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Against all odds: Enabling factors in early childhood for cognitive outcomes

This research investigates the extent to which children from more disadvantaged backgrounds achieve cognitive outcomes higher than their peers and the factors which are behind their more successful outcomes from a life-course perspective. The aim is to identify and understand specific factors and turning points in children’s lives which can help children to overcome the negative influences of the social disadvantage they are born in and to shed light on the mechanisms at play. Thus, we ask the following questions:
1)    To what extent do children from disadvantaged backgrounds attain successful cognitive outcomes?
2)    What are the key enabling factors that distinguish successful children from disadvantaged backgrounds (the ‘resilient’) from their peers who attain less? And what is the interplay between the enabling factors analysed?
3)    Are there turning points in the life-course of disadvantaged children which enable them to achieve better outcomes than expected?

Types of inequalities
The main source of inequalities analysed is family income: We define economically disadvantaged children whose families’ household equivalised income falls in the bottom income quintile(s). Other measures are parental education, employment, occupation, family structure, housing tenure, living in urban/rural areas, level of deprivation in the neighbourhood.
Inequalities of outcomes: differences in cognitive scores at ages 3, 5 and 10 years.

Longitudinal data from the Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) and logistic regression. There is a plan to use longitudinal k-means clustering technique for grouping trajectories in the paper.

The first part of the research investigates the factors enabling children from poor backgrounds to achieve a cognitive score above the median. These factors (after controlling for parental education, social class and other socio-demographic factors) were: living in a rented or owned house rather than in social housing, living in rural areas and smaller towns as opposed to large urban areas and being exposed to stimulating activities and a calm atmosphere at home. The second part of this research explores children’s chances of obtaining above-median vocabulary scores longitudinally: at ages 3, 5 and 10. Preliminary results show that while only 20% of children from the bottom income quintile obtain a vocabulary score above the median at age 3 (compared to 50% in the top quintile), this increases to 25% at age 5 and to 30% at age 10. Children from disadvantaged families showed the steepest improvement with age suggesting that school might play a crucial role in unlocking the potential among the disadvantaged children. This idea is also reinforced by the results which look at children’s individual trajectories. These show that the most common pattern among disadvantaged children is attaining a vocabulary score above the median only one time between the ages of 3 and 10, that is at the end of primary school. In contrast, the most typical pattern among children from the top income quintile is to attain a vocabulary score above the median at all three time points. Moreover, the length of exposure to economic disadvantage is also important. Children who experienced disadvantage only once between the ages of 3 and 10 showed higher chances of achieving high vocabulary scores compared to those who experienced disadvantage multiple times. School-related factors are currently investigated.   

Policy implications
In 2017 the Scottish Parliament has unanimously passed the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act, following which a Child Poverty Delivery Plan and a Child Poverty Evaluation Strategy were introduced. This research has a strong potential to influence the work of the Scottish Government in this area by providing robust evidence on the factors which may mitigate the negative effects of economic disadvantage and on the key time points in children life where interventions are needed.

For further information about this research, please contact Dr Adriana Duta

Research Team