In recent studies, children’s temperament has emerged as a key factor for their success in school, thus complementing general intelligence. Some studies, for instance, found a reliable relationship between self-regulation and academic achievement. Self-regulation helps students navigate structured learning environments, avoid distractions, pay attention, stay on task, and persist through difficulty.

Early childhood is an important period for the development of self-regulation. For those children who grow up in poverty, inconsistent routines and unpredictable resources could lead them to adapt in ways that lower their self-regulatory abilities. As an example, a child may eat treats right away instead of showing self-restraint because they might not be available later.

Chelsea Duran, a research associate at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, aimed to better understand the development of self-regulation in the context of poverty. Along with her colleagues, she simultaneously looked at the relations between three poverty-related stressors — financial strain, caregiver general stress, and child-caregiver conflict — and self-regulatory outcomes in children from low-income families. The findings were published by the journal Child Development in December 2018.

“Self-regulation has been determined to be a strong predictor of well-being and success in many domains of life, such as in school,” said Duran. “Therefore, better understanding how specific types of stress may influence different self-regulatory outcomes may provide insights into how best to support children’s development in this key area, such as through interventions focused on low-income families.”

Participants included 343 children ages 5 to 7 years old from low-income families and their caregivers. They attended one of four elementary schools in an urban school district in the Southeastern United States. Over 90 percent of caregivers were mothers, and the vast majority of families (89 percent) identified as black.

Self-regulatory outcomes recorded in the study included results from both an executive function test and a delay of gratification test. Duran and her colleagues measured children’s executive function with “head-toes-knees-shoulders,” a game that requires children to carefully follow verbal directions. For instance, the teacher could say “When I say touch your toes, touch your head,” and the child’s response is given a score. They measured delay of gratification with a choice delay task, which presented children with a series of six choices that ranged from small rewards received immediately to larger rewards which they would have to wait for.

“Positive changes in stress levels from one time point to another at home can lead to improvements in self-regulatory outcomes — and vice versa.”

To record the poverty-related stressors, the researchers administered a questionnaire to the caregivers with items like “How difficult is it to live on your total household income right now?” (financial strain) and “In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and stressed?” (caregiver general stress). All study data including questionnaires were measured at two time points: the summer prior to or the beginning of kindergarten, and the summer prior to or the beginning of first grade.

“We found that increases in conflict between caregivers and children — as opposed to caregiver stress or financial strain — directly related to less improvement in children’s executive function,” Duran said. “Caregiver-child conflict was not related to the development of a proclivity to delay gratification. However, increases in financial strain related to a lowered tendency to delay gratification in children.”

In other words, the results indicated that positive changes in stress levels from one time point to another at home can lead to improvements in self-regulatory outcomes — and vice versa. For instance, positive child-caregiver interactions appear to be a key contributor to better executive function outcomes. However, perhaps not surprisingly, an increase in financial strain over time was directly and negatively related to delay of gratification outcomes for children.

While Duran notes that the relations in the study cannot be interpreted as causal, she still believes the results underscore the importance of parent-child interactions, which were found to have an association with the development of executive function.

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