Preschoolers' thinking, behavior influenced by family income

November 12, 2002

Programs that promote family literacy, reduce parental stress, improve parenting and provide affordable, high-quality child care could go a long way toward improving young children's development, suggests recent research.

"Countless studies have shown that family income is associated with children's development and educational attainment. Our findings suggest that family income influences children's cognitive ability and behavior through different pathways, which could be addressed by offering packages of family services," says the study's lead author, W. Jean Yeung of the Center for Advanced Social Research, Department of Sociology at New York University, writing in the November-December issue of the journal Child Development.

Yeung, and colleagues M. Linver and J. Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University, studied data from a large, national survey to learn about the ways in which family income affects children's cognitive achievement and behavior problems. The sample included 753 children who were between 3 and 5 years old in 1997.

As expected, preschool children who lived in families with higher incomes scored higher on cognitive tests and had fewer behavior problems than those with lower family incomes. However, the researchers determined that family income may affect other aspects of child development, too.

Much of the association between income and children's cognitive scores was rooted in the family's ability to provide a more stimulating learning environment. For example, higher income enabled parents to buy learning materials, engage in educational activities such as visits to museums, buy adequate food and pay for high-quality child care.

On the other hand, the researchers found, the association between income and children's behavior was rooted in the level of economic pressure at home. Low-income mothers who faced economic instability were more likely to be emotionally distressed and to use punishment such as spanking.

"If we want to improve young, low-income children's cognitive achievement, we should offer programs that seek to provide children with stimulating learning materials, increase family literacy, and encourage parents to read to their children or take them on educational outings, rather than focusing solely on parenting skills," Yeung explains.

"In addition, if we want to reduce children's behavior problems, we should focus on strategies to reduce income instability, and improve parents' psychological well-being and parenting behavior."

The researchers acknowledge that additional factors, including some that precede a child's birth, may also have a major impact on a child's life chances. For example, they found that African American heritage, the mother's cognitive ability, and the child's birth weight were more important than income in predicting a child's ability to solve problems.
The study was supported by a Joint Center for Poverty Research HHS-ASPE/Census Bureau Small Grant; a research grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD); the NICHD Research Network for Family and Child Well-being; and the Michigan Interdisciplinary Center on Social Inequalities, Mind and Body.

Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact W. Jean Yeung at (212) 998-8381 or
Child Development: Contact Angela Dahm Mackay at (734) 998-7310 or

Center for Advancing Health

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