05 SES 10, Children and Youth at Risk and Urban Education
Research has shown that there are clear and substantial income-related gaps in children’s health, social and emotional wellbeing, and cognitive abilities before they enter school (Kelly et al 2011; Waldfogel and Washbrook 2011). Furthermore these income-related gaps in child development have been shown to persist or worsen over time, and are often strongly associated with substantial negative outcomes in later life (Kelly et al 2011). Consequently, there is increasing focus amongst policy-makers to identify and develop interventions targeting the early lives of children from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their life chances (see Allen 2011, Waldfogel and Washbrook 2011, for recent reviews).
As a result numerous interventions have been developed to address or combat particular features associated with children living in poverty. For example, these include: parenting style; the home learning environment; maternal health; maternal health behaviours; early childhood care and education; maternal education; and maternal mental health. Some interventions attempt to address these features individually; others are designed to address them in combination with one another. Furthermore, these interventions are based on a growing body of research that has systematically studied the influence of various background characteristics of the children, their families and their homes on later educational outcomes. The assumption underpinning many early years interventions is, then, that the factors they are designed to address are considered to be the causes of inequalities in child development, which in turn lead to greater levels of hardship in later life.
However, the way many of these analyses of early childhood development are analytically framed and the way policy-makers seek to intervene in early childhood development has led to the privileging of, and focus on, particular background characteristics. In particular, parenting behaviours are often perceived to provide the most important means of mitigating or alleviating the impact of early childhood disadvantage (Feinstein et al 2004). In turn, parenting behaviours are then seen as dominant obstacle to improving the educational outcomes and subsequent life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, sending other associated factors, such as social class and other socio-economic circumstances, to the background (Sullivan et al 2013).
However, despite the strong associations often found between background characteristics (including parenting behaviours) and child development, there is significantly less clarity with regards to their causal relationships, and, critically, the degree of collinearity between factors and their relative importance in determining adverse outcomes is often not known. It is important to note, we would suggest, that there are significant limitations to the evidence base in this area. Not only does that mean our understanding of the ‘problem’ is not as great as is often assumed, but the same could also be said of the rationale for the interventions themselves, and the way they are subsequently evaluated.
Sociologists of education, in particular, have begun critiquing these assumptions and conclusions. For example, Sullivan et al (2013) demonstrate that social class, parental education, income and family social resources are more important in accounting for differences in the early cognitive development of seven year-olds in the UK than individual parenting behaviours. This paper attempts to develop this critique further by looking at the influence of changes in a child’s circumstances (including their socio-economic background and the way they are parented) between the ages of three and seven years of age on their cognitive development and educational achievement.
Allen, G. (2011). Early Intervention: The Next Steps. An Independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government. London: Cabinet Office. http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/early-intervention-next-steps.pdf Feinstein, L., Duckworth, K. and Sabates, R. (2004) A model of the inter-generattional transmission of educational success, Wider Benefits of Learning Research Report No 10, London: Institute of Education. Kelly, Y., Sacker, A., Del Bono, E., Francesconi, M., and Marmot, M. (2011). What role for the home learning environment and parenting in reducing the socioeconomic gradient in child development? Findings from the millennium Cohort Study. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 96(9), 832-7. Sullivan, A., Ketende, S. and Joshi, H. (2013) Social class and inequalities in early cognitive scores, Sociology, 47, 6, 1187-1206. Waldfogel, J. and Washbrook, E. (2011). Early Years Policy. Child Development Research, Article ID 343016, doi:10.1155/2011/343016.
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