown that children’s backgrounds play an important role in their development, including the development of their language skills and their socioemotional and cognitive development. Several studies have gained international attention with findings showing that socioeconomic background has an impact on vocabulary and academic success.

Using a U.S. sample, researchers found differences in cognitive development when children from different family backgrounds were as young as nine months old. Also from the United States, there is evidence that children growing up in poverty or with multiple other risk factors (e.g. educationally disadvantaged mothers) are less able to recognize the letters of the alphabet, count to 20 or write their own names, compared with children growing up in more favorable circumstances.

“Early math and reading skills are among the factors that play a significant role in subsequent educational success.”

The fact that these differences manifest themselves even before school entry, generally persist throughout the school years, and continue to have an impact well into adulthood poses a particular challenge – for society as well. Early math and reading skills are among the factors that play a significant role in subsequent educational success. The environments in which children spend their early years therefore affect not only the acquisition of skills in (early) childhood, but also the rest of the children’s lives. For example, they have an impact on school readiness, (psychological) well-being and employment in adulthood.

The socioeconomic gap in children’s development is not unique to a specific country; studies have found similar results in Germany as well. Using data from the German National Educational Panel Study, researchers have found that the vocabularies and math skills of children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds already differ at the time of school entry. In addition, my colleague and I have found a correlation between the language skills of two-year-olds and their families’ educational backgrounds [editor’s note: accepted for publication].

Everyday interactions matter

What are the factors behind these differences? Particularly in early childhood, a child’s most significant and formative learning environment is the home and family. Do parents look at and read books with their children? How do mothers respond to their children’s signals and use everyday interactions to promote their development?

It is these day-to-day interactions that shape the development of a child’s language [editor’s note: accepted for publication], cognitive and socioemotional skills, and the form such interactions take is related to the family’s socioeconomic background. My colleagues and I were also able to observe differences in the quality of maternal interactions when children are still under the age of two, and we found that these differences are associated with maternal educational levels. This raises a number of questions:

What are the fundamental mechanisms by which differences in children’s backgrounds affect skill development? What role do the children themselves and their existing skills play? And how do all of these things interact to affect the course of a child’s life?

“We need to learn more about early mechanisms and the effects of social inequality in order to develop effective strategies for helping children.”

These questions will be explored in the international SEED study. The answers promise to be illuminating and exciting not only for the researchers, but also for policymakers and society at large, since they will tell us more about how best to support young children and their families.

If we want to provide all children – whatever their family backgrounds – with a fair start in life and society, it is crucial not to wait until they are in school. Early childhood education is becoming increasingly important. We need to learn more about early mechanisms and the effects of social inequality in order to develop effective strategies for helping children.

Using longitudinal studies in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, the SEED study (Social InEquality and its Effects on child Development: A study of birth cohort in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands) explores mechanisms by which social inequalities emerge and affect children’s development. The study is supported by the EU NORFACE program “Dynamics of Inequality Across the Life-course: structures and processes” (DIAL), which is under the direction of Prof. James Law (Newcastle University).

References:

Attig, M. & Weinert, S.; Häusliche Lernumwelt und Spracherwerb in den ersten Lebensjahren. Manuscript accepted for publication.

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