Family hardship and children's development: the early years

Ingrid Schoon, Steven Hope, Andy Ross, Kathryn Duckworth


Examining the factors and processes shaping school readiness provides important information about how to enable young children to develop their cognitive potential and to succeed in their school careers. The aim of this paper is to assess different mediating processes through which family hardship affects children’s early development, both in terms of cognitive and behavioural adjustment. Using data from the UK Millennium Cohort, we examine the associations between persistent socio-economic hardship and young children’s development, and investigate the role of maternal emotional distress, mother-child interactions, and cognitive stimulation as potential mediators, in a sample of 14661 children, who were followed from birth through age 3 years. Cognitive ability was assessed by standardized tests, and child behaviour by maternal report, when the children were 3 years of age. The findings suggest that persistent family hardship was significantly associated with child developmental outcomes. The impact of hardship on cognitive and behavioural adjustment is partially mediated by the level of maternal distress, which in turn shapes the quality of parent-child interactions and the provision of a cognitively stimulating home environment. The findings suggest differential pathways in the transmission of family disadvantage, where parenting characteristics were more important in mediating the effect of hardship on behavioural adjustment, than on early cognitive development. Findings are discussed in terms of their policy implications.



cognitive capital; family hardship; childhood development

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