July 3, 2013

Poor planning skills contribute to income-achievement gap

Gary Evans
Evans

Children from low-income families tend to do worse at school than their financially better-off peers. Poor planning skills, which can emerge as early as kindergarten and continue through high school, is one reason for the income-achievement gap, reports a new Cornell study of a large ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of children from across the United States.

The study is published in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development (84:4).

“Low-income children appear to have more difficulty accomplishing planning tasks efficiently, and this, in turn, partially explains the income-achievement gap,” says Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology at Cornell, senior author of the study with Stephen Crook ’10, M.A. ’11. “Efforts to enhance the academic performance of low-income children need to consider multiple aspects of their development, including the ability to plan in a goal-oriented manner.”

The study, which was based on Crook’s master’s thesis, used data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which looked at almost 1,500 children from 10 geographic sites across the United States.

Planning skills were assessed when the children were in third grade, through the widely used Tower of Hanoi game. The game starts with a stack of rings placed on a rod so that the biggest ring is at the bottom, and the smallest is on the top. Using two other rods and moving only one ring at a time without ever placing a wider ring on a smaller ring, the children have to recreate the original stack on one of the two spare rods.

The study found that the children’s performance in fifth grade could be explained, in part, by how they did on the third-grade planning task, even when taking IQ into consideration. Using income as well as math and reading scores, the study also found that the lower the household income during infancy, the worse the children’s performance on reading and math in fifth grade – replicating the well-known gap between income and achievement.

The researchers suggest several reasons why poverty may interfere with the development of good planning skills. Individuals living in low-income homes experience greater chaos in their daily lives, including more moves, school changes, family turmoil, and crowded and noisy environments, and fewer structured routines and rituals. In addition, low-income parents may be less successful at planning because of their own stress levels.

Researchers believe the group of skills called executive function, which includes planning skills, can be strengthened through interventions. Such interventions are being developed and tested for children as young as the preschool years.

The study was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.