Study provides new details on how stress processes in low-income families could affect children’s learning

New research highlights how family stress can impact developmental outcomes in children. The study found evidence that conflict between caregivers and children, as well as financial strain, are associated with impeded cognitive abilities related to academic success in low-income families.

The findings appear in the scientific journal Child Development.

“The motivation behind this particular study was a need to better understand the development of self-regulation in the context of poverty. We know that stress in the family environment is a key pathway by which poverty may affect children’s development, and their self-regulation in particular,” said study author Chelsea A.K. Duran of the University of Virginia.

“In this paper, we were able to simultaneously observe relations between many different family processes and children’s self-regulatory outcomes over time. Self-regulation has been determined to be a strong predictor of well-being and success in many domains of life, such as in school. Educators have long identified self-regulatory abilities, including executive functions – such as inhibitory control – and delayed gratification as important domain-general skills supporting children’s ability to adapt to the demands of formal schooling.”

“There are also differences in the development of these abilities between children being raised in poverty and children in middle- to upper-income homes, at least in part due to exposure to poverty-related stress at home. Therefore, better understanding how specific types of stress may influence different self-regulatory outcomes may provide insights into how best to support children’s development in this key area – such as through interventions focused on low-income families,” Duran explained.

The study of 343 mostly Black children from low-income families and their caregivers examined how family stress processes were related to children’s self-regulatory performance. The researchers found that changes in family stress processes were associated with changes in executive functioning and delaying gratification.

In particular, increased child–caregiver conflict was associated with reduced improvements in children’s executive functioning, while increases in financial strain were associated with reduced improvements in children’s delay of gratification.

“The cascade of relations between family stress processes and children’s executive function development was consistent with what a previously validated model – called the family stress model – would have predicted: increases in conflict between caregivers (mostly mothers) and children directly related to less improvement in children’s executive functioning,” Duran told PsyPost.

“Caregiver-child conflict was not related to development of a proclivity to delay gratification, however, and instead increases in financial strain related to less of an increase in children’s proclivity to delay gratification. This is significant because, according to the family stress model, financial strain is a somewhat ‘distal’ process and should not be directly related to children’s development except through caregiver/parent-child interactions.”

The study — like all research — include some limitations.

“This was an observational (non-experimental) study, and so we cannot interpret the relations we observed as representing causal relations, but our measurement of so many constructs and use of longitudinal data – with each variable measured at two time points – provides a stronger causal warrant than prior research in this area,” Duran explained.

“There was also an unexpected finding, in that at the first time executive functioning and delay of gratification were measured in children, they were negatively correlated: children who had higher scores on the EF measure delayed gratification less often than children with high executive functioning.”

“Generally speaking, this is not what we observe in most samples. This particular sample was very economically disadvantaged, however, and almost entirely comprised children of color, and so it is possible that patterns of relations of constructs in this sample is different from what we’ve observed in traditional research, in which children of color from very low-income families are under-represented,” Duran said.

“There is emerging theory that supports the notion that in high stress and low-resource environments, a proclivity toward immediate gratification may be adaptive. Further, there is some decades-old research demonstrating differences between Black and White children in terms of the processes relating to choices to delay gratification, possibly as a result of differing levels of trust in experimenters and specifically whether their promises of ‘larger later’ rewards are reliable and therefore a wiser choice than smaller, immediate rewards.”

“And so, the negative relation we observed between executive functioning and delayed gratification does not call into question the robustness of the findings, necessarily, but may suggest that findings are unique to the population(s) represented in this sample.”

The findings provide more information on how to support children from low-income families.

“There are several family-based interventions focused on improving children’s behavior and self-regulatory ability, often through a focus on parenting behaviors and interactions with children. These results underscore the importance of parent-child interactions, which have found to be related here to executive functioning development and in other studies to many other social and emotional outcomes,” Duran told PsyPost.

“For some outcomes, however, such as delaying gratification, it may be that interventions seeking to ameliorate the effects of financial hardship on children need a broader focus, including the more immediate effects of financial hardship on caregivers (e.g., financial strain).”

The study, “Family Stress Processes and Children’s Self‐Regulation“, was authored by Chelsea A.K. Duran, Elizabeth Cottone, Erik A. Ruzek, Andrew J. Mashburn, and David W. Grissmer.