The Science of Learning Blog

January 17, 2019

Building a Foundation for School Readiness for Low-Income Children

BY Carrie Gajowski, MA

As educators with experience in child development, we understand the essential nature of being responsive to a child. Children who do not receive enough attention do not develop in the same way as those who receive consistent nurturing and feedback. Research has demonstrated how, at a physiological level, their brains simply wire themselves differently as they develop. This deficit in early childhood experiences often manifests itself as developmental delays across a wide spectrum of behaviors. These behavioral delays appear in parallel with delays in brain development.

Imagine a child growing up in a home where sensitive, responsive caregiving is rare. Maybe mom and/or dad work more hours and are simply not available. Maybe they come home too tired to read or play or simply snuggle with the child. Or, this is an environment where sensitive, responsive nurturing is not valued very highly. While it is not the case in every situation like this, at its extreme, the parent or parents may be truly neglecting the child’s needs at this early stage. Even moderate differences in these important parent-child interactions have important longer-term consequences for development.

Research has shown that in these situations a child’s brain development quickly gets derailed. Children who do not receive enough of what is known as “sensitive-response caregiving” and cognitive stimulation do not develop executive function skills as readily as their counterparts in more caring, stimulating environments. (Lengua et al., 2007; Li-Grining, 2007) In other words, children may not be encouraged to be aware of and interact with the world around them (cognitive stimulation). They also may not be encouraged to engage or develop planning, decision-making or troubleshooting skills (executive function).

Executive functions, also known as “domain-general” functions, are those called upon in various types of learning opportunities; these include such functions as working memory, regulation of emotions and attentional control. On the other hand, a “domain-specific” cognitive process is one that represents a specific skill or skill area, such as reading or counting.

But what are the implications as children grow and enter school?  A team of researchers led by Janet Welsh at Penn State studied readiness for school in a group of Head Start children and how certain cognitive processes were associated with the development of certain skills. Specifically, they studied the relationship between domain-general and domain-specific cognitive processes in these low-income pre-kindergartners, and tracked them through kindergarten.

Welsh‘s study showed that skills scaffolded consistently from one level to the next, and these skill levels represented good indicators of how well the child would develop the next set of skills. In other words, good working memory and attention control predicted the development of early literacy and numeracy skills, and these skills were predictors of later math and reading achievement.

Whether through experience in the home, great work in the pre-kindergarten classroom and/or support from computer-based learning exercises, it is clearly essential that we support the early development of domain-general cognitive skills as early and as strongly as possible.

While this may seem obvious, Welsh’s research underscores the essential nature of laying a foundation in those executive functions, those domain-general cognitive abilities, for each and every student – but especially for those at an economic disadvantage if we are to close the gaps and truly offer the same opportunities to every student.

For further reading:    

The relationship between socioeconomic status and white matter microstructure in pre-reading children: A longitudinal investigation, Ola Ozernov-Palchik, Elizabeth S. Norton, Yingying Wang, Sara D. Beach, Jennifer Zuk, Maryanne Wolf, John D.E. Gabrieli, and Nadine Gaab, Hum Brain Mapp. 2018;1–14.

The Development of Cognitive Skills and Gains in Academic School Readiness for Children From Low-Income Families, Janet A. Welsh, Robert L. Nix, Clancy Blair, Karen L. Bierman, and Keith E. Nelson. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2010, Volume 102, Number 1, p. 43-53.

Family Involvement in School and Low-Income Children's Literacy Performance, Eric Dearing, Holly Kreider, Sandra Simpkins, and Heather Weiss. Harvard Family Research Project. January 2007.

Early Care and Education for Children in Low-Income Families Patterns of Use, Quality, and Potential Policy Implications, Gina Adams, Kathryn Tout, and Martha Zaslow. Prepared for the Urban Institute and Child Trends. January 2006, revised May 2007.

The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children, HB Ferguson, S Bovaird, and MP Mueller. Paediatr Child Health. October 2007. 12(8): 701–706.

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